Girls like pretty things.
My three-year-old daughter is currently obsessed with the sparkly variety of pretty things. She has a pink sparkly headband that hasn't left her head in weeks (not even to sleep). She has pink sparkly flip flops and loves to have her fingernails painted sparkly purple. The other day she handed me a fistful of purple and pink crayons and said, "Look, Mommy, a rainbow!" When she chooses her own outfits they consist of pink, hot pink and purple. The two blue shirts she will wear are only acceptable because they are adorned by Hello Kitty and Cinderella.
I don't take her to the store and direct her toward the pink things or shoo her down the princess aisle -- she has dozens of outfits that have nothing to do with pink and plenty of toys that easily cross the gender divide -- and it's not that I am setting some sort of ultra-girly example by prancing around in pepto-bismol-colored tulle and giggling like a princess. And yet, three minutes after she was born she was like, "Mommy, pretty necklace!" She is only three and she is counting down the days till she can get her ears pierced. All that sparkly, fuzzy, pink, twirly, girly pretty stuff? She LOVES it.
And if she had a choice between a "pretty" princess doll with a big fluffy skirt and a strong, bow-wielding Plain Jane, you know which one she would choose? The pretty one. Even if she liked the movie starring the plain one.
So I am a little surprised by all the hand-wringing (including a petition to "Keep Merida Brave" that has nearly 250,000 signatures) over Disney's decision to glam up Princess Merida as part of her transition into the Disney Princess line. (Even Cinderella and Snow White had modernizing makeovers a few years ago, and yet no one threw a fit over that).
I know it's not politically correct to say so and we're all supposed to be encouraging our tiny daughters to play with the average-looking Merida as some sort of ode to feminism and girl power, but just because we are adults who have left behind our childhood fantasies does not mean we need to demand that our daughters see Merida the way we do. Leah won't intrepret a change in Merida's appearance as evidence that the Scottish firecracker is somehow lacking unless I tell her she should be viewing it that way. All she'll see is that Merida became a beautiful princess -- a girl who went from duckling to swan -- just as every girl hopes she will also do.
Yes, we should be teaching our daughters that they are beautiful just the way they are, that being smart and hardworking is more important than being pretty or popular. But these little girls will have plenty of years to appreciate Merida for her strong will and her fearlessness. For now, they just like pretty things. They like to dream about being beautiful themselves. They like to fantasize about living Happily Ever After with Prince Charming. They like to twirl around in ball gowns and imagine that they, too, will blossom from duckling to swan. This is not something that needs to be whitewashed out of them like it's some kind of shameful step backwards.
I find it particularly telling that Brave's writer and co-director, Brenda Chapman, says she created a stronger, more average-looking princess so that "mothers wouldn't be pulling their hair out when their little girls were trying to dress or act like this princess." You see, in creating Merida she wasn't trying to please the little girls; she was trying to please their mothers.
Well, while there are certainly girls of all ages who will appreciate Merida's skill with a bow and arrow, most little girls are not looking for a Joan of Arc to lead them into battle. They're not looking for a princess who can hit a bullseye better than the men. They are looking for a fantasy princess in a beautiful dress. Why? Because they already believe they can do battle. They already believe they can hit a bullseye better than the men.
So it makes sense that Disney, when marketing to little girls, would decide to give Merida a makeover to turn her into a fantasy princess rather than just the normal-looking princess-who-can-beat-the-boys. Disney is not marketing to the mothers; it is marketing to the little girls. Little girls who already know they are smart and capable...
... and who want to be beautiful, too.