She was meant to be a role model for millions of little girls. In a make-believe fantasy land, she was meant to be a heroine who could look after herself and an adventurer who sought out excitement and new challenges. We were meant to love her for all of this, and the supposed imperfections that were intended to make her seem somehow real. Crucially though, she was never real. Merida was a Disney character. And she was a Disney princess at that.
As I write, more than 200,000 people have signed a petition to Disney over Merida’s sparkling makeover. In true Disney fashion, her transformation has seen her leave behind her imperfect self in exchange for a dazzling, sexy, skinnier model better suited to join the official collection of Disney princesses. There has been much hand-wringing over her redesign. Her original creator has spoken out – this is not the Merida she had intended to send forth into the real world. The petitioners have decried the scrapping of a character who was at last a princess millions could look up to. Critics have detailed the death of a role model who for once taught girls they could save the day on their own and they didn’t need glitter in order to do it.
The problem with these arguments, however, is that maybe Merida was never a princess in the first place.
For many decades, story-tellers have constructed the image of the princess. She must be beautiful, even if we don’t realise it at first. She must rely on a saviour, even if she is brave and doesn’t initially appear to need anyone’s help. She must, in the background, have a family behind her. In the future, there must be a new, powerful family she can become a part of.
Merida mark one, however, didn’t fit the construct – and that’s why she had to change. In true storybook style, she became a real Disney princess almost overnight.
I for one will not be lamenting the death of a role model. Merida was a character in a world inhabited by stereotypes. It was not a world I would look to for role models. And when Merida grew up, lost weight and got sexy, she confirmed that she had never in the first place been the pin-up girl millions of mothers had been waiting for. She was, in fact, part of a larger narrative where even ‘princesses’ who were brave and strong and independent were simply waiting to slim down into a more glamorous version of themselves.
Merida has been on my mind, not only because of the comment generated by her transformation, but because I am expecting a daughter later this year. I am not going to deny her the escape from reality that Disney offers. I am not going to resist the sparkling fairy tales that Disney will tell her and that will no doubt fill her world. I am not going to to hide from her the land of make-believe that Merida inhabits.
I believe these constructs are a part of our life now. Whether I believe they are damaging or not, I believe they are important at least to acknowledge. We live in some way amongst them. Our lives are shaped by their creations and made less richer for their prejudices and stereotypes. I might not want my daughter to aspire to the Disney heroine embodied by Merida, but I won’t stop her from dreaming a little. And while she dreams, I will also try to expose her to a world more balanced, more fair, more real and more free.
Who then to pin up on the wall of my unborn daughter’s imagination?
Many, many years ago, my Brownies group was visited by Margaret Thatcher. I didn’t know anything about the politics of this woman who shook all of our hands as we stood in a row in our brand new hall. I think there is a photo somewhere in my parent’s loft of me, awkward but proud, having just shaken the hand of the most important woman in England. I remember few other details about that day, or why indeed, the Prime Minister came to visit.
What I do remember though is suddenly being aware of wanting to go places, of wanting to succeed and achieve. It wasn’t, I realised, something anyone should take for granted. Success, instead, was a concept to aspire to. It wouldn’t, especially for a woman, just happen.
As I grew up, I realised I didn’t agree with a lot of the political ideas of that woman who came to see us that day. I was reminded though, last month, of her visit to our Brownie hall and the impact it had on me. With her death, a new wave of political activists made their views heard. Yet the lasting impression Britain’s first female prime minister made on me as a school girl was not about right or left wing ideologies. It was about being brave and strong and standing up for your beliefs.
I don’t intend to present a former British Prime Minister as the perfect role model for my child one day. I’m also not saying that this woman remained a role model for me as I navigated my school years. However, I hope that my daughter will one day look up to and learn from a person who has the courage of their own convictions. I hope she will find a figure to admire who is brave and strong and unfaltering in their self-belief. I hope she will believe that she too can be anybody she wants to be, as long as she works at making that happen. I don’t think she’ll get there by learning her lessons from Merida.