The Merida makover and the sexualisation of girl characters in children's culture - Nosy Crow Skip to content
Posted by Kate, May 27, 2013

The Merida makover and the sexualisation of girl characters in children’s culture

Today I’ve just signed a petition aimed at persuading Disney to undo the makeover of Merida, the strong character from Brave, as she joins the pantheon of Disney Princesses.

She’s been made skinnier, sexier and more mature in appearance, so that she “matches” the other princesses. Brenda Chapman, Merida’s creator described the move as sexist, irresponsible, mercenary, and appalling.

Caitlin Moran (whose brilliant piece on library closures is reproduced here with her permission) wrote about the Merida makeover in The Times on 25 May 2013, with all the wit and incisiveness that anyone who knows her writing would expect. It’s behind The Times’ paywall, so I can’t usefully link to it.

But meanwhile, here are a few quotes. Here’s Caitlin Moran on the original film:

“Watching the film in the cinema, in the dark, with my daughters – 12 and 10 – I was able to loll back in my chair and say, “Fill your boots, girls! Spoon this film up like good pie. This is the first Disney heroine ever not to have massive knockers, a 12in waist and the kind of mouth that could suck a potato up a straw. Well done, Disney! Well done for finally entering the 21st Century.”

Here she is on the revised Merida:

“… she had… changed. A new picture of her showed her with a jacked-in waist, bigger tits, a lower-cut top and a load of eyeliner. On top of this, Merida was no longer holding her bow and arrow and was, instead, standing with her hands on her hips, in the internationally recognised pose of, ‘I am a bit of a vapid pain in the arse now.’”

She concludes, before directing readers to the petition:

“This non-sexy, non-married, galloping, bow-shooting Merida coined Disney £354 million at the box office in the first year. She proved that little girls want these kinds of heroes on their screen. But, despite her success, some ass-hat insisted that she had to get sexy. No reason. They just… like to do the sexy. It’s just what happens next, to girls.

“Listen: Merida wasn’t for you, you bloodless, cash-counting idiots. She was for every ten-year-old girl who hates itchy dresses and kissing, and just wanted to carry on being herself for a bit longer. You can’t put a price on a girl being able to watch a big Disney movie that says that’s an OK thing.”

I’ve written from a personal perspective about creating and marketing characters and girls in the context of books here. There’s a link to a more general piece in the first line of that blog post and here.

My 12 year-old says, “I used to watch Disney films when I was younger, and I really loved my Snow White doll, but she was pretty Barbie-like in proportions (though my mum wouldn’t let us have Barbies…). It really struck me, when we were shown the film at school, that Merida was a different kind of character. Merida was very feisty but not in a diva-ish way. She could think for herself and she wasn’t a typical Disney princess with a waist like a wand. Seeing the makeover really emphasised how different she was from the stereotypical princesses. I think it’s bad for the younger girls who are seeing the revised Merida, but in a way I suppose it’s good because it gives a lot of publicity to the things that Disney does, and the images it promotes.”

My 14 year-old, who hasn’t seen the film, says, “I think that with Merida, Disney created an attainable ideal. . The revisions suggest that the things that made Merida great were things that have to be edited out. Nearly very little girl wants to be a Disney princess and this just narrows the choices of what little girls can aspire to. Of course, maybe the new Merida won’t work because she’s just not appealing to girls who liked the old Merida: I read online that one babysitter showed the girl she was looking after the revised Merida and the girl said, ‘Is that the evil Merida?’”

As I have said in a previous post, we take our responsibilities as publishers for children very seriously. I know that there are those who find my acknowledgement that I create and package some books with girl readers in mind and some with boy readers in mind egregious and incompatible with the stand I’ve taken on the Merida makeover, but I don’t see it that way.

When we publish books, whether they’re aimed at boys or girls, we consider carefully the image of girls that the books project. Girls who are central characters in our books and apps for pre-teens aren’t portrayed in ways that sexualise them. They’re independent and strong-minded and, generally (despite obstacles) achieve what they set out to achieve. Other characters’ preoccupation with appearance, or precocious interest in boys, is generally presented as something that’s a bit silly.

One of the reasons I am proud of our Rescue Princesses series is that the girls show courage, loyalty and sympathy. They act, they are not acted upon. They’re girls, not women: they’re drawn with children’s, not adult bodies.

Similarly, I am proud of our Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood apps. I’ve already written about the choices we made about Cinderella’s appearance and language in one of the blog posts mentioned above, and the same thinking made us decide to have Little Red Riding Hood defeat the wolf in our Little Red Riding Hood app: she doesn’t need a huntsman or her father to outsmart the wolf and rescue her grandma. Instead, she’s calm and self-sufficient.

A desire to create strong, admirable, appropriately child-like girl characters influences our selection, editorial and design processes, whether the girls feature in books aimed primarily at girls or those aimed primarily at boys (or, of course, those aimed at both). We believe that it’s important that boys have images of and stories about empowered girls too.

I think that the Merida makeover petition is one that’s worth signing.

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