So here I am, back after a two year hiatus with a blog post on Disney Princesses. This is perhaps a strange topic to re-engage a political scientist/lawyer, but there’s been a lot of brouhaha over the recent inclusion of Merida (from the movie Brave) into the princess line that has made me feel rather uncomfortable and disappointed.
To start, Disney has made heaps of money on films featuring princesses, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the company decided to create a merchandising campaign that featured all of these characters together. However, rather than focus on the traits that made these characters popular (such as Belle’s love of reading or Ariel’s curiosity), the line was centered on the idea of being a princess and achieving a happily ever after. The women of the line wear big, sparkling princess dresses and stand around passively smiling. They are not frequently shown as active individuals, but simply as examples of pretty women who have found their Prince Charmings. Obviously, such a construction of female role models can be subject to an absolute mountain of feminist critique.
When Brave came out, Merida, the film’s spunky Scottish princess, was slated to join this merchandising line. Being that Brave was a Pixar film, however, the computer generated art had to be redrawn in order for Merida to fit within the 2D style of the line-up. Upon release of Merida’s new artwork, feminists responded rapidly and negatively. The focus of these criticisms centered on the fact that the character seemed to have been matured, her waist slimmed down, and her bust increased. Hundreds of articles sprung up about this topic online, and a petition was created urging Disney to return Merida to her previous state.
As I followed this controversy, I found myself unable to sign onto these calls for reform. Despite the fact that the hypersexualisation of young women deeply disturbs me, the Merida debate did not seem to be addressing the central issues underlying the Disney Princess line. Furthermore, I questioned why there had not been a similar protest when Tiana and Mulan, two princesses of colour, had been subjected to the same sexist treatment as Merida. Was this absence of reaction not just a reflection of systemic racism?
Mulan and Tiana are princesses that defy the common tropes of the helpless maiden who needs to be saved by a prince. Mulan, out of love and fear for her father’s safety, pretended to be a man so that she could take his place in the army. Tiana was a working class woman who spent hours waiting tables, trying to earn enough to realise her dream of opening her own restaurant. Neither spent any appreciable time in sparkling ball gowns, yet their Disney Princess merchandise almost exclusively features them in glittering robes. In fact, Mulan is frequently shown in her matchmaker outfit, even though she distinctly expressed displeasure with these clothes in her movie.
While princess dresses are not problematic in and of themselves (and many have argued that it is a positive development to see a black woman pictured in such extravagant, fairy tale outfits), it is questionable when the Disney Princess line erases all of the other ways that these characters have been portrayed. By focusing on the final ball gown scene, the Princess line disappears and simplifies the stories of these women, leaving us with one-dimensional images of their happy endings. These princessified representations seem to suggest that heterosexual love, princes, and dresses are the things that should fulfil us, rather than personal development, hard work, and compassion. Thus, Merida was certainly not the first princess to suffer this twisting of her backstory, and feminists should look at our actions in protecting her as questionable being that it took a white princess to enflame our rage and upset.
Aside from the unprotested problematic sexualisation and princessification of Mulan and Tiana, I am also uncomfortable with the fact that princesses of colour are marginalised within the line-up overall, and that this inequality receives so little attention. The Disney Princess merchandising scheme is supposed to be based on popularity, and princesses such as Rapunzel, Ariel, and Merida are powerhouses in terms of the money that they bring Disney. However, only a lazy analyst with no comprehension of oppression would claim that these princesses must be inherently more popular than the princesses of colour.
Disney’s movies involving princesses of colour are some their weaker films in terms of box office numbers. Owing to the persuasive and continuing effects of systemic and overt racism in society, it is certain that some of the struggles that these films faced involved the fact that white audience members just didn’t feel as connected to the characters. Additionally, some of these films were simply not good stories because of Disney’s lack of understanding of their own racist choices. Take Pocahontas for example. Based on a supposedly “true” story, Disney sanitised and simply made up a lot of this “historical” film. The realities of colonialism were completely absent, and the message of the film was that Indigenous and European peoples were both engaging in bad faith negotiations. Pocahontas herself was reduced to a love interest that saves the day by showing white men that Indigenous peoples are real people too (they just wear a lot of impractical and historically inaccurate deer skin clothing, and have magical powers to talk to animals, trees, and people who speak different languages). Furthermore, her character is exoticised and founded in very little actual knowledge of Indigenous ways of life or experiences. It is not surprising that Indigenous peoples have not upheld Disney’s Pocahontas as a role model for their people, or that the film itself was less successful given that the premise was flimsy and lacking in substance or true emotion. However, despite the fact that the movie is well-known within feminist circles as problematic and racist, there has been little move to demand that Disney do something to address these problems.
Furthermore, when discussing the issues involving Merida, I cannot help but also think of Princess Kida from Atlantis. Kida has been interpreted by many to be a princess of colour; however, she has never been a part of the Disney Princess line despite being an actual princess (some would suggest the fact that she became a queen means that she is not eligible for the line, an argument that could be subject to a lot of feminist critique). The primary reasoning as to why Kida is not a princess is that her movie was considered a box office failure. But Brave was also not known to be one of Disney’s biggest hits. While it did make a substantial amount of money, it was only Pixar’s 8th highest grossing film. Why then was the merchandise for a white warrior princess so much more successful and promoted than the merchandise for a princess of colour who was a warrior and leader of her people as well? And why have so few voices raised Kida’s absence as an issue? While not every Disney heroine is accepted into the Princess line, it is problematic that an actual princess of colour was excluded when representation in the merchandising program was already so low for racialised people.
Overall, I think my problem with the Merida protest is that it treats her as an exceptional woman: Merida is worthy of protection because she is spunky and independent, but the other princesses are beyond salvation. However, by placing Merida on this type of feminist pedestal, we imply that only certain types of women are worthy feminist role models (and none of these worthy princesses are women of colour). While the other Disney Princesses portray many problematic elements, the mere fact that many of them are traditionally feminine is concerning only in the context of this being displayed as the only acceptable option for the expression of womanhood. Merida was a delightfully fresh and different addition to the Disney canon, but her tomboy nature didn’t make her an inherently better character. She represents one way to be a girl, and one possible story of the challenges facing girls as they grow up. The Disney Princess line should offer children many different perspectives on what it means to be a young woman (something that the company is currently doing terribly), and these representations should include the faces of princesses of colour in ways that show that these characters are as important as the princesses who are white.
Thus, rather than advocate for changes to the Merida art models, feminist efforts would be better spent pressuring Disney to restructure their merchandising plan to be less sexist and racist overall (and if we’re going to try to bring about intersectional change, don’t forget the need to combat heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other oppressive standards as well). Instead of trying to ensure that Merida is a good role model, all of the Disney Princesses should be readapted to showcase more balanced and appropriate traits. Salvaging only Merida still leaves children exposed to poisonous standards of womanhood, and says a lot about feminist commitment to anti-racism work.