I’ve been waiting, for a long time, for a Disney princess to truly embrace, a princess who seems relevant to actual, modern girls.
I think I finally found her.
Her name is Merida, and she’s the medieval Scottish princess at the center of “Brave,” the Disney Pixar film that opened Friday. And until I saw the movie, I was doubtful. The modern Disney princesses have always felt a little market-tested for my taste, their empowerment perfectly matched to society’s current bugaboo about girls. Belle was smart and liked to read; Tiana worked hard; Rapunzel, in “Tangled,” saved a prince. Feminism, check! So when I saw the publicity shots of Merida with bow and arrow, I thought I knew what was coming: another focus-grouped take on girl perfection, this time latching onto the “Hunger Games” trope of the girl warrior, too busy being strong to be interested in boys.
And it’s true that Merida doesn’t care about princes. But her independence isn’t what sets her apart (and her suitors, three bumbling scions of Scottish clans, are as uninterested in marriage as she is). What makes Merida great is her imperfection: She’s an impetuous teenager, sassy and sarcastic, obnoxious and sometimes hurtful. And as princess fare goes, that drives a very different narrative. This movie is a love story — about the love between Merida and her mom.
You’d never guess that from the pre-release marketing, most of which focuses on adventure, athletics, and slapstick. And you can’t really blame Disney for the subterfuge; if it let slip that “Brave” is actually a mother-daughter tale, it could risk losing interest from the boys of the world.
But then, a princess movie carries all kinds of risks, points out Rebecca Hains, a communications professor at Salem State University and the author of “Growing Up With Girl Power.” The Disney Princess machine that has been such a roaring commercial success — pretty princesses, in coy poses, gracing every consumer product under the sun — has effectively shifted the princess fan base downward.
Now, princess products are aimed squarely at 3- and 4-year-old girls; my 7-year-old daughter aged out long ago and now declares princesses “gross.” And no wonder: They’re totally uninteresting to her, pretty faces without back stories, completely divorced from the dark and scary and exciting fairy tales from whence they came.
Of course, those original fairy tales could be problematic, too, bound up in medieval gender roles, filled with passive princesses rescued by men. Merida has the advantage of stemming from a brand new story, conceived by Brenda Chapman, the first female director in Pixar’s history. (Chapman was forced from the helm mid-production, for reasons that were never made public, but still gets co-directing credit and a role in the publicity machine.) Chapman has said her relationship with her own headstrong daughter made her want to create the tale of a working mom and a teenage girl.
Deciding to make that working mom a queen, and the teenager a princess in an ankle-length skirt, has invited a different kind of bias. Some reviewers have knocked “Brave” for being safe and unoriginal — largely, it seems, because it treads the well-worn world of kings and queens, witches and magic spells, as opposed to talking cars or fish or rats.
But as Hains points out, Pixar’s movies haven’t always broken new conceptual ground; they’re often classic buddy stories and coming-of-age tales, set in brilliantly unexpected places. “In some ways,” she says, “it seems a little sexist to say, ‘Oh, it’s a princess, so it’s unimaginative.’ ”
In fact, there’s plenty that’s imaginative — and un-Disney-like — about “Brave,” from the way it twists the traditional princess narrative to the fact that the main character’s mother stays alive and central to the action. (I still haven’t gotten over “Bambi.” Have you?) And as in most Pixar movies — as opposed to Disney princess fare — the action launches when a central character makes a terrible mistake.
That’s Merida, who gets into trouble of her own making, instantly regrets it, and tries to make good, which makes her the most relevant Disney princess yet. For elementary-age kids in the Disney sweet spot, kisses and princes are faraway fantasies. But angry mothers? Fights over clothes? Ways to say “I’m sorry”? This is something to talk about. Even for boys.
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.