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An Arrow Through the Heart: The Merida Makeover

“Why? Why would they do that?” Lamented my 13-year-old daughter.

Yes, it’s another sad Disney tale. You see, I showed her the Merida makeover. Merida is the gutsy girl in Brave with bow and arrow, who stands up to her parents with typical teen rants, challenges cultural traditions, and seeks great adventure. If you don’t know this Disney princess, she’s one of the few, who from the get go, shows gumption. She came as a relief to many moms, including myself, to have a female character with wit, confidence, self-reliance… and also empathy.

(c) Disney/Pixar

I had been at my desk when Josie bobbed in from the school bus. I was looking at the before and after images of Merida that A Mighty Girl posted. A Mighty Girl did a mighty thing by creating a Change.org petition last week to challenge Disney’s leadership on their decision to glamorize Merida for her induction into the Princess Collection.  As of today – in a matter of days –  the petition solicited about 125,000 signatures.*

Josie peeked over my shoulder to take a closer look the makeover. She squinted, pulled her head back, leaned back in for scrutiny. “She’s looks ugly!” she exclaimed. “I want to sign the petition, too!”

Later, I read what Peggy Orenstein had to say on this latest Disney transgression, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter.  She’s tired of it all.  Can’t blame her. So am I.  On her blog post she goes through the makeovers of the various Disney princesses and it’s not pretty.

But I’ve come to realize that the media and retail industries will simply be giving moms plenty of teachable moments with our daughters and sons when it comes to media literacy and how unrealistic beauty ideals in our culture affect us.

My husband is in the brand strategy business and I updated him at dinner on the Merida controversy. What is Disney thinking? His view was dispassionate. Having been an art director in NYC, traveled the unforgiving ranks to creative director only to become an entrepreneur and consultant, he painted the corporate picture for us.

“Somebody sent a memo to give Merida a makeover for an event or promotion. Some unsuspecting art director follows the instructions, offers some versions, sends the redesigns back up the line. A brand manager picks one set of  the new Merida he likes, and in a matter of seconds it’s a done deal.”  In other words, there was little thought to the meaning of the change (or the consequence), and there was certainly no checking in with FANS.  Like seriously? Don’t they know that we have a generation of empowered co-creators?!

Disney is trying to sell product. It’s as simple as that. But it seems they really need to take a hard look at their decisions, rash or otherwise. Disney lost their compass on this one.  Wasn’t the intent of Brave to offer a new story for girls? Let’s hope the petition to “Keep Merida Brave” changes their minds.

You’d think this could be a pretty useful case study for understanding your customer. But the likelihood that this would reach the Harvard Business School case studies is probably slim. Something like this is not going to put a dent in Disney stock or shift their corporate core values. But the sad truth is that many consumers are pretty numb to what they are being sold and many moms and dads might not even have noticed the Merida makeover once it hit packaging. After all, the Disney’s princesses start to look rather …similar.

MissRepresentation.org is trying to raise awareness of media limiting portrayal of girls and women, not only with their film but with their #NotBuyingIt twitter campaign and upcoming app. It will take grass roots efforts like A Mighty Girl and MissRep, and the cadre of girls empowerment initiatives, to not only raise awareness but to help consumers raise their voices.

Josie is just hitting that vulnerable place where looks matters so much (it’s 7th grade after all). In anticipation of her all-girls gymnastics banquet, the buzz the past month has been all about their dresses, hair and shoes. Of course, their outfits are then vetted by each other via Instragram. This is not about boys at all. They are glamming it up for a girls’ night out that will last about 3 hours where they dance themselves silly in bare feet.To avoid the potential tears if she doesn’t quite meet her mind’s eye on the day of the event, we practiced the hair-do last night with a curling wand… a contraption I have no experience with. It comes with a glove to avoid burning fingers. We figured it out with trial and error and she became pretty deft at it within an hour. Ironically, her hair looked just the new Merida.

In this makeover nation I asked Josie what if anything, in her opinion, Disney could change about the original Merida – even for the better.  Her answer:


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*UPDATE:  The Change.org campaign to Keep Merida Brave was a success in part. Disney will keep the original Merida on its website, but the fight is far from over.

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