Disney’s Brave: White Feminism Strikes Again!

I generally try to avoid Disney entirely, because I have pretentious tastes and because Disney is every kind of problematic. The princess movies are especially frustrating, as they gleefully celebrate tired sexist and heteronormative narratives. Plus, I’ve never understood America’s obsession with princess narratives. Isn’t this nation’s origin story wrapped up in leaving monarchies behind? Despite my aversions, I watched Disney’s Brave while recovering from surgery last week. I’d heard that it was actually wonderful, and by day four of bed rest, even Disney seemed more appealing than staring at my ceiling.

Like most Disney movies, Brave is filled with only white people.  It also draws on Scottish folklore, featuring magical wisps and spells cast by the classic old witch. There’s probably a lot of cultural appropriation and inaccuracies tied up in the depiction of the clans and their histories. However, the movie did a nice job of exploring and challenging the traditional princess tale.  In the film, Princess Merida doesn’t want to wear the clothes her mother chooses, learn the ‘feminine’ skills her mother tries to teach her, or act like a traditional princess in any sense. When three suitors arrive to compete for Merida’s hand, she is not pleased. She ultimately competes for her own hand, out-shooting all three suitors.

That’s awesome! This all happens quite early, and the betrothal line takes a backseat for the rest of the film. I was glad to see the movie abandon the usual ‘She doesn’t want it now, but she’ll be gushing in love by the end!’ way of these stories.  Ultimately, this isn’t a story about gender roles. It’s a story about familial relationships, especially the mother/daughter bond.  This was all explored within the framework of the traditional Prince/Princess setup, but it was nice to see the storytellers manipulate that in productive ways. Hopefully, we’ll eventually reach a point where strong, independent young women aren’t shown as rebels and rule-breakers, but we’re moving in the right direction.

I was feeling pretty pleased with Brave, only to immediately hear about Disney’s redesign of Princess Merida. Before Merida could be officially inducted into the Disney Princess membership club (why is this even a thing? Honestly, why?), some official decided she needed to be sexier. Yeah. 16 year old Merida just wasn’t sexy enough to be an official Disney Princess. Even though it’s antithetical to her entire character, Merida was stripped of her trusty bow and arrows, stuck into a fancy dress (the exact kind she literally tore off her body in the film), her wild hair was tamed, and she was made much skinnier. This is why we don’t get along, Disney.

Here’s where things get interesting: there was a huge public outcry! The sexed up version of Merida was not receiving any kind of approval. Disney has been petitioned, the film’s director expressed anger, and it seems like the entire internet has been yelling, so much so that Disney replaced Sexy Merida with Original Merida on the official website. Unfortunately, it sounds like Disney is still planning to use Sexy Merida on their official merchandise.

I think this public response is great. Really, I do. I can’t help but to feel frustrated, though. Because this isn’t the first time Disney has redesigned a Princess. It’s kind of their MO, honestly. When Mulan became an Official Princess, her weapons were taken away, too. Not only that, they made her white. That’s right. They changed her race. And it’s not just Mulan. Jasmine and Pocahontas? Also suddenly white.

Yes, it’s wickedly annoying that Merida was completely changed into a sexy cartoon. We should be frustrated by that. But where were all the petitions and outcry when this exact same stuff was happening to Princesses of Color? I mean, really, white feminism? Really? It’s anti-feminist to care about issues only when they pertain to people who look like us. That is wrong-headed in so many ways. I’m happy that Brave has been received so well, that people are excited about a princess who breaks out of the traditional roles.  But by getting angry at her redesign and not the same problematic redesigns of her fellow princesses, we’re not doing any better.

Feminism has an utterly unsavory history of excluding women of color, lesbians, the working class, basically anyone who wasn’t white, straight, and rich. I don’t want to be a part of that feminism. So if we’re going to have a canary about Merida, we need to have canaries about Mulan, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and while we’re at it, let’s talk about how Tiana, the first black princess, spent most of her movie as a literal frog. We need to stop caring about all of Disney’s problems only when they pertain to white girls.

Actually, let’s stop caring about Disney entirely! That might be asking too much, but it seems odd that we keep celebrating a company that consistently makes overt racist, sexist, and heteronormative choices. If you really can’t kick Disney, check out this great blog called Feminist Disney. We have to challenge our media. All of our media. Not just the parts that cause white tears.

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3 thoughts on “Disney’s Brave: White Feminism Strikes Again!

  1. Awesome! I’ve always been a fan of how Jasmine rejected the economy of the flesh (so to speak) in the patriarchal institution of heterosexual marriage (geez, I sound like a term paper), saying “I am not a prize to be won!” Love it. Funny how feminist and post-colonial theory opens one up to these flawed constructions. No one else understands; we end up being the social outcasts, or as you so aptly put it, “killjoys.”

    • I really do appreciate those glimmers that come through! It’s especially hard to critique things that we have really fond memories of. If you haven’t seen it, Mickey Mouse Monopoly is an awesome documentary that follows up on the implications of some of the racist and sexist narratives in Disney films. It’s great!

  2. My daughter’s Mulan doll is white. Even if this didn’t bother me on so many levels, it bugs me on pure aesthetics. Stuck her next to a white person for comparison: the doll is white. Of course, her Ariel doll doesn’t even have a tail…
    I think people have gotten worked up over the Brave thing because Brave is new and they saw the petition on their FB or wherever. Folks didn’t care when Gem-Stylin’ Merida came out a year ago, because they don’t actually care about Merida; they don’t care about Pocahontas or Mulan because those are older movies with characters people aren’t as into. Awfully coincidental which characters receive the least attention and have the fewest dolls.
    *wanders off to play ‘Saving China from the Mongols’*

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