Princess Merida in Disney/Pixar’s new movie Brave is a strong girl. She has brains. She’s headstrong. She knows her own mind.
She is physically strong. She’s an accomplished equestrian. She doesn’t want an arranged marriage.
She’s smarter than the guys (except for when it comes to dealing with a magical witch).
The media buzz about an animated princess movie where the girl isn’t helpless or searching for a husband has been deafening, telling us that Brave’s protagonist Merida is a first.
Except that she’s not. My 12-year-old daughter and I saw Brave the day it was released (on our own dime), and I was expecting big things. While we both enjoyed it, and my sixth-grader loved comparing it to Katniss in the Hunger Games, I couldn’t help being a little disappointed because by comparison, there’s another Disney character I think is slightly better at giving our daughters a “feminist princess” (Veronica, I had to borrow that phrase from you because it’s a good one!) who has many of the same attributes as Merida — Mulan.
While it’s true that Mulan isn’t technically a princess, though she has been marketed that way, I think it’s fair to compare them. Mulan has always been one of my favorites because: (1) there’s no stepmother/dead mother story line, (2) she’s more interested in pursuing her own dreams than finding a husband, (3) she’s smarter than all the soldiers who fight the Huns, (4) and she singlehandedly saves China. Those are good attributes in a girl!
So why are we ignoring Mulan? Why is Disney advertising it as the “first” with a female protagonist? I wish I had a good answer for that. Maybe they think our memories are short? And other princesses have fine attributes we can hope our daughters will emulate, like Belle’s love of books. While there are things in traditional princess movies that I bristle at (like Ariel being willing to abandon her family and give up her voice — literally and figuratively — for a man she falls in love with at first sight) — there are others who also have redeeming qualities, like:
1. Danielle from Ever After. It’s a remake of the Cinderella story with Drew Barrymore, but in the end, even though she’s fallen in love with the handsome prince, Danielle saves herself and is essentially an equal in her ultimate marriage.
2. Enchanted. While she certainly doesn’t start out that way, Amy Adams’ character Giselle transforms into a woman who thinks for herself and realizes there’s more to a happy relationship than looking good in a big, white wedding dress.
3. Pocahontas. She’s not a traditional princess, but Pocahontas is definitely a woman who taught the menfolk a thing or two. Sure, she ended up marrying Captain John Smith, but she wasn’t out to find a man; she was an adventurer.
4. CinderElmo. The gender roles are reversed for this Muppet Cinderella story, but Kerry Russell plays a Princess who also balks at the idea of having to choose a man to marry at random at the age of 18. She finally gets decide her own fate after her Muppet father, the King, has his epiphany, “I can change the LAA-aaww!”
5. Tangled. This Rapunzel doesn’t need saving by the guy with “the smolder.” And I’d bet that Willow Smith is just a little jealous of how this Rapunzel “whips her hair.”
Interestingly, the aspect of Brave that resonated most with my daughter wasn’t the strong sense of self that Princess Merida brings to the screen — it was the story of Merida’s family and the bond she had with her mother. And that gives me hope as we enter the oh-so tumultuous teen years in our own castle.
Do you have a favorite “feminist princess?”