Sunday, May 12, 2013

Merida's Princess Makeover Sparks Controversy

We usually don't talk about topics that are too serious on Idle Hands. Sure, we bitch and moan about the way we think toys should be made, but that's generally as fiery as we get. Today, we've been having a great conversation about the "Merida Makeover" in which the lead character from the movie Brave was given a subtle overhaul as she was officially crowned a Disney Princess. Parent bloggers and women's groups have been firing off angry commentary on Disney's aesthetic choices with the seemingly loudest voice coming from Merida's creator, Brenda Chapman.

Chapman remarked "There is an irresponsibility to this decision that is appalling for women and young girls. Disney marketing and the powers that be that allow them to do such things should be ashamed of themselves. I think it's atrocious what they have done to Merida. When little girls say they like it because it's more sparkly, that's all fine and good but, subconsciously, they are soaking in the sexy 'come hither' look and the skinny aspect of the new version. It's horrible! Merida was created to break that mold — to give young girls a better, stronger role model, a more attainable role model, something of substance, not just a pretty face that waits around for romance."

Putting this in a bit of perspective, Brenda Chapman based the character on her then 13 yr old daughter, so you might imagine there was a special place in her heart for this perfectly imperfect little rebel. After wining several awards for the creation and her co-director duties (Chapman was released from said duties at some point during the film's production), the project must have been a point of personal pride and, doubly so, because it was in a sense, still her daughter. I doubt anyone warned her this change was coming and when she got the call, I could imagine all she saw was red.

Now, the very interesting thing about this happening is how different people see the turn of events. When I posted the article (on my facebook page) from the Marin Independant Journal, I only mentioned I'd heard about the makeover and thought they sucked all the fire out of the character with their cookie cutter makeover. I assume they could have kept some of that spirit in the design while making her more princess like. After all, they are Disney! Surely there are halls that go on forever with amazingly talented people in every nook and least that's how I see it in my head.

One friend of mine read the article and latched onto the quote from Chapman stating "subconsciously, they are soaking in the sexy 'come hither' look." He thought that was a bit of an exaggeration. Not knowing Brenda Chapman at all or having any degree in women's studies, I wanted to speak on this basically with my knowledge of artists, background in marketing and years of reading articles on the subject of the oversexualization of women in media and how it is changing our entire society. I find anything that changes an entire generation to be facinating reading. Here's what I responded with...

"I believe the point she was making was, when a girl sees something, the immediate attraction is the sparkle and pretty but what their mind is taking in is what is appealing in the character...the big eyes, tiny waist, off the shoulder top and gold accents. Kids don't process the world like an adult, so the argument is we must try an give them more positive role models so as they grow up, they feel better about themselves and don't aspire to this stereotype."

Heather Buckley chimed in and suggested kids buy more Monster High dolls, which I'm sure she meant as a joke as we both love horror and seeing a kid dressed as a monster is just about the best thing ever. She may have blatantly meant little kids should aspire to be lil monsters, which is also awesome.

My friend responded "I can understand..I would be angry too if they took something that I made to be empowering but to think that a child would look at it and process it THAT specific way is a little too far fetched but I'm neither a girl nor a teenager so I can't say that I'm an expert in said field...I can also see that they took a character based on a 13-year old girl and turned her into a woman...if they would have said this is Merida at 25 or something like that that would have been fine...and I think that's what made the creator the's supposed to be a 13-year old!"

I'm also a man with no kids, much less a very close female relative, so I can relate to his point of view. It doesn't seem like that big of a deal until we take into account the way children proccess media.

I replied "It also has to do with what they are telling a little girl is attractive to the rest of the world. Show a little shoulder! Bat those pretty eyes! Fix your wild hair up and put on a pretty dress! Hell, you could argue she has makeup on. Sure, saying it is a sexualization of the character is sensationalizing the point a bit, but it's a point to be made. Society says those things are pleasing because generations have come before to beat this into us. Women are told this is how you should look, and why else but to follow the genetic imperative of our species..which is, of course, to mate. So essentially, any maturing of the character while also making her more appealing to society, is sexualizing the character. She's not wearing stilletos and showing cleavage...but you have to wonder why they thought showing so much shoulder and tightening that waist line would make her better."

Another friend of mine, Laura, chimed in, having excellent perspective on the subject as a mother of two small daughters who most likely are the age demographic Disney is after. "As a mom of two 4-year-old girls, I really see how these subtle changes make a difference. You take the characters who are "good" and you give them all extremely similar faces and body types and hair appearances. And it's not that the girls intuitively like these face shapes and body types and hair styles, but you make them the heroes of their stories and you make them sparkley and in fun colors.. And the other associations follow. It's easy to see how you can drill it into their heads that good women look this very specific way. My girls have a fringe appreciation of Disney princesses. They like the princesses, but mostly for the shiny dresses and stickers. I don't want to ban princesses and Disney fairies from the house, but we try to balance it by making sure that they're also exposed to lots of "good guys" who have different appearances. And... when crap like this happens, it makes that harder. Like Disney's saying 'Uhoh.. one of our princesses was escaping the mold a little bit. Jam her back in there!'"

Another friend, Jerry, stated the simple fact that Disney "is a for profit corporation that exists to make money for its shareholders. If people don't like that they shouldn't be working for Disney" ...which is, of course, the heart of the matter. This was certainly a work for hire situation and Chapman had no expectation of control over that character, but you still can't discount her anger, or the anger of the thousands of people signing petitions as we speak, against the makeover. Will this force Disney to change their mind? In my experience, not much changes Disney's mind once it is made, but only time will tell.

For me, the decision to change the character makes me cringe. Isn't this the first Disney Princess in a long while that actually has both her parents??!! She's quirky, funny, rebellious, loving, honorable and a beautiful mess. Brave is one of my favorite Disney films, so my question would be, why mess with perfection? You got it right. There are awards that prove you got it right. What bonehead decided there was work to be done here? The mind boggles.

The conversation on my facebook page has evolved a bit to include thoughts on work for hire and the temperament of artists, which in itself is a riddle any art department would like to unravel, so I invite you to come over, read the rest, and share your thoughts as well, or just jump into the comments below!

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