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Peg McEntee: Be brave, Disney, don't 'sex up' female heroes

Published May 18, 2013 10:27 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Fans of the film "Brave" are outraged that Disney did a sexy makeover of Merida, the Scottish princess, expert archer and horsewoman who not only saves the day but also convinces her parents that she alone will choose the man she'll marry.

Brenda Chapman, who worked with the Disney-owned Pixar to make her film, says she based Merida on her 13-year-old daughter and intended the character to be a role model for all little girls. For her effort, Chapman won an Academy Award this year for writing and co-directing "Brave."

But when Disney gave Merida eye makeup, flowing red hair, a glittery drop-shoulder dress and a preternaturally skinny waist to join its "Disney Princess" lineup, Chapman went nuclear.

She called the makeover a "blatantly sexist marketing move based on money," the Marin (Calif.) Independent Journal reported.

Now, Hollywood has had beautiful — and tough — heroines since movies were invented. Think back to Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis and Lauren Bacall, who could reduce Humphrey Bogart to a simpering puppy with a purse of the lips.

These days, we have Holly Hunter, Halle Berry and Jodie Foster, who tracked down and killed the monstrous murderer in "Silence of the Lambs." And as disheveled and desperate as they were, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis proved unforgettable in "Thelma and Louise" as they sailed that Thunderbird off a desert cliff.

(A side note: Some news reports have said "Brave" offers Disney's first legitimate heroine. They forget 1998's "Mulan," in which a young woman takes her ailing father's place in China's army by cross-dressing as a soldier. In the end, she thwarts the evil Huns and gets the guy.)

But as a longtime fan of Disney's animated films, I found "Brave" to be bolder than any of its predecessors. I saw it in December, when our family huddled around the TV and was mesmerized. Merida — who at one point inadvertently turns her mother into a bear — has the courage to stand up to her parents, would-be suitors, creepy will-o'-the-wisps, a witch and the bear that does, in fact, turn back into mom.

But back to the makeover.

Merida is beautiful as she is, with her sturdy frame, wild red hair and intensity of purpose. She's not Hollywood beautiful, as many of those actors I mentioned above. She's better than that, because despite the fact that she's a cartoon character, girls and women can believe we're that way, too.

Merida the Princess — Chapman calls her "sexed up" — will take her place among the coquettes that Disney has specialized in since its 1937 "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Even poor Mulan, who saved not just a day but a dynasty, is among their ranks.

Disney reportedly said earlier this week that it was reverting to the original Merida on its website. But, as The Washington Post reported Friday, you can still find images of the made-over Merida on Target's website.

In a way, the furor over Merida's makeover bespeaks the progress we've made through the years — it's the first animated Disney film to feature an independent woman who actually triumphs on her own terms. It's also abundantly clear that girls, women and men will not accept a tarted-up version of an honest-to-god heroine.

Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at pegmcentee@sltrib.com, facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @Peg McEntee.