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Regarding the Makeover of Merida

Friday, May 17, 2013

Merida, Merida, Merida. It seems only fitting that if there's going to be an internet brou-ha-ha about any of the Disney Princesses, it's one known best for metaphorically flipping the bird at convention. I don't know exactly what happened. Did Disney in fact officially launch Merida's new look, with the intention that all Brave merchandise would henceforth bear this new, more-conventionally-feminine image? Did they give her this makeover for only one specific line of merchandise, intending to keep all other Merida images more in line with the film? Did Disney intentionally leak the image to gauge consumer response?

I'm reminded of the Sophia debacle, when someone at Disney announced that Sophia would be the first Latina Disney princess (which enraged many people, partly because her skin was so light), shortly followed by the announcement that Sophia wasn't Latina at all (which enraged many people, for entirely different reasons).

I'm also reminded of so many little moments when Disney reminds us that, when it comes to consumer products, they're much more comfortable following the times than leading them. For example, several years back Disney Channel President Gary Marsh made it clear that while he didn't mind Disney Channel characters being perceived as gay, he certainly didn't want to imply that any of them actually were. Twenty years ago, that would have sounded moral alarms all over the country; twenty years from now, it may well sound backward and strange. And think about how Disney's characterization of people of color has changed with the times; we've come a long way since Fantasia, but I'm always boggled by the Disney Movie Club flyer for Black History Month, which always seems to include The Haunted Mansion and Jump In.

Now, this doesn't mean that Disney's never ahead of the times. They're well-known for having provided benefits for same-sex spouses of Disney employees at a time that this was highly unusual for large employers. And you'll notice, this kerfuffle over Merida is related to merchandise -- not the film itself. It makes perfect sense that someone in consumer products may have noticed how Merida just didn't blend in well with the rest of the Princesses, and suggested a makeover for better consistency within the product line. It especially makes sense when one considers that Merida was officially welcomed into the Disney Princesses this year, on Mothers' Day (a fitting choice of date, given the themes of Brave).

I understand the desire to include Merida in the (no doubt quite lucrative) Disney Princess line. But actually, this is where I think they went wrong. It's just three years now since they vowed the end of "princess movies," which may have been a great decision for Disney Animation, but perhaps not too popular in consumer products. So, what better to do than pull a new Pixar Princess into the line?

But, no. While there are in fact strong, independent Disney Princesses (Tiana being perhaps the best example), Merida's very essence is to rail against the establishment that would make her a princess. And you know, there are plenty of other characters raking in the Disney Dollars without being part of the Princess line (hello, Tinkerbell?). When it comes to cosmetic changes applied by the consumer products division, Merida didn't have a chance to fight for her own hand. It only seems fitting that the Internet may have done it for her.

[Update: As I was finishing this piece, I came across this article on the Christian Science Monitor. If you're not already sick to death of Merida articles, it's really worth a read, especially if you're interested in the marketing of consumer products.]