Princess Merida of Pixar’s Brave is not your archetypal princess. Hers is a coming-of-age story about familial love, defying gender roles, and dealing with expectations that may fly in the face of your true desires.
Last week, images surfaced of a 2-D rendering of Princess Merida. This restyling was supposed to bring Merida in line with other characters in the official Disney Princess line, all of which have recently received odd-looking makeovers for new promotional lines. Her dress was lightened and made more sparkly. Her bow and quiver were replaced with a low-slung belt. Her wild red curls were more defined, and she was given a healthy application of blush, lip gloss and mascara.
A lot of people had a problem with this, and even though Disney is not using this 2-D image in any official capacity right now, the conversation is ongoing. Petitions call to “Keep Our Hero Brave!” Experts in animation are talking about which changes are acceptable for a 2-D adjustment and which aren’t. Mothers discuss Disney’s responsibility vs. a parent’s in presenting role models to little girls. Director Brenda Chapman replied to media inquiries and stated that she was dismayed at the makeover, and that sexualizing her atypical princess effectively spits in the face of the feminist spirit of the character.
It’s that last part that I would like to discuss. I have my own thoughts about the character’s styling. While I think her basic shape was maintained in the 2-D makeover, and I understand her curls needing to be more defined without the benefit of Pixar’s masterful computer artistry, the “updated” Merida looks too old, wears too much makeup, and the needless tailoring to her off-the-shoulder dress doesn’t make sense at all. Chapman is right; her princess was over-sexualized. And make no mistake about it: Princess Merida IS Brenda Chapman’s princess.
Despite Merida being Chapman’s creation, inspired by her own daughter, her treatment throughout the making of Brave and since by Disney and Pixar has been less than a triumph. How excited I was when I learned that Pixar was making their first princess movie! At the time it was dubbed The Bear and the Bow. Not only would we get a princess that bucked tradition, but it was also going to be the first Pixar film directed by a woman!
Then things started shifting. The Bear and the Bow fell victim to the Disney marketing machine’s new school of thought that the best titles are one-word adjectives. (See also the originally-titled Rapunzel becoming Tangled, and the upcoming film, The Snow Queen, which changed its name to Frozen during production.) I don’t really understand the reasoning behind these terrible names or why they happen exclusively to Disney films with female leads. Is it because they think these catchy, attention-deficit titles will appeal more to audiences? Do they think that the short titles will hoodwink boys into thinking they aren’t watching a “girl” movie? I don’t like it, but that’s a whole other post.
The next big change was a real blow. Brenda Chapman was fired from Brave, then took a leave of absence from Pixar before ultimately leaving for Lucasfilm. Directors are often shuffled in and out during the long production time of animated features, but that doesn’t make it sting less when you’re supposed to be making history as a woman succeeding in a male-dominated industry, breaking through the glass ceiling and working on your pet project. The sad reality is that although Chapman would ultimately receive a directing credit and share an Oscar for the film, she was not the person who got to see her Merida come to life. Eloquently, she cited “creative differences” as the reason for her sacking. She was a champ about the whole thing, despite the mistreatment of both her princess and herself. After leaving Pixar, she wrote a New York Times op-ed, and admitted that she was devastated, but still proud of the film.
It has been a heartbreakingly hard road for me over the last year and a half. When Pixar took me off of “Brave” — a story that came from my heart, inspired by my relationship with my daughter — it was devastating. Animation directors are not protected like live-action directors, who have the Directors Guild to go to battle for them. We are replaced on a regular basis — and that was a real issue for me. This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels. But in the end, my vision came through in the film. It simply wouldn’t have worked without it (and didn’t at one point), and I knew this at my core. So I kept my head held high, stayed committed to my principles, and was supported by some strong women (and men!). In the end, it worked out, and I’m very proud of the movie, and that I ultimately stood up for myself, just like Merida, the protagonist in “Brave.”
Even though we’re a long way away from 1938, when women in the Disney company were not allowed in creative positions at all, it’s unfortunate that we talk about Chapman and her work like she’s still ahead of her time. Chapman’s vital presence to the making of Brave is overlooked, as are the strong female leads like Merida, and before her, Tiana of The Princess and the Frog. It’s changing, we hear. It’s going to get better. It’s about time it got there already. We can’t let the women both on-screen and behind the camera get lost in the shuffle. I hope that this discussion strikes a chord with parents of young girls in particular. Identify good role models for your girls, both in entertainment and in the business world. Merida should be an example for your daughter, and so should Brenda Chapman.