Pixar’s ‘Brave’ Feminist Bet: Does a Princess Need Prince Charming? (Analysis)

11:14 AM PST 06/22/2012 by Jordan Zakarin
2011 Disney/Pixar

With the independent, decidedly un-girly Merida, the studio is flipping the script on the traditional fairytale.

We’ve all seen the first act of Brave, the new animated adventure from Disney's Pixar, before: Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), while more interested in archery and horseback riding, has been raised to be a proper princess; now, she is now being offered up to three suitors from smaller fiefdoms for a traditional wedding.

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Where the film carves its own path, however, is in its romantic development -- or lack thereof. There are no intimate evenings, sparkling jewelry, dazzling gowns (Merida, in fact, hates her formalwear), sweet gestures or smart give-and-take dialogue that foreshadow a final, emotional kiss. The suitors are simply buffoons, not fit to brush Merida’s flowing red hair, much less match up with her archery skills.

“[Merida] makes her own mistakes and then she doesn’t need a Prince Charming to come and make things better,” MacDonald recently told The Hollywood Reporter. "She makes her own trouble, and then she gets herself out of that trouble, and I think that’s a very good message.”

If the premise sounds less than revolutionary in 2012, just consider the source.

There are currently ten young royals in the Disney Princess lineup, the studio's officially trademarked and licensed franchise of fairytale damsels. The senior class is comprised of caucasian maidens from the company’s early adaptations of mostly Grimm Brothers stories. But the last two decades has seen the group diversify to include Persian, Native American, Chinese and African-American characters.

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The division isn’t just ethnic; in more recent years, and represented in Mulan (1998) and Pocahantas (1995) in particular, the Princesses have become more willing to embark on adventures far bolder than marches with dwarves and rides in pumpkins with mice (though that carries its own risks).

Still, the princesses share plenty of archetypal DNA, which includes a propensity for falling in love. The franchise stresses the romantic elements throughout its promotional material; its promotional material states that a young fan of the line “dreams of a place where clothes are spun of silk and gold, where balls are held in her honor and where princes fall in love at first sight.”

It’s a rich fantasy, and a lucrative one, as well. The Disney Princesses are emblazoned on clothing, bedding, dolls, straight-to-DVD films, MP3 players, theme park attractions and a laundry list of other brandable consumer products, over 25,000 in all. The line, as of the middle of last year, had brought in over $4 billion in sales.

The Princess characters have stood the test of time, aided by liberal sprinklings of Disney’s proprietary blend of nostalgia, fantasy wish-fulfillment and marketing know-how.

And, it should be said, romance and strong female characters are certainly not mutually exclusive; many young girls love Princesses and grow up to be strong, independent adults, too. But eliminating the Prince Charming element is still read as a statement, consciously or not, about the kind of role models and aspirational figures that can be made available to young girls from the start.

"I don't think that it ruins your life or anything, a bunch of really classically pretty little girls who has the one awesome thing that happens in their lives be that they get saved by a dude and end up kissing him and marrying him," Dodai Stewart, an editor for Jezebel, tells THR, "But when you see it over and over, it becomes a very narrow vision of what a heroine is. And so, I do think that it's really cool to have this kind of like -- I don't even want to call it an alternative, I just think it's exciting to have a different heroine."

Or, as The Walking Dead creator and renowned comics writer Robert Kirkman tweeted on Thursday, "I love that I live in a time where Brave will be my daughter's favorite Disney movie and not Princess Boy Crazy Lives Only For Marriage.”

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Just like those "Boy Crazy" princesses that Kirkman laments, Disney is still putting formidable marketing and merchandising muscle into Merida and Brave, including plenty of action figures and plush dolls. And just as the classic characters’ gowns are for sale as costumes for young girls, so are Merida dresses, labeled with names like “Hero” and “Games.” The film is on track to be number one at the box office this weekend, too, so don’t cry for Disney’s profit margins.

Some even think Disney could have been more bold in its choices for Merida. Peggy Orenstein, a critic of Disney Princesses and the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, asserts that the film doesn't go far enough; she laments to Time Magazine that Merida’s journey doesn’t provide a viable alternative for girls past the rebelling stage, or touch on other issues such as body image.

With 75 years of success, and the opportunity to add a new face to a multi-billion-dollar product line, it would have been easy for Disney to stick with the tried and true. Whether or not the romance-free Brave will provide Disney with the fairytale ending they're looking for remains to be seen. 

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