Why Representations of Women and Girls Can’t Be Slut-Shamed

Is it slut-shaming to dub Polly Pocket “Polly Prostitute“?

No, it isn’t. But many commenters on the internet think otherwise.

I’m here to tell you why they’re wrong.

About Slut-Shaming 

In recent months, the term “slut-shaming” has gone mainstream. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, it is used to describe the condemnation of a woman for her choices regarding her attire and appearance, and/or for acting with sexual agency.

Examples of slut-shaming include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • The idea that a woman is wrong to choose dress in a sexually provocative way. E.g., “I can’t believe Morgan is wearing a skirt so short. She’s really asking for it.”
  • The idea that a woman who is on birth control is inherently sexually promiscuous. Key example: Rush Limbaugh’s commentary about Sandra Fluke.
  • The idea that a woman engaged in sexual behavior is wrong for doing so and should be stigmatized.

In other words, when we slut-shame women, we are policing their sexuality—and that’s wrong.

Furthermore, because it’s essentially impossible to shame men for these same behaviors, slut-shaming props up our society’s double standard for men and women. In so doing, it also perpetuates rape culture, in which victim-blaming is the norm. So, all in all, having the vocabulary to identify and call people out when they are policing women’s sexuality is a good thing. 

Slut-Shaming and Pop Culture

As a media critic, though, I want to make something clear: Criticizing the media’s representation of women and girls is not the same as slut-shaming. Lately, I’ve been perplexed that so many people seem to think it is.

To wit: When Margot Magowan of Reel Girl wrote an article exploring why toys like Polly Pocket are sexist, and shouldn’t be bought for kids, she felt it necessary to preface her analysis with this plea: “Before you get mad at me for “slut-shaming,” this is a doll marketed to little girls.”

She had to use this preface because lately, we media critics have been accused of slut-shaming fictional characters and toys. And it’s exasperating.

For example, when I wrote about the way Disney’s Consumer Products Division had redesigned and sexualized Merida, the heroine of Brave, some people told me that criticizing Merida for “wanting to dress up and look pretty,” and for “growing up and having a more mature body,” constituted slut-shaming.

Similarly, elsewhere, a commenter wrote about the criticisms of the redesigned Merida:

Isn’t this slut shaming? [...] Idg why this character can’t embrace her sexuality, curves, and newly thin body without fear of criticism?[...] I am honestly confused as to where the line is drawn in feminist theory between ‘slut shaming’ and valid criticism of invited objectification of women.

Here’s the thing:  Real women and girls have the right to make individual choices about their appearances and behaviors. They are autonomous human beings who have agency. Slamming them for these choices is slut-shaming.

But fictional characters do not have any agency. They are fictional, designed by corporations who are invested in the sexualization and objectification of females, as the APA has reported. Slamming critics for failing to support fictitious characters’ “choices” is conflating fantasy with reality.

After all, Merida didn’t choose to “embrace her sexuality, curves, and newly thin body.” Those things were invented for her by a corporation that wanted her physique and style to match the other products in its Disney Princess line. 

Likewise, Polly Pocket doesn’t choose to dress provocatively. Mattel dictates how she will dress and what options are available to her—because she is a toy

What might be a reasonable fashion choice for an adult female is not necessarily healthy in a toy meant for girls ages 4 to 8, who look at their toys as a window on the world and its expectations for females in our society. 

See the difference? 

Unfortunately, as Callie Beusman recently wrote on Jezebel, the term “slut-shaming” has been misused so much lately that it has begun to lose its meaning and its power. She explained:

The proliferation of “slut-shaming” has resulted in an inaccurate conflation of “being critical” and “prudishly or maliciously taking issue with female sexuality.” Not all criticisms of public displays of sexiness are meant to shame, which is something many people seem to have lost sight of. 

From what I’ve seen, “slut-shaming” has become watered down to mean “any criticism whatsoever about a female (real or fictional) for her appearance or attire, or for any behavior that can be interpreted as having sexual agency, or for being sexualized.”

And this is a real problem. When we’re applying the term “slut-shaming” to criticisms of fictional females that are sexualized, essentially reduced to sex objects by the corporations behind them, we’re using it incorrectly. And by using the term incorrectly, we’re robbing it of its meaning.

So, the next time you’re reading an article criticizing girls’ popular culture, or representations of women in pop culture, remember: Criticizing the appearance of a fictional character is very different than criticizing the appearance of a real person. It’s not slut-shaming to push back against, say, the sexualization of products intended for young girls.

In fact, it’s something I’d like to see more of.


The author would like to thank her colleagues Margot Magowan, Lori Day, Peggy Orenstein, and Melissa Wardy for their recent chat about this topic.


Rebecca Hains is a media studies professor at Salem State University. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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Role Models Reimagined as Disney Princesses: A Q&A with Artist David Trumble

In the midst of the “Sexy Merida” controversy back in May, cartoonist David Trumble posted a satirical set of cartoons to the Huffington Post. His cartoons imagined how Disney’s Consumer Product Division would redesign other female role models to fit the Disney Princess mold. (The answer: more hair, bigger eyes, narrow waists, and sparkles!!!)

10 Real-World Princesses Who Don't Need Disney Glitter. Copyright David Trumble. Used with permission.

10 Real-World Princesses Who Don’t Need Disney Glitter. L to R: Marie Curie; Anne Frank; Ruth Bader Ginsberg; Harriet Tubman; Malala Yousafzai; Hillary Clinton; Jane Goodall; Gloria Steinem; Rosa Parks; Susan B. Anthony. Copyright David Trumble, 2013. Used with permission.

Last week, Women You Should Know wrote about Trumble’s project, and it went viral. The WYSK article gained a million page views in a matter of days, while a post by Jezebel captured 85,000 views in 24 hours.

I’ve known about Trumble’s project since he first posted it; I even included it in my post about how cartoonists and animators were responding to the “Sexy Merida” debacle. But lately, with his project going viral, everyone has been messaging me about it. So I’ve followed the reception of his satire with much interest.

Anne Frank, Disney Princess-style. Copyright David Trumble 2013. Used with permission.

Disconcerting satire: Anne Frank, Disney Princess-style. Copyright David Trumble 2013. Used with permission.

A lot of people get it—but a lot of people don’t. (It doesn’t help that the Jezebel post presented his cartoons without quoting him on his original intent, creating some confusion.) And many people who say they understand his point nevertheless take issue with it for various reasons. Some say he didn’t take the satire far enough; other say he went too far. A recurring complaint is that by portraying Anne Frank in princess style, he has crossed a line unnecessarily.

Interestingly, a few commenters have even written that when their daughters walked past their computers and glimpsed these images, the girls were drawn to them. When the girls started asking questions about the people depicted, some commenters said they took advantage of the opportunity to teach their daughters about these important women. From a media studies and parenting perspective, this intrigues me.

Anyhow, given the project’s newfound success in the blogosphere and the mixed reception it has received, I was interested in learning more about Trumble’s intentions, his process in developing the project, and his thoughts on people’s varied reactions in recent days. I contacted him, and he graciously agreed to answer a few questions for me.

Follow Rebecca on Facebook and Twitter.

Role Models Reimagined as Disney Princesses: A Q&A with Artist David Trumble

Rebecca Hains: As a critic of the Disney Princess brand, I appreciate that with this project, you are encouraging people to think critically about Disney’s presentation of women and girls. Whereas the characters in Disney films have many interesting, individual  traits, the Disney Consumer Products division takes all the individuality out of them–reducing them to sparkly, frilly stereotypes of femininity.

Could you tell me more about your initial thinking in this project, and why you decided to respond to the Disney brand in this way?

David Trumble: Well, this blog was conceived quite a few months ago during the controversy over Merida’s “makeover”, and so at the time I did not view it as a standalone blog, but as one of many satirical pieces that highlighted the debate. The “princess” archetype is indicative of a cultural attitude that needs to be re-assessed.

The creation of Merida in “Brave” was a step in the right direction, to broaden the definition of what a princess could be for young girls looking for role models. So when the glossy version of her arrived, I felt it was two steps back—and then the image I created popped into my head. I imagined that if I depicted real-world female role models but then conformed them to that specific mould, through the iconic Disney template,  it would better reveal how ridiculous it is to limit female characters to that one archetype.

There are many many more archetypes out there that are just as valid and inspiring for young girls (and boys), and this is evidenced by our real-world heroines. My thinking was, if we can’t place all these diverse women into the same box, then why are we trying to do it with our fictitious women? And so that was the germ of the idea….

RH: That’s a terrific point, because indeed, princess culture as a whole is reductionist. Whether it’s Disney or Mattel or whomever, “princess” promotes a narrow standard of beauty and privileges whiteness. So with that “germ” of an idea, how did you work to develop it? Did you consult others from the feminist/girl empowerment communities? If so, what was the extent of their involvement?

DT: Indeed I did. Whenever I work on a piece of satire, I always share with close group of trusted friends, though ultimately the buck stops with me. I have had the privilege of being welcomed in a community of women who champion female empowerment online, so I shared my concept with a few of them, particularly educational psychologist Lori Day (I have since illustrated the cover to Lori’s book she wrote with her daughter, Her Next Chapter—you should check it out!). Lori was my confidant and co-conspirator while I developed the idea, and with her deep knowledge of feminist issues provided the perfect litmus test for whether or not I was making the right choices creatively.

RH: As far as the buck stopping with you goes: I’ve been reading the online comments about the illustrations with interest—on threads on Facebook, WYSK, Jezebel, and elsewhere. Lots of people understand your project, but perhaps because we are living in the age of Tumblr, lots of people are clearly just glancing at the image and misunderstanding your intention.

DT: You raise an interesting point, Rebecca, which is that the age of Tumblr is certainly a tricky one for satirists. Having started off my career as a political cartoonist, I am nostalgic for the time when a piece of satire or political commentary would be found on the page and be digested by the reader in its own time. The point was not even always explicit; you used to have to find it, or look closer at it, and then it would hit you.

Nowadays, not only have people learned to take in images in as expeditious a way as possible, to the detriment of nuance, but blogs are reposted and re-appropriated by numerous sites and articles (with or, it seems, without permission), to the detriment of the original idea itself.

This blog is a perfect example, since it was originally a Huffington Post blog published at the height of the Merida controversy, with an accompanying commentary from me and captions under each individual princess portrait which made it very clear that the piece was satire. Even then there was a split between people who got it and people who didn’t, which I suppose is the knife-edge of satire anyway.

It is a shame then that the act of reposting is akin to photocopying an image over and over and having the sharpness degrade, in blogging terms the subtext, and even CONTEXT can be lost.

RH: Now, I’ve noticed that even among those who “get it,” a lot of folks seem particularly uncomfortable with your inclusion of Anne Frank in the lineup. As you thought about which women and girls to include, how did you settle on Anne Frank? Did you realize this would be a controversial move?

DT: I did know at the time of drawing that the Anne Frank cartoon would be a divisive and controversial inclusion. The most common complaints from people regarding her avatar was that she was referred to as “Holocaust Princess,” which I completely understand rubbed many the wrong way, and their unhappiness is perfectly valid. I actually visited the Imperial War Museum in London today with my brother and a few friends, and seven decades later, the Holocaust is still impossible to fathom.

I also noted that Malala’s inclusion, whilst also riskier than the others, carried less ire, because she has risen to become a leader in her own right, as opposed to Frank who became famous because of the atrocities she suffered through. Unlike the others, she was defined not by her achievements, but by her victimization. She is the only one who is defined in this way.

I chose to include her anyway for two reasons. The first is that as a satirist, my point about how inadequate the glossy template is in capturing the spectrum of female experience required taking the concept to an extreme, to commit to the irony of the thing. The idea that there could ever be such a product as a Holocaust Princess… the terms themselves are so mutually exclusive. I made a call and I owned the decision.

But secondly, and more profoundly, if ever there was an individual who WAS a holocaust princess… by virtue of her grace, her spirit, her writings of hope, of belief, of faith in the face of great evil….it is Anne Frank. For all the farcical aspects of the princess satire, I felt her inclusion in this list of diverse female role models was nevertheless entirely valid, so that is why I included her. In my view she earned her right to be there alongside these other women, because she earned her strength… as a writer.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have named her “Diary Princess” to evoke her strength rather than her fate. I take that onboard, and everyone’s opinions are valid in this instance. An artist can never hope to earn everyone’s approval, nor in fact should he.

RH: Another theme I’m seeing in the responses: Some people say it isn’t clear enough that the drawings are satire. They seem to expect that good satire should be recognizable at a glance–and people glancing at these drawings think you’re serious. As an experienced cartoonist, what’s your take on the state of satire today?

DT: Well that’s an interesting question, isn’t it? How clear SHOULD satire be?

An argument could be made that if half of your audience don’t get the joke, then it’s very successful satire indeed. The history of political cartoons is filled with examples of artists who would mimic propaganda posters to ridicule their form and function, and in fact, how many of us have clicked on a shockingly ridiculous headline only to realize as we’re about to post it everywhere that it came from The Onion?

The artist’s ability to almost pull the wool over someone’s eyes is central to the conceit of parody, to be as close to the material it’s mocking as possible, whilst at the same time being ridiculous. In my opinion, good parody is not about the first glance at all, but every glance after that as you look closer. It’s a trick, a feint, and its effectiveness is closely linked to its slyness.

RH: Some of those who missed the satire really liked what you did. Many people are fans of the Disney Princess brand and cheered for the idea of a Disney film about women like Jane Goodall or Rosa Parks.

Do you think there is something about the Disney Princess style that makes it especially hard for people to recognize this project as satire?

DT: I believe the answer is closely connected to why I chose that style in the first place: Because it’s very powerful. The archetype is so specific and the style so iconic that when the real-world princesses were placed into that mould, many were delighted with the results.

Perhaps I was too proficient at replicating the style, since I traced the poses directly from examples in order to draw further attention to the cookie-cutter template. The one-size fits all princess mould has ascended to a universal language in our culture, we recognize it instantly, and part of the delicious irony of the point I was making was how successful the transformations were–however inappropriate they might be.

RH: Indeed. One final question: A lot of us have a love-hate relationship with Disney. How would you characterize your own feelings about the company?

DT: It’s important to note that I have been a fan of Disney my whole life, and adore Pixar’s film library. Seeing Pinocchio at the age of 6 was one of the reasons I am the artist I am today. My blog is not an attack on Disney specifically; in fact, they have many times created strong female character that defy the mould (such as Lilo, Dorey, Jesse the Cowgirl, and of course Merida).

My blog is not to say that the archetype of the princess is innately wrong—merely that it is over-used. In my view there IS a place for those kinds of characters, but that they should just not be taking ALL the places on the stage.

Our cultural ideal of a woman is this princess mould that has been captured by too many cartoon media outlets, books and movies. Being an ideal woman has come to mean squeezing your individual greatness into this archetype. My drawings are meant to convey that greatness in women exists in our history books and before our eyes, and they do NOT fit into these moulds. Importantly, they never needed to in order to be who they became,  so it’s time to take away this artifice of expectation.

We as a society have embraced an archetype that does not serve our daughters. We have to change our consumer habits in order to change what marketers sell to our daughters.


Note: Since our conversation, David Trumble has decided to officially retitle the Anne Frank cartoon as “Diary Princess.”

In related news, David Trumble’s new book series for children, Mother Goose Retold, will be released in the U.S. in 2014. The series retells the classic Mother Goose rhymes with original new verses that take the stories into unexpected realms. Retailers have already ordered 500,000 copies of the series’ first three books, Twinkle Twinkle, Little Miss Muffet, and Humpty Dumpty. Congratulations to David on this success!


Rebecca Hains is a media studies professor at Salem State University. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Redesigned Merida? #NotBuyingIt

Dog holding a pencil and redesigned Merida admits: "I have no idea what I'm doing"

Just my little contribution to the “I have no idea what I’m doing” meme … enjoy!

P.S. Many thanks to Boston Globe columnist Joanna Weiss for including me in her Boston.comment piece here. My statement:

Disney executives’ response to the Merida petition was tone deaf: They stated that because the character’s redesign is only temporary, people shouldn’t be concerned. But the changes to Merida completely undercut a character who serves as a role model, a counterpoint to the pretty princess trope–selling girls short in the process. Disney has failed to acknowledge that Merida means something special to parents and their daughters. (And their argument that Merida herself wanted to “dress up” for the coronation is simply insulting.)

Disney responds to Merida petition, missing the point

Recently, Disney released a new, 2D image of Merida. This prompted outrage because the character’s design was altered, for no good reason. The new Merida has been “prettified”–made more conventionally attractive in a way that undercuts the character’s strengths, to the detriment of the children who view her as a role model.

In response, A Mighty Girl released a petition to Disney that outlines the reasons why the redesign is problematic. The petition culminates with a request: to pull the new 2D Merida and restore the character to her original form.

Yesterday, Disney executives went on record regarding the petition. They’re refusing to retract the new Merida, saying she’s only temporary–and their comments show they’ve missed the point.

The L.A. Times reports on the refusal to retract the new Merida:

Disney has no intention of abandoning its sexier version of the Scottish archer.

The modified Merida was created specifically to welcome the character into the company’s princess collection. And according to a Disney representative on Wednesday, the image of Merida that sparked this maelstrom is part of a limited run of products including backpacks and pajamas. But images of the original Merida will also be available on consumer products, the Disney representative said.

But no one ever doubted that the original Merida would still be available on products; the objection is to the new Merida redesign. Full stop. The fact that it’s “part of a limited run” doesn’t make it any less problematic.

A Disney representative expanded on their stance in an exclusive interview with fan site Inside the Magic, calling the controversy “blown out of proportion.” This makes clear that Disney execs either don’t truly understand the objections, or are willfully ignoring them. According to Inside the Magic:

[Disney] had no intention of changing who Merida is. The artwork that has circulated online depicting the new 2D rendering of Merida was intended to be used only on a “limited line of products” as a “one-time stylized version.” They noted Disney uses different styles of art on characters regularly, changing them to fit their needs at the time.

And in this case, that time was the coronation. Noting that Merida wanted to “dress up” for her coronation ceremony, the new 2D artwork was created, first debuting on the official invitation that was sent out to the media.

So, Disney’s justification for making the change is that Merida herself wanted to dress up for her coronation ceremony. This seems disingenuous: Merida is a fictional character who doesn’t want anything; arguing that it was her choice is pretty insulting. Besides, at the actual coronation in the Magic Kingdom, Merida was dressed in attire more closely resembling her outfit from the film than from the new 2D art–so this really isn’t about the coronation.

And where is this “limited line of products” to be sold? At Target, according to Inside the Magic (which Amy Jussel points is hardly “limited.” Have a look at Target’s main page for the Disney Princesses:Screen Shot 2013-05-16 at 12.04.24 PM

It’s all about the new Merida, and it features rather frightening products, like this doll with spindly space alien arms (h/t Elizabeth Sweet):14329579_121213163000


In their exclusive piece about Disney’s response, Inside the Magic concludes:

Looking forward, [Disney execs] could not say exactly how she would be depicted alongside the other Disney Princesses other than to again repeat that this “one-time stylized version” was only intended for the coronation and some products, hoping to create some calm in the communities who are up in arms over the matter.

This brings us to the crux of the matter: If Disney hopes that the girl empowerment community and our allies will be placated because 2D Merida is only temporary, they’re missing the point. People are up in arms because the changes to Merida — even if temporary in nature — completely undercut the character, selling girls short.

Let’s review the chief problems:

- They took a strong character and weakened her.

- They took a natural beauty and glamorized her.

- They took a youthful 16-year-old and made her look like she’s 22.

- They disrespected the fact that Merida is a princess who goes against the grain, eschewing the trappings of being a princess in favor of being an individual.

By squeezing a character so widely regarded as a barrier-breaking role model into a cookie cutter mold, Disney’s Consumer Products Division sent the message that in the end, looks are all that matter.

In short, if Disney’s response is, “Don’t worry, folks; this new Merida is only temporary!”, they’ve missed the point. Let’s call on Disney to address their poor decision to redesign Merida in the first place–however temporary and “limited” that change might be–and reassure us that they will treat this character with integrity in the future.

Sign the Change.org petition here. And sign the MoveOn.org petition here.


P.S. I hope A Mighty Girl will consider updating the petition to a) include Target, which is apparently to be the main retailer of products featuring the new 2D Merida; and b) respond to Disney’s response, outlined above.


To read my previous posts on Merida, click here.

To read my previous posts on the Disney Princess brand, click here.


Do you like this post? Follow Rebecca Hains on facebook or twitter.

About the author: Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is an associate professor of communications at Salem State University, where she teaches advertising and media studies. Her new book, Confronting Cinderella: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, will be released by Source Books next year.

Cartoonists and animation experts weigh in: the new Merida doesn’t HAVE to look this way

In the past few days, the new Merida designed for the Disney Consumer Products Division has lead to heated controversy.

On the one hand, critics argue that the redesign undercuts Merida’s strength, serving her up in a more stereotypical princess form. Meanwhile, their detractors argue that “it’s not that bad,” that they “can’t see the difference,” that the critics are “overreacting,” or that the redesign “HAD to happen this way.”

In this post, I’d like to address that last point: the argument that the redesign HAD to happen this way. The core argument is that Merida must look different in the Disney Princess line because she’s drawn in 2D, rather than as a CGI image–so her image must change in translation, by necessity.

Let’s see what the animation and cartoon experts have to say on that point.

First, let’s begin with cartoonist Matthew Bogart’s take on that argument. He writes:

Character design matters.

If there’s one thing the character design class I took in college stressed more than anything else it’s that a good character design informs the viewer who the character is, what they are like. What they wear, how they stand, how they do their hair, the shape of their face, their standard expressions, what they carry with them, these are all vital decisions in a good design.

If these are all vital decisions in a good design, then what’s going on? Why has Disney’s Consumer Products Division changed what Merida wears, how she stands, how she does her hair, the shape of her face, her standard expressions, and so on?

Bogart explains that the changes found in redesign are not about the translation from 2D to CGI; rather, it’s a deliberate effort to make Merida fit the passive, pretty princess trope that dominates the Disney Princess line.

When you market a character you have to boil them down to their essential elements. [...] [Merida] was depicted in trailers and posters as strong, determined, adventurous, beautiful, and heroic.

This redesign de-emphasizes those qualities and pushes for a Merida that is more glamorous, sassy, and passive.

In other words, Bogart writes, Disney’s Consumer Products Division is

taking the established Merida design from the film and re-imagining her to more closely resemble the typical damsel in distress that the Disney princess line seems to champion.


Animation expert Charles Kenny has also analyzed the redesign on his blog, the Animation Anomaly, and reaches a similar conclusion. Dispelling the idea that the redesign had to happen in this way, he writes:

We all know that multitudes of artists work on these characters and the very nature of merchandise (with all its differing surfaces and sizes) necessitates changes to permit an acceptable level of familiarity across the range.

Well, normally it isn’t a problem because the characters remain relatively consistent. In Merida’s case, however, the change is near radical. [...] Merida’s case stands out [because] she’s undergone not so much a redesign but a transformation. Even by comparing her looks (and her measurements) one can deduce that she isn’t likely to exhibit the same character traits as her CGI original. 

What character traits does Charles Kenny mean? Well, we can glance back at Matthew Bogart’s post for a quick run-down: “a beautiful, rough and tumble, scottish adventurer who was technically a princess but rebelled against the frill, pomp, and sexism that came with her post.”

Therefore, Kenny reminds his readers:

We’re long, long past the time when merchandise had to look different on account of manufacturing technology and the like. Today, it’s possible to maintain a high degree of quality across the board. There really is no reason why a Merida doll has a different structure to her animated counterpart, or for that matter for a stock image of her on a T-shirt requires a redesign.

Heck, even the Disney Princesses themselves do not need such a standardised sense of design. What it amounts to is the merchandising or marketing division of the corporation attempting to stamp their impression on characters created somewhere else (by animators). It amounts to overstepping their boundaries insofar as they may adapt characters to their work, but outright changing them is unconscionable.

In sum, the argument that Merida HAD to be changed this way is patently untrue.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, let’s leave the final words with a few cartoonists who have tackled the matter visually.

Matthew Bogart concluded his post by applying Merida’s redesign to Batman, showing just how much the design of her new pose, outfit, and face shape should be understood to alter her character:


David William Trumble illustrated what would happen if Disney redesigned other strong women, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rosa Parks, Marie Curie, Malala Yousafzai, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg (click here for a slideshow with individual explanations):2013-05-14-THECOLLECTION-thumb

And John Kovalic of the “Dork Tower” comic offered this gem:



To read my previous posts on Merida, click here.

To read my previous posts on the Disney Princess brand, click here.


Do you like this post? Follow Rebecca Hains on facebook or twitter.

About the author: Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is an associate professor of communications at Salem State University, where she teaches advertising and media studies. Her new book, Confronting Cinderella: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, will be released by Source Books next year.

Disney faces backlash over new “sexy” Merida; pulls new image from web site as a result

UPDATE, May 16, 2013Disney has stated that 1. the 2D image was never on their official web site in the first place (though, oddly, it’s all over the official Australia/NZ version of the Disney Princess site–which may have been the source of any confusion), and 2. they will not be retracting the new Merida.

Click here for my new post, in which I argue they missed the whole point of the petition. Clearly, we still have work to do.


On Saturday, Disney held a “coronation ceremony”(1) for Merida, star of the Disney-Pixar film Brave. In the coronation, Merida officially became part of the Disney Princess lineup. This means that her image has been added to the 2D collection of princesses in a cartoon form that fits stylistically with that of her princess peers.

Unfortunately for Disney, the new cartoon image of Merida that Disney created for the lineup overshadowed all conversation online about the coronation. The reason? The new cartoon sexualizes Merida.

That’s right: Although Merida was created by a woman as a role model for girls, the male-dominated consumer product division at Disney has ignored the character’s intended benefits for young girls, sexualizing her for profit. Merida_web_small


Compared with her film counterpart, this new Merida is slimmer and bustier. She wears makeup, and her hair’s characteristic wildness is gone: It has been volumized and restyled with a texture more traditionally “pretty.” Furthermore, she is missing her signature bow, arrow, and quiver; instead, she wears a fashionable sash around her sparkly, off-the-shoulder gown. (As Peggy Orenstein noted when she broke the news of the redesign, “Moms tell me all the time that their preschool daughters are pitching fits and destroying their t-shirts because ‘princesses don’t cover their shoulders.’” I’ve heard the same from parents, as well.)

It doesn’t have to be this way. Some might argue that the changes to Merida are simply a result of her being rendered in 2D, but these are deliberate, calculated changes. She has been presented in 2D form in children’s books since before the movie was released, and she’s still looked like herself.

No–these changes to Merida’s appearance are significant. Sadly, they align with the American Psychological Association’s definition of sexualization, which says that sexualization occurs when any of the following four conditions are present:

  • a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  • a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  • a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
  • sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

Since Merida is beloved for breaking the princess mold, proving that a girl needn’t be stereotypically “girly” to be a princess, realigning Merida’s look to echo the other 10 Disney Princesses’ narrow range of appearances is a huge mistake. 

The backlash from parents has been tremendous; a petition on Change.org already boasts more than 120,000 signatures. The petition explains:

The redesign of Merida in advance of her official induction to the Disney Princess collection 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. Moreover, by making her skinnier, sexier and more mature in appearance, you are sending a message to girls that the original, realistic, teenage-appearing version of Merida is inferior; that for girls and women to have value — to be recognized as true princesses — they must conform to a narrow definition of beauty.

What’s more, Brenda Chapman–Merida’s creator–has gone on record voicing her outrage at this redesign. Chapman argued:

They have been handed an opportunity on a silver platter to give their consumers something of more substance and quality — THAT WILL STILL SELL — and they have a total disregard for it in the name of their narrow minded view of what will make money. I forget that Disney’s goal is to make money without concern for integrity. Silly me.

As of today, Disney has quietly pulled the 2D image of Merida from its website, replacing it with the original Pixar version. Perhaps we’ll be spared an onslaught of sexy Merida merchandise yet.


If you haven’t yet signed the petition, you can do so at Change.org and at MoveOn.org.


For further reading: To view more of my posts on Merida, click here. For more of my posts on the Disney Princess brand, click here.


Do you like this post? Follow Rebecca Hains on facebook or twitter.

About the author: Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is an associate professor of communications at Salem State University, where she teaches advertising and media studies. Her new book, Confronting Cinderella: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, will be released by Source Books next year.


(1) Disney holds “coronation ceremonies” for its princesses about a year after a film’s release–a great way of bumping up interest in a princess after her film’s momentum has died down.

Disney-Pixar’s Brave: Critiquing the criticisms

I saw Brave the day it debuted in theaters, and I’m glad that Merida is a different kind of princess–one who can be read as a critique of both the trope that princesses are passive and the trend to tell their stories as romances. But I also have some mixed feelings. For example:

  • The film’s marketing, which essentially ignores that Brave is a tale of a mother-daughter relationship (presumably for fear that such a story wouldn’t be a box office draw), is insulting.
  • The storyline itself features such unappealing would-be suitors that Merida’s disinterest in romance is undercut: What if the three young men who must vie for her hand were more like Prince Charmings than doofuses?
  • Finally, having studied girl power media for several years, it bothers me that Merida is presented as isolated, an anomalous female, without a community of female peers her own age. Can’t a girl who is supposed to be strong not be a loner?

With all that in mind, since the release of Disney-Pixar’s Brave, I’ve been reading reviews and commentaries of the film with interest. There are two strands of criticism that I would like to address: 1. that the film is unoriginal, and 2. that Merida is a brat.

Is Brave an unoriginal film?

When Joanna Weiss of the Boston Globe and I talked about Brave, she mentioned that a lot of early reviews complained the film was unoriginal–”just another princess movie,” she said. Reviewers were complaining that unlike other Pixar films, Brave didn’t feature a fully fabricated, fantastically unexpected world; it seemed to be treading old ground.

For example, Todd McCarthy wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that Brave is “familiar” and treads “startlingly well-worn territory.” He also complains that it is “laden with standard-issue fairy tale and familiar girl-empowerment tropes.” But is it, really? It’s a story about a mother-daughter relationship. How is this “familiar” and “well-worn”? He and other reviewers complain that Brave is too Disney and not enough Pixar. In reading reviews like these, I sensed the reviewers just couldn’t get past the fact that Brave is about a princess, rather than something as unexpected as talking cars or talking toys or talking fish.

Ask any girl who’s been raised on princess films, and she’ll tell you that Merida is different, and very unlike her Disney Princess peers. As far as the narrative goes, what does Merida have in common with Disney Princesses, exactly? The fact that she’s a princess who has utterly fantastic hair. That’s about it.

(Even the witch in Brave seems perfectly nice. Unlike Disney’s approach, there’s no vilification of old ladies in Pixar’s film, which is refreshing.)

Other than that, while watching Brave, I was amused to notice how closely the film follows Pixar’s formula for its protagonists:

  • The protagonist (e.g., Woody, Lightning McQueen, Marlin) makes some bad decisions, portrayed in ways that make them seem not entirely likable. (Because of his ego and jealousy, Woody is a jerk to Buzz; Lightning is self-centered, smugly superior, and judgmental of others; Marlin is a smothering, over-protective parent.)
  • The protagonist does something that causes harm or potential harm to someone else. (Woody pushes Buzz out a window; Lightning coerces Mack into driving overnight; Marlin embarrases Nemo in front of peers so badly that Nemo takes a risk and is captured by a diver.)
  • Said protagonist has unexpected experiences, a journey beyond his comfort zone. (Woody has to leave Andy’s house to save Buzz, and gets to know him better; Lightning, separated from Mack, has an unexpected several-day detour through Radiator Springs, and actually gets to know its citizens; Marlin travels across the ocean to find his son, confronting his worst fears.)
  • As a result of these experiences, the protagonist changes. (Woody becomes less egotistical and ultimately makes friends with Buzz; Lightning becomes less egotistical and ultimately makes friends with the citizens of Radiator Springs; Marlin calms down and becomes a better parent.)

Merida goes through a similar journey. She begins as a self-absorbed teenager who wants to avoid the responsibilities of being a princess. After a fight with her mother, she finds herself someplace new and strange. Merida makes a bad decision that turns her mother into a bear. While trying to save her mother from this predicament, Merida then spends an awful lot of time insisting that it’s not her fault.

Finally, however, Merida changes, developing a better understanding of her mother and growing as a person. She realizes it is her fault, and by the movie’s conclusion, she has incorporated some of her mother’s statements into her own worldview, such as “Legends are lessons. They ring with truth” and “How do you know you don’t like it if you won’t try it?” (At this, a young child seated behind me and my son in the theater marveled, “She’s acting like her mother!”)

So if the film seems familiar to reviewers, I don’t think it’s because it’s a Disney princess story. Merida is so different from the other Disney Princesses. Do Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Ariel have journeys in which they learn something about themselves and change? No. Their problems are solved by others. What about Belle? No. She longs for “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” but ultimately she is reduced to a catalyst of change for someone else–the Beast.

I really think that Brave feels familiar to many viewers because it’s telling the same type of story Pixar has been trading in for years. And so, as I told Joanna, it seems a little sexist for reviewers to place the blame for the film’s familiar feeling on the fact that Merida is a princess.

Is Merida a brat?

Another strand of conversation that has caught my eye is the debate over whether Merida is more bratty than brave. After all, she’s sassy and outspoken and argues openly with her mother. A reviewer at SFGate.com expresses concern that the movie “the movie may tilt the balance too far in Mom’s direction, so that the film’s ostensible heroine ceases to seem adorably spunky and becomes more like an awful brat.”

Indeed, in some audience members’ opinions, this seems to be the case. One blogger writes, Brave “seems to accept and perhaps even glorify the defiance of the diva, the ‘coolness’ of being a brat, and the idea that insolence is synonymous with independence. When did respect for one’s parents, a gentle spirit, and a longing for a loving partnership involving mutual sacrifice become sexist and outdated?” Another argues, “I worry that our culture perpetuates a sort of entitled-brat attitude in girls these days: that our daughters deserve to get what they want, when they want it simply because they are girls. And nobody can tell girls these days what to do or what to want. They’re in charge.”

In all of this, I haven’t seen anyone acknowledge the reality of teenagers’ relationships with their parents. As Nurture Shock explains, studies indicate that 96% of teenagers lie to their parents, often about really big issues. Which teens lie the least? Those whose parents consistently enforce rules while being the most warm and having the most conversations with their children. They explain why rules exist but are supportive of their children’s autonomy and freedom.

This, perhaps, can be understood as Elinor’s big parenting mistake: She dictates things to Merida without really explaining them to her, and so it seems to Merida that her mother does not support her freedom.

Yet ironically, Merida’s protestations and efforts to change her mother’s mind are not signs of a bad mother-daughter relationship. Studies also show that the teens who argue more openly with their parents are the teens who are the most honest. According to Nurture Shock, one study showed that families with less deception had “a much higher ratio of arguing/complaining. Arguing was good–arguing was honesty.” However, “The parents didn’t necessarily realize this. The arguing stressed them out.”

Meanwhile, another study of mother-daughter arguments summarized in Nurture Shock found that while nearly half of mothers felt arguments with their daughters were bad for their relationships, less than a quarter of daughters felt the same way. For daughters, what was most important was how these arguments ended. The daughters needed to feel heard by their mothers, and over time, they needed to win some arguments and get small concessions from others. But they did not need to win every battle; they mainly needed to feel heard. (As Merida says to her mother, “Just listen to me!”)

In other words, the fact that Merida makes her disagreements clear to her mother does not make her a brat. As unpleasant as this may be for parents to consider, Merida’s argumentative nature may actually be a sign of respect and a mother-daughter relationship that is fundamentally sound. That’s important to keep in mind. When Merida and her mother begin to really consider one another’s perspectives, both parties grow as individuals, and their relationship becomes stronger. For parents worried that Merida is a “brat” who is setting a poor example for their children, these facts could provide useful talking points for the entire family.

Related Post: Katniss vs Merida: Mattel’s doll versions of strong girl characters

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Katniss vs Merida: Mattel’s doll versions of strong girl characters

Last month, Mattel released a Katniss Everdeen doll, inspired by the look and style of Jennifer Lawrence in the Hunger Games film.

Katniss Everdeen doll by Mattel. Source: Barbiecollector.com

Compared with Mattel’s typical fare, the Katniss doll was refreshingly unsexualized–reflecting the character’s positive portrayal in the film (which I previously discussed here). The Katniss doll is flat-footed (no Barbie-style feet molded for high heels), and she is dressed for battle (not in a gown or dress).

Compared with the typical Barbie doll, Mattel’s Katniss wears very little makeup. Only her eyes seem made up, but the colors are neutral, suggesting this is actually meant as contouring to make the doll’s eyes appear more three-dimensional.

Katniss Everdeen doll by Mattel: detail. Via Barbiecollector.com

This month, Mattel released another doll based on a strong female character: Merida from Disney/Pixar’s Brave. Although the film will not be released for several weeks, the official trailers indicate that Merida is an atypical princess: like Katniss, she is strong-willed, independent, and a skilled archer.

Unfortunately, unlike Mattel’s Katniss doll, Mattel’s versions of Merida leave much to be desired. Earlier this week, Melissa Wardy of the Redefine Girly blog was shopping at Target, and she was shocked by Mattel’s small doll treatment of Merida. The small doll is a 6.5″ tall, fully plastic doll priced at $5.99.

Photo by Melissa Wardy

Regarding this doll, Melissa wrote:

The toy that comes out of the package looks nothing like the character on the package. The toy looks like Merida’s hot older sister, who despite living in the Scottish Highlands during Medieval times, got her hands on some serious eye liner and lipstick.

A quick internet search indicates that Mattel’s other Merida dolls aren’t much better. Here’s their 13″ fashion doll version, priced at $17.95:

Note the incredibly long eyelashes, the impeccably groomed eyebrows, the rosebud lips, the gentle expression, and the dainty body language. Note also that this is the dress Merida is depicted as hating in the movie, for she is obliged to wear a restrictive corset beneath it.

For a few dollars more ($20.99), Mattel also offers a “Gem Styling Merida Doll,” dressed for archery…and sparkly fashion fun:

Mattel's Gem Styling Merida Doll, side view

The product description on Amazon explains that girls can “decorate Merida’s hair or outfit with sparkly gems,” and that “girls will love reenacting their favorite scenes from the movie.” (Um, sorry, Mattel–I’ve read the junior novelization of Brave, and there are no gem styling scenes in the story. Poor Merida!)

Compare these dolls to any image of Merida from the film or its publicity materials, and you’ll see that Mattel has feminized Merida, making her much more stereotypically girly and much more conventionally pretty than she is in the film:

Screen shot of Merida from Disneystore.com

Merida is lovely just the way she is. Mascara? Who needs it?

Fortunately, the version of Merida available for $16.50 from the Disney Store is truer to the film’s character. I checked out the products available in my local Disney Store and found them to be preferable to Mattel’s versions. Here’s a photo I snapped of the basic Merida doll:

Disney Store Merida

Disney Store Merida - detail

Note the more focused expression, the crooked smile (also found on the toddler doll), the lighter touch around the eyes, the film-centered accessories. All in all, it’s a nice doll. (I just hope Disney can resist making a super sparkly version!)

In short, a comparison of the different Merida dolls make it clear:

Although Mattel designed a Katniss Everdeen doll that reflected the character’s strength and personality, when it came to Merida, Mattel didn’t even try. 

But why would that be? Both Katniss and Merida are strong, independent, and enjoy archery–yet their treatments by Mattel couldn’t be more different.

The answer: just as the films target different audience members, these dolls target different markets, as well.

According to Amazon.com, Mattel’s recommended age for the Merida dolls is “36 months to 8 years.”

Amazon says the recommended age for Mattel’s Katniss doll is 6 to 15. However, according to Barbiecollector.com, the Katniss doll is actually meant for adults. In point of fact, Katniss is from the Black Label line–all of which are described as being meant for adult collectors, ages 14 and up. Katniss’s design was led by one individual, Bill Greening, who describes himself as a Hunger Games fan and who approached the design with care.

“Hopefully Hunger Games fans can appreciate the attention to detail,” Greening says. “The doll’s minimalistic style and details — such as her loosely braided hair and makeup-free look — also really embody the heroic character Katniss.”

Fan response has been tremendous: the Katniss doll sold out almost immediately, and is now on backorder, with an expected availability four months from now.

Unfortunately, because Mattel’s Brave line is intended for the preschool-to-grade-school set, Merida received no such treatment from Mattel. Presumably designed by committee, the Merida dolls rely on stereotypes about little girls’ interests. Make a little girl’s doll whose face isn’t redesigned to conform to Mattel’s beauty norms? Present a little girl’s doll as strong and independent, rather than dainty and sweet? Nah, that would be much too risky! Mattel clearly believes that long eyelashes and gemstone dress-up activities are a safer marketing bet.

In my opinion, Mattel underestimates little girls. Give them a Merida doll that reflects the movie’s character, and they will love it. Mattel is also blind to why parents have responded positively to the Brave trailers: many appreciate that Merida is not a stereotypically princess-like princess.

What a shame that Mattel couldn’t afford young girls who love Brave the same respect they afforded to the teens and adults who love The Hunger Games. 

For further reading: Talking about toys: Taking child’s play seriously


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