So there's been a lot of talk about Merida's new appearance right? Well, the controversy about Disney's rebranding made me realize there's something I really dislike about Disney princesses. And that is that they're for girls only.
Let's back up a bit. For those not in the know, Disney recently released their brand new "Disney princess" version of Merida, from the Pixar movie Brave. Fans (as well as the film's original director) were outraged by the most notable changes, which is the addition of some sparkles, a thinner waist and bigger hips, and a shoulder-less dress. The argument is, more or less, that Disney is sexualizing and domesticating Merida, transforming her from the rebellious and self-actualized teenage heroine she was in the film into a docile maiden who doesn't stand out at all from her bland company.
Which is all fine and dandy and I agree that it is a perversion of her character, but I think Merida is the rule, not the exception many claim her to be. Disney has already done this several times before. And more to the point, in doing so Disney is not merely robbing young girls of positive role models who don't fit into a narrow brand of femininity - they're also (and artificially in my mind) robbing boys of a similar role model by transforming them into the same narrow stereotype.
Take myself for example. Looking back on my childhood I realize now that there was no Disney character I identified more with than Beauty and the Beast's Belle. It wasn't that I didn't have positive male role models to look to in Disney's animated canon - I liked Simba and Aladdin well enough - but very few of them hewed closely to who I was as a person. I'm very decidedly - and always have been, really - the "non-action guy," the bookworm, and, yes, to a certain extent, the romantic. Aside from the last bit, none of Disney's leading male protagonists fit me. Belle, on the other hand did.
It's interesting because in all honesty I didn't realize this until very recently. But looking back on the animated films of my childhood, Beauty and the Beast was always my favorite and I think the real reason why is that I identified with Belle. Like her, I loved to read. Like her, I wasn't really all that sociable - I didn't, in Belle's words, "fit in." And I was also, like Belle, a deep romantic at heart (and still am, really, although I have grown more cynical).
And Belle's far from the only example. I had a similar (if much more embarrassing) connection with Odette in the non-Disney film The Swan Princess. And although I was less similar to either character (and was actually quite a bit older in the latter case), I also identified with and was inspired to some degree by Ariel in The Little Mermaid and Fa Mulan. The key here is that I didn't desire these characters - I saw them as role models, as people to look up to.
So it always irks me more than a little whenever I see the Disney Princess versions of Belle or Mulan. Less so, I suppose, with Ariel since she's definitely the most traditionally effeminate of the three mentioned, but even in her case it always feels a little... wrong to me. Because - even putting aside the fact that Disney is marketing a narrow range of aspirations to young girls and that they're distorting the characters' own wide range of differences - it makes me - a heterosexual male - feel as if they're off-limit somehow.
To be fair it's not entirely Disney's fault. It was during my childhood - and still is to a certain extent - far more acceptable in our culture for a woman to draw inspiration from a male hero than the reverse. If we admire a heroine at all, it's often framed in the sense that they're an ideal prospective mate, that we find certain characteristics about them attractive or more explicitly, sexy. That's not entirely Disney's fault.
But getting beyond all that - and the fact that Disney's not exactly helpless to do anything - Disney is still doing the characters (and their fans, male or female) a disservice. Because, fundamentally, they're erasing everything about the characters that makes them distinct beyond superficialities like which dress they're wearing or what color their skin is. And if there's no way to distinguish the characters, no way to separate Belle or any of the other princesses from one another they cease entirely to be characters of any kind, let alone role models.
When I look at "Princess" Belle I don't see a romantic bookworm who longed for adventure and shared a house with her kooky inventor father. I see a bland and artificial doll, with a Stepford smile and no meaningful distinctions from any other "Disney princess." She isn't Belle anymore, she's a brand, and an empty one at that. The same applies for all of the rest of Disney's "princesses."
So, yes, what Disney is doing to Merida is a crime and what more it's a crime they've perpetuated for decades now, rubbing away all the distinctions until they're all the same cutout doll with different outfits and hairstyles. And it's a crime not only to their female admirers, but to their male admirers as well.