Disney’s Merida mess

The new Merida, and the movie version.
The new Merida, and the movie version.

Here’s some good news for the Walt Disney Company: Parents and kids are extremely attached to Merida, the animated star of “Brave,” last year’s Pixar movie about a Scottish princess who doesn’t want to be forced to marry. That’s the reason such a firestorm erupted last week after Disney, which owns Pixar, inducted Merida into its official pantheon of princesses — a designation that places her on a universe of consumer products — and gave her a sexy makeover in the process. On Merida’s “coronation day,” she appeared on Disney’s website looking strikingly different from the movie version: without her trademark bow and arrow, but with lipstick, eye makeup, flowing hair, and an off-the-shoulder dress. Parents were apoplectic, complaining that Disney had ruined a beloved character. The company soon replaced its website image with the original, though Sexy Merida is likely to turn up on product lines.

The PR disaster grows out of Disney’s long-ago decision to create a consumer line around its princess characters as a group, downplaying the distinct personalities of each one. Grouped together on bicycles and bedspreads, they look pretty and strike coquettish poses but have little else to contribute. Reasonable minds disagree on whether this is dangerous; critics fear the princesses set up girls for a lifetime of body-image issues, while others say parents have the freedom to add their own interpretations. At the least, though, Disney should recognize that there’s a feverish appetite for female characters who don’t fit the standard princess mold. Keeping Merida herself might not just be good for girls; it could also be good for business.