Disney Princess Merida makeover controversy
“I know it’s horrible what I’m going to say but… gosh, I am so glad I have a boy!!!”
This was the anxiety-drenched comment made by one mom in response to Disney’s recent makeover of princess Merida from the movie “Brave,” as featured in the Yahoo article “Merida’s Disney Princess Controversial Makeover – Is ‘Brave’ Heroine Really Bad for Little Girls?” by Leslie Gornstein.
The mom, calling herself Snowhite, joined countless others with reactions to Merida’s makeover ranging from outrage to indifference to admiration.
In the makeover, Merida has a cinched-in waist, a dress more revealing around the neckline, smoother hair, and poutier lips. The controversy flared up in the first place because Merida has become a kind of patron saint for girl power, an athletic tomboy with frizzy hair and no makeup who speaks her mind and shuns marriage. For many she is the antithesis of the typical demure Disney princess waiting to be rescued by Prince Charming.
To say that Disney’s recent attempt to make over Merida has provoked controversy is an understatement. Disney has since removed the new image of Merida from its Disney princess website, but the debate rages on. The concern for many moms is that such unrealistic versions of feminine beauty objectify women, negatively impact young girls’ self esteem, and reinforce old stereotypes of women as weak, helpless, and only concerned with appearance. All of these are valid concerns.
Disney Princesses a bad influence?
Unlike Snowhite, I don’t have a boy. I have a three-year-old girl, the target audience for Disney princesses, and right now I’m trying to decide if it’s time to hit the panic button when it comes to her exposure to images and representations of women in the media.
Right now I’m reflecting back on my own life: did sexy or idealized images of women, as reflected in the toys I had as a child, from Barbie to Disney princesses, have an impact on my own body image? Did they contribute to a belief about my appearance that I was undesirable or inadequate?
Not many people know that I struggled with bulimia in high school. I have found myself doing some soul searching today, wondering how much of an influence media images of thin women had on my struggle with my body image at the time.
The media images today’s moms grew up with
Thirty years ago, my mom had the same concerns about Barbie that moms of today have with Merida’s makeover. My daughter got her first Barbie as a Christmas present when she was two (and yes, she was too young for it at that age), but I wasn’t allowed to have Barbies until I was nine or ten. My mom hated that Barbie was “sexy.” It’s that simple. She didn’t think that grown-up dolls were appropriate for little girls. I was allowed to have baby dolls, and I felt terribly deprived.
When I was a little girl, the Disney princess marketing phenomenon hadn’t arrived. At the time, Disney re-released its princess movies on the big screen. I only had the chance to see “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” once, before they were whisked back into “the vault.” My exposure to the Disney princesses was limited, and it was before I had become aware that bodies were judged on the basis of “thin” and “fat.”
The female characters I was exposed to were Smurfette, Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Pony, and Cabbage Patch Dolls. Out of these, you could probably only say that Smurfette was “sexy” for never being seen without heels. It’s also safe to say that my self-perception wasn’t negatively influenced by “Little House on the Prairie” or “The Waltons.” On these shows, women wore their high collars buttoned all the way up, and not a shred of skin was shown. Probably the sexiest character I was exposed to was Miss Piggy, and she was one of the most empowered too.
It’s not that I never saw an image of a sexy women: there was Vanna White, the model on the game show “Wheel of Fortune,” the Miss America Pageant, and Daisy Duke. Nevertheless, I was “bombarded” with a completely different set of images than what my daughter will see. The images of women that I grew up with are decidedly more wholesome. Nevertheless, as a teen I still felt horribly about my body and ultimately developed an eating disorder. I even remember going on the controversial Scarsdale diet as a young teenager with an intake of only 500 calories a day, very dangerous for a young and growing teen.
Girls and and negative body image
I have to say, in my case, and maybe for my generation, that other factors besides our exposure to images of unattainable feminine beauty were at play. It was human interactions, specifically things that were said to me, that made me feel bad about my body. I remember a comment from an older boy that I was getting “chunky” and a thoughtless critique from my grandmother that I had “walrus arms.” It hurt.
Did I develop a negative perception of my body through ballet, and seeing girls skinnier than me who seemed to have the “right” body type to become a dancer? I was never teased about my weight in school, but I was bullied in grammar school for being “different,” and that didn’t help my self-esteem either.
Do I worry that my daughter’s exposure to the Disney princesses or even Barbie will negatively impact her self image? Truthfully, not really. My daughter is three, and I love this age so much because she has no concept of shame when it comes to her body. It is such a beautiful thing, and I wish that it could last forever.
But I know it won’t. And about that, I do worry.
Little girls’ retro toys redesign and media influence on body image
All of the girls’ toys I grew up with (Strawberry Shortcake and company) have been given a serious makeover, except for Smurfette and Miss Piggy. They are MUCH skinnier, more flirty, and overall much “girlier.” (Sure, Miss Piggy gets a new ‘do every once in a while, and she has slimmed down a little, but she’s still pretty much the same pig I grew up with.) As much as I love the new My Little Pony cartoons, I can’t understand for the life of me why they needed to lose weight. They’re horses!
I don’t worry about this trend in and of itself as much as I worry about the societal pressures that toymakers are feeling: something has convinced them that a mass slimdown of characters is what they need to do to sell girls’ toys. Why do toymakers feel that moms won’t like toys for their daughters unless they are super girly and super skinny?
Or maybe it worked the other way around: the toymakers developed an “über girly” — pink, frilly, glittery — supermodel marketing strategy and parents bought it. However it came into existence, when it comes to girls’ toys, thin is in, at least for now. But we don’t have to buy it.
The societal pressures girls put on themselves and each other to be thin will have an impact, because they will affect those fragile human interactions that so deeply shape how girls feel about themselves. When it comes to combatting the pressures exerted on or by the toymakers for girls and young women to be thin, I think it’s all about the guidance girls receive, and the positive role models they have. It’s about having intelligent conversations with our daughters about self image, fashion, and beauty. It’s about helping them cultivate a healthy lifestyle and reminding them that they are beautiful both outside and in, helping them embrace their skin color, size, facial features, and rejecting a cookie cutter style of beauty. It’s about arming them with courage and strength to help them deal with toxic situations they might find themselves in, and fostering confidence to believe in themselves.
I will agree that Merida’s makeover was misguided, but when it comes to the Disney princesses, I don’t have a problem with them. Taken individually, their characters exhibit admirable traits, and their movies have been the source of countless hours of fun for parents and kids worldwide. With good parenting we can put each of their stories in the context of today.
It’s important to teach our daughters that there are lots of ways to be beautiful. I like to think of the Disney princesses as a part of a cast of characters in the world of my daughter’s imagination. It’s a world that also includes female characters like Pippi Longstocking, the cowgirl Jesse from Toy Story, Dora the Explorer, Fancy Nancy, Pinkalicious, Minnie Mouse, Madeline, Doc McStuffins, and Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” as well as many characters of her own invention. There are all kinds of beauty, both inner and outer, and Disney princesses don’t have a lock on it.