Princess Merida Isn’t the Last Strong Girl You’ll See From Brenda Chapman

Brenda Chapman and daughter

Princess Merida from the movie Brave isn’t the last strong female character Brenda Chapman has in mind for her fans.

That’s what Chapman told The Broad Side in one of her first interviews after the recent uproar over Disney’s attempts to change Merida’s appearance as part of her “induction” into the ever-growing Disney Princess franchise.

Chapman, who won an Academy Award and Golden Globe for her directing role for Brave, said she wasn’t terribly surprised the day had come when marketers would try to make Merida — the Scottish lass with untamed locks and archery and equestrian skills that would have made Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men jealous — fit into a a traditional Disney princess type image. But it is ironic that the “new” Merida was presented in exactly the kind of  tight, form-fitting dress she was forced to wear, and cursed,  in the movie:

One commentator claims that the public outcry over the proposed morphing of Merida is something of reverse sexism — that those who object to the sleeker, more mature, and sophisticated look Disney wanted to give her are, in essence, saying that pretty, sultry girls can’t be smart.

But this isn’t just any conversation about looks and smarts or looks vs. smarts. It’s about fundamentally changing a character that was created with this specific message in mind — a desire to change the paradigm about what makes a princess — or any girl — “pretty.”

Chapman, who started thinking about the character that eventually became Merida when her own daughter was still a pre-schooler,  says it was important for Merida and the movie Brave to convey to girls that there are myriad ways to be pretty, and that it’s time for girls to embrace that idea and to challenge what she perceives as a certain type of brainwashing that girls are subjected to from the time they are old enough to be media consumers.

Chapman hasn’t minced words about her level of unhappiness about Merida’s transformation into just another Disney Princess, and believes it’s fair to challenge what Disney tried to do, especially if it that redesign adds to the disturbing body image messages she feels permeate American culture. While she was quick to give credit to some Hollywood industry men who also share her belief that our culture needs more positive female characters on the screen, she lamented that most of the guys who run things in her line of work are “clueless” about what female movie-goers want.

Just as it was important to Chapman that Merida send a message of empowerment to girls, she wants her personal actions to model that it’s acceptable to stand up for what you believe in — and keeping Merida from becoming a character that furthers damaging self-image problems is one fight Chapman is willing to take on. (While it appears that Disney has changed the Merida image on its official Princess page back to the original teen Merida, it remains to be seen if the adult, sexy Merida will appear in future marketing materials).

In Brave, Queen Elinor scolded Merida one night at dinner that, “A lady doesn’t place her weapons on the table!”  While Chapman said she couldn’t share the details of her current movie project, she did confirm that her “weapons” of bringing us many more powerful female protagonists will be on her table, and ours, soon.

Joanne Bamberger is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Broad Side.  She was formerly known around these internet parts as PunditMom, but now she is trying to be herself. She is the author of Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America (an Amazon.com bestseller and now available in E-book form!). She was recently awarded the Campaigns & Elections Magazine/CampaignTech 2013 Advocacy Innovator Award.

Image of Brenda Chapman and her daughter via Daily Record and Sunday Mail/with permission from Brenda Chapman

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