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Disney, how could you?

Like many little girls, I grew up on a steady diet of Disney and in the era of their Princesses – Belle, Ariel and Jasmine in particular.

Many of my girlfriends adored the Princesses and coveted their hairstyles, singing voices and wardrobes. Yet, as a tomboy with fairly unkempt hair and not a trace of pink in my wardrobe, I couldn't find a single way to relate to these immaculately groomed girls who spent their days twirling around in lovely dresses, looking pretty, and waiting for a Prince to kiss them and change their lives.

First of all – kissing boys? Gross. Secondly, the Princesses and their lives were kinda… well, boring. They didn't really seem to do anything, unlike the male protagonists who were always having exciting, interesting adventures. Sitting around in a castle tower? Bor-ing.

So when I finally watched Disney Pixar’s Brave earlier this year, I felt my heart swell. And all because of one little flame-haired girl called Merida.

Compared to her predecessors, Merida was an unlikely leading lady – a wee Scottish lass with a bow and arrow, unruly red ringlets and a face free of makeup. Not only did she actually resemble a real girl – 'imperfections' and all – she openly rejected the pressure to find a man. Instead, her focus was on winning archery tournaments and rescuing her family from a wicked curse.

Handsome princes? Ain’t nobody got time for that. 

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I really wish Merida had been around when I was younger. Finally, for perhaps the first time, here was a female Disney character who actually reflected her target audience – young girls with sass, self-conviction and ambitions that didn't concern falling in love or looking like a Vogue covergirl. 

And it paid off. Brave was a hit at the box office, picked up the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film and received rave reviews from cinema critics and movie-goers alike.

But in spite of all this, Disney broke the hearts of Merida fans – and their parents – everywhere this year. 

Earlier this month, it was announced that Merida would be named the 11th Princess in the Disney canon.  Unfortunately, someone at Disney HQ decided that Merida needed to be sexed up for her induction.

And this happened:

The "new and improved" Merida came complete with a waist to rival Dita von Teese's, a spangled, form-fitting gown showcasing her noticeably larger bust, a truckload of makeup and cascading bridal waves in place of those glorious ringlets. Disney also did away with her beloved bow, presumably because it messed with the whole royal aesthetic.

Parents, bloggers and Brave fans were quick to condemn Merida’s makeover. Even the character’s creator, Brenda Chapman, added her voice to the backlash in a letter to Disney: “You are sending a message to girls that original, realistic version of Merida is inferior … Little girls are subconsciously soaking in the sexy ‘come hither’ look and skinny aspect of the new version. It’s horrible.”

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Change.org user Carolyn Danckaert began an online petition demanding Disney "keep Merida brave", which garnered over 200,000 signatures. 

"The redesign … does a tremendous disservice to the millions of children for whom Merida is an empowering role model who speaks to girls' capacity to be change agents in the world rather than just trophies to be admired," the petition stated. "Moreover, by making her skinnier, sexier and more mature in appearance, you are sending a message … that for girls and women to have value – to be recognised as true princesses – they must conform to a narrow definition of beauty."

These words reflected the sentiments of thousands of parents who saw Merida as a refreshing and realistic role model for their daughters, and a break from the cookie-cutter Princesses of years gone by.  Lovely as they are, Disney's women have always been reduced to their feminine wiles – big eyes, luscious pouts, hourglass figures and names like 'Belle' to top it off – and their stories teach girls that a pretty face will always score the handsome prince. 

Even when the characters had their own talents or interests, they ended up being merely ornamental to the romantic storyline. Belle, with her love of literature, could have become an author. Ariel's fascination for the human world and collecting artefacts ("compulsive hoarding", if you ask me) could have led to studies in anthropology. But that all paled next to their ultimate 'achievement' – winning over a man.

What message does that send young girls about their own dreams and talents?

Of course, there's nothing wrong with girls taking care of their appearance, brushing their hair and wearing pretty dresses if that's what they enjoy – and so many of them do. But in a world that's already saturated with images of beauty and media messages implying pretty = superior, the smart, brave, talented Merida was a breath of fresh air. 

According to recent reports, the online campaign to save Merida had been a success, causing Disney to remove the sexed up version from its official website. However, Yahoo Shine then reported the made-over image remained on Target's Disney website where product tie-ins are sold. Seems the battle isn't won yet.

Whether or not victory has been served, this campaign has made one message loud and clear: girls, boys and their parents want – and need – more characters like Merida. Kids need to know their value isn't tied to having perfect hair or scoring the handsome Prince.

Disney, lift your game.

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