Some Day My Prince Will Come: Merida vs the Disney Princesses

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.

What nonsense.

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.

05 comments on “Some Day My Prince Will Come: Merida vs the Disney Princesses

  • Alex , Direct link to comment

    The thing that I find most frustrating about the ‘hooray for Merida, boo for other princesses’ depiction is that it’s completely inaccurate to the film! She tries to change her fate so that she isn’t betrothed to a total stranger, but rather has more time to grow up and marry someone whom she truly falls in love with. She recognizes that she’s not ready for such a big commitment, but – unlike Jasmine – in her blind stubbornness and reactivity makes a mistake that almost costs her mother’s life. So, really, she’s much like the other princesses in the best possible way. Team Princesses!

  • Alice , Direct link to comment

    Hello! Just stumbled across your blog & briefly skimmed your article, so if I made any glaring errors, I apologize in advance. Anyways, I’m a total Merida fan. I absolutely love the fact that the story does not have any romantic element; instead, focuses largely on the heroine (and her struggles/growth) and familial love. I don’t have a problem with female characters falling in love – really, but one gets tired of movies where the female *always* falls in love and finds a ‘happily ever after’ with some prince. Seriously – I have yet to come across a heroine-centric book/film, where the heroine DOESNT fall in love and finds happiness/completeness in something other than having found a spouse. If I wanted to read romance, I would pick up a romance novel (although this is easily said than done, truth be told, as I have a checklist for feminist-friendly romance stories too, eheh) or just any other book with a lead female character, for that matter, as there’s bound to be SOME romantic element there. Some people just arent interested in romance (whether it’s because they’re too young, not ready, not yet interested, just inclined that way, or whatever reason) and it is UNBELIEVABLY discouraging to find a blatant lack of quality books/movies with lead female characters without romance. I guess my problem lies in not having a choice, really. Stories where the heroine falls in love (whether it’s a side thing, twined into the main storyline, or is the main storyline) is fine and all but I think it’s also important to have stories where she does not. I think this is especially important for young and adolescent girls, when they’re at an age where they’re confronting a whole load of issues (and should be focusing on themselves and the molding of their identity, blah, blah, I wont go into the psychology of it). So yes, I think Merida’s story is highly refreshing, I adored her independent, strong nature, and her mother-daughter conflict hit STRAIGHT home.

    (P.S. Mulan & Pocohontas are my two favorite Disney movies/princesses.)

    (P.P.S. I do read romance, time to time, and enjoy side-romance in some stories but whenever I’m looking for other (romance-less) genres, the quest always ends barren. If you know of any female-led books/movies without any romantic elements, I would LOVE to hear your recommendations. I’m currently in the mood for adventure-centric, more so than drama, but all/any recs would be appreciated.)

  • swanpride , Direct link to comment

    What really bothers me about “Brave” that it is hailed as a step forward when it is in truth a huge step back to the princesses of the 90th. I sometimes have troubles to like Ariel, Jasmine and Pocahontas, because they act so incredible selfish and bratty in their movies. But they are very much a product of their time and were a step in the right direction. Merida forgoes everything Disney did when they created Mulan, Tiana and Rapunzel and instead becomes a tired cliché. I find her totally unlikable when she acts all gleeful about her mothers pain after she POISONED HER in order to ALTER HER MIND (it is honestly disturbing). And then she needs the whole movie to admit that this was her fault? That’s the female character my children are supposed to route for?

    On top of it: I don’t see what the big deal is. Merida has a bow. Great. Mulan had a sword and killed a whole army. Way more badass. Merida doesn’t marry. Great. Who wants to marry an idiot? Pocahontas found true love and nevertheless decided against it because she considered her duty to her folk more important.

    It is great that there is a movie which explores a non-abusive mother/daughter relationship (for an abusive one, Tangled already did that). But otherwise there is nothing ground-breaking or particularly feminist about this movie.

    • clm , Direct link to comment

      “And then she needs the whole movie to admit that this was her fault? That’s the female character my children are supposed to route for? ”
      I guess, they’re actually supposed _not to route_ for her. The whole movie shows how stubborness, pride, and lack of understanding ruin life. It shows how ugly can it be. Merida is an antaghonist in her own movie. She’s supposed to be unlikeable because she actually acts ugly. It’s an opportunity for a younger person to see themselves from aside.
      I’d say it’s not appropriate movie to kids younger than 10. Besides, it’s quite a scary movie imo; for example, the scenes in which mother’s soul stepped aside and a real bear appeared were blood-chilling. For the whole movie I feared that father will kill his beloved wife in a bear form.

  • Tzitzi , Direct link to comment

    Yes! Thank you for this!
    It’s like when Emily Brote used to criticize Jane Austen’s protagonists by saying that everything strong they did was forgotten because their ultimate goal was always to get married, and people need to understand that romance isn’t anti-feminist, and I know there are a lot of problems with Jane Austen’s books.

What do you think?

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