Merida’s Makeover and Character Continuity

Via: Gagging on Sexism
Via: Gagging on Sexism

You’ve undoubtedly read the stories by now. You know, the ones proclaiming Merida’s coronation as the latest entrant in the ‘Disney Princess’ brand and (on the other side), the ones decrying her redesign into one with more than an air of sexuality about it. The point of this post isn’t to belabor either side (although this blogger leans heavily towards the latter), rather its to discuss how Merida proves how unwieldy characters can become within large corporations such as Disney and why they need to keep tighter grip of the reins.

Why It’s a Problem

So why would such a change be of issue in the first place? 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. In fact, all the Disney Princess have undergone some sort of noticeable change from their original appearance on film.

Another reason Merida’s case stands out is that 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. Such a transformation runs the risk of confusing consumers.

The Confusion Caused By Merida’s Transformation

In times gone past, the change wouldn’t have been given that much thought. After all, merchandise always lagged behind the films and the medium through which the largest audience would see it (home video) was released many months afterwards, when memories had faded somewhat.

Fast forward to today, and the omnipresence and semi-permanence of the internet has meant that fact-checking and comparison can be done instantaneously. If a corporation makes an overtly obvious change to a character, you can be sure that someone somewhere can confirm the change and indeed, analyse it to astonishingly high degrees of accuracy.

Changes in character can be easy for adults to gloss over, but kids can find it hard to reconcile the apparently unnecessary alterations. Kids place a lot of value in characters and they readily identify with them; changing the character can  cause not only confusion, but also trauma. That’s not to say that Merida’s change will cause the latter, but it will not go unnoticed by kids (mainly girls) who’ve identified with a character who’s most significant trait is not fitting in with a crowd.

Even mature adults (and particularly parents and those of us in the field) are having trouble reconciling the change in any kind of rational light. Peggy Orenstein gets pretty close to the truth:

I’ve always said that it’s not about the movies. It’s about the bait-and-switch that happens in the merchandise, and the way the characters have evolved and proliferated off-screen.

This is true, and certainly part of the cause. The Disney Princess brand relies upon a broad range of characters to appeal to all types, but who still reside inside a statistically maximising percentage of the population. In other words, the characters can be different, but not too different lest they be marginalised and hence, unprofitable.

How To Fix It

Since the confusion and frustrations that are caused seem to be emanating from the changes made, wouldn’t the simplest thing be to just keep them the same as they were in the film (or concepts in the case of CGI)? 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.