By Elissa Blattman, Project Assistant
Merida of the Disney-Pixar film, Brave, is the one Disney princess who many girls and their parents feel actually represents real girls. She looks like a “real girl,” is strong, independent, athletic, able to save herself from situations, and sees no need for a Prince Charming to take her away. When Merida was announced as the 11th and newest inductee into the Disney Princess Collection, many people were happy. However, before her coronation ceremony at Disney World on May 11, Disney gave her a makeover, making many people upset. Disney made her figure slimmer, her hair less frizzy, and her dress tighter and sparkly. They also took away her signature bow and arrows. After considerable outrage, though, Disney removed the new Merida from the princess section of their website in the United States and replaced her with the original. However, the new image still appears on other countries’ Disney sites and on her official Princess Collection merchandise. To many, Merida’s makeover is yet another example of Disney’s long history of upholding and promoting certain beauty standards and their problematic portrayals of gender roles. Some of the characters we remember watching and liking when we were younger perhaps do not always provide the best role models for children to emulate. Check out the examples below and see if you watch them differently now as adults.
Themes of beauty and gender roles are key driving points for the plot to evolve around in the first of Disney’s full-length films, Snow White. The film begins with Snow White’s evil stepmother, the Queen, ordering Snow White to be killed because she is more beautiful. Snow White escapes to the woods, where she finds the home the seven dwarfs all share. The house is a mess, so Snow White takes it upon herself to clean it. When the seven dwarfs return home to find their intruder, they allow her to stay, essentially as their maid, after they learn she cleans and cooks.
In The Little Mermaid, Ariel chooses to give up her voice in order to drastically physically change her body (get legs) so she could be with the man she loves, Prince Eric. This seems to be telling young children that men fall in love with women solely for their physical beauty, as Ariel cannot communicate without a voice, and that women should do whatever is necessary to reach this level of beauty. Ariel also abandons her family to be with Eric in the end.
Mulan, one of Disney’s very few non-white princesses, joins the Chinese army and goes to war to protect her elderly father from having to go himself. The Chinese army does not accept women, so Mulan has to dress, act, and pretend to be a man in order to not be found out as a woman. While in some ways Mulan is similar to Merida in that she herself defies traditional gender roles and completes the physical training needed to be prepared for battle, the film ultimately suggests that in order to be a hero, one must be a man…or pretend to be one. Also like Merida, Mulan got a drastic Disney princess makeover upon her induction into the Princess Collection. Her new look fits in better with Eurocentric beauty standards. Her skin is lighter, her face is rounder and thinner, and her nose is pointer and more defined. She is wearing an elaborate dress, though she is wearing army clothing throughout most of the film and her hair, which she cut prior to joining the army, is also long in her new look.
Perhaps the most troubling of Disney’s relationships is seen in Beauty and the Beast. In the film, Beast is very abusive toward Belle, keeping her a prisoner in his castle, yelling at her, and threatening her. Belle continues to be kind and gentle towards him, in an attempt to make him more civil. The Beast does change in the end, and he and Belle seem to be happy together. However, the message Beauty and the Beast seems to be portraying to young girls is to stay in abusive relationships because if you work hard enough, you can get your partner to change. This message is not only problematic, it is dangerous.