This past weekend, I stood under the Florida sun with my daughter and watched Disney induct its newest princess into its royal court. As Merida strode - arms swinging, curls bouncing - up the walkway to receive her crown, Emilia grabbed my arm and pulled me down to whisper in my ear. "Mommy," she breathed, "That's the real Merida. From the movie!"
And so she was. She was fierce and beautiful and every inch the girl who transformed from spirited young tomboy to independent young woman in the movie. And as her mother, Queen Elinor, told her how very proud she was of her, her beautiful, wonderful daughter, my heart clenched and I pulled Emilia close and leaned down to whisper my own words: "that is exactly the kind of princess that I want you to be."
And I meant it. And I mean it no less this week, as controversy has swirled around the alleged revamp of Merida by the Walt Disney Company (the company that, for the record, I work for). I mean it no less for two very important reasons. First, because the original Merida hasn't, actually, been made over: there are a few pieces of iterative artwork out there that were created for the purpose of celebrating her coronation, but these are fancified depictions of Merida, not a new Merida (who in any case is defined by far more important things than what she wears.) Second, because it doesn't matter what iterations of Merida are out there in the culture - Merida is Merida, and the essence of who she is is defined by the girls who embrace her. It's kind of a remarkable conversation that's been circulating out there in the wilds of the Internet, and it's very probably a conversation that could only happen in the age of social media - there's been a lot of hearsay and speculation based a couple of pieces of artwork, presented without a source.
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So that's all there was: some iterative artwork, created for limited use to celebrate the coronation. The image being circulated was intended for limited product use, and (in a slightly different variation) for the coronation invitation. That image doesn't represent a 'new' Merida replacing an 'old' Merida: it's just another iteration of Merida, who is much, much more than just red curls and a green dress. The CG character that you see in the movie, and that Emilia and I saw in real life at Disney World - she's still the girl that she's always been. The gussied up Merida on the coronation invitation is Merida gussied up for one of the most important events of her princess career. That she's a little more sparkly for the party is not a heresy against her independent and spirited self - I consider myself independent and spirited, and I wore the sparkliest gown that I could find when I got married, because of course I did.
It remains that you can buy a Merida doll that is a little sparklier and fancied-up than tomboy Merida of the movie. But that's okay: Disney characters are changeable - Minnie sometimes takes on the role of a style icon; Mickey puts on beat-boy pants and dances gangnam style (I saw it with my own eyes this past weekend, and it was awesome.) The princesses, like all Disney characters, are characters of the imagination and characters of play. They are meant to be adopted and engaged with and interacted with and iterated. My daughter is a princess iteration specialist of the highest order: her Cinderellas are astronauts; her Belles are teachers; her Rapunzels are circus performers. There are the canonical versions of the princesses, to be sure, but they are meant to live and breathe and play and change their clothes. And as they live and breathe and play and change their clothes, they remain who they are, because who they are is not what they look like. They are their qualities and their values and their stories. Cinderella is kind. Ariel is adventurous. Belle is intellectually curious and independent-minded. Mulan is a warrior.
Merida is brave. And strong and spirited and willful and intelligent and all the things that I want my daughter to be. She's a girl to look up to, no matter what she looks like.
Let's have that conversation.
By Catherine Connors
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