Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen several articles praising Brave for its revolutionary heroine, Merida. Finally, they say, we have a female lead in a Disney movie who’s worthwhile. Finally, we have a female protagonist who isn’t motivated by love. Merida is the Disney princess we’ve been waiting for.
I can’t comment on Merida’s characterization or plot, as Brave hasn’t been released where I live (thanks, UK movie people). But this trend of praising Merida by disparaging the old Disney princesses is really problematic to me. Firstly, the blanket assessment of “new = good, old = bad” creates the illusion of progression, of a misguided past that has now been corrected, and so helps critics to brush over the problems that still exist. More importantly, however, the argument suggests that an explicitly rebellious, weapon-wielding, anti-romance female character is superior to any female character who is accepting of more feminine traits.
Disney princesses aren’t motivated by romance. No Disney protagonist since Snow White’s Classic Disney era has sat around singing “some day my prince will come” and doing nothing about it in the meantime. Here’s a quick rundown of (simplified) character motivations at the start of their stories:
Snow White: to survive and marry her handsome prince
Cinderella: to fulfil her dreams of escape from her abusive family and a happily-ever-after (which does eventually involve marrying a prince).
Sleeping Beauty: is not really the protagonist of her story, has few lines, and so doesn’t really have motivations.
Ariel: to see the human world.
Belle: to have adventure. Later, to save her father.
Jasmine: to escape from an arranged marriage.
Pocahontas: to live a free and exciting life; later, to stop the war.
Mulan: to find a place she fits in; later, to save her father by going to war in his place.
Tiana: to open her own restaurant.
Rapunzel: to leave her tower and see the lights.
The Disney princesses are not perfect, of course, and there are many problematic elements in these movies. But the fact that these stories include some romance is not one of those issues. Romance is not anti-feminist. As long as the two characters are equal in some way, and as long as the female character has a life and hopes and motivations outside of her relationship, love stories are just another narrative, and just another part of life. Yet these female characters are dismissed as “weak” by critics because their stories include romance, because, in the end, they (usually) get both what they had been fighting for and a happily-ever-after with a man. The fact that soft, soppy emotions like love feature in their movies at all seems to mean that their characters are dominated by romance. “Strong female characters” do not get emotional. They do not fall in love. They do not like wearing pretty dresses or try to follow the expectations of others or feel any connection to their family. If they do, then they are “weak.” Because femininity is weak, and love, apparently, is a purely feminine characteristic.
Of course, it is fantastic to see a female lead in a Pixar movie for the first time. It’s amazing to see a movie exploring a mother-daughter relationship in a sympathetic, nuanced way. And it’s great that an animated movie focuses on a female character’s relationship with her family, and particularly with other women, without the need for a princely romance at the end. Many young girls (and older ones too!) will feel a connection with Merida and aspire to emulate her. But that does not mean that other Disney characters, and other kinds of narrative, are not worthwhile too.