The XX Factor

Is There a Conflict Between Brave and Pretty?

Merida, from Brave.
Merida, from Brave

Photograph by Pixar–© 2012 Disney/Pixar.

Katie Baker at Jezebel is unhappy with the initial round of merchandising appearing on the shelves at Target for Pixar’s new movie Brave. The box in question sells the main character Merida’s costume with a picture of a little girl shooting a bow and arrow with text saying, “Look pretty and be brave, too.” While acknowledging that it’s not a big deal, Katie says, “But it’s definitely worth pointing this out as a pretty good example of how marketers are unwilling—or perhaps just unsure how—to market to girls (and women) without promising them they’ll look great.”

The whole thing does bother me, however, because so much of the criticism of the Disney princess phenomenon circles around this concern that girls are interested in being pretty, when that strikes me as the least worrisome aspect of all this. I mean, I’m interested in being pretty—and in sparkly stuff and bright colors—and I don’t really think that makes me less of a kick-ass feminist. My larger concern is that “pretty” is used to sell girls a larger and more dangerous version of femininity, one that’s passive and weak. Look, for instance, at the pictures used to sell Disney princess costumes. The girls are never in action poses, but usually in poses that denote the demure, the passive, the weak, and the submissive. If you’re lucky, they’re just neutral poses of a girl standing upright and looking at the camera, but it’s usually more about the curtsey or the turned-in toe or the bashful downward glance. My concern is they’re taking a child’s natural tendency to be attracted to the shiny and beautiful, and using it to sell girls on the idea that to be shiny and beautiful means to be weak and passive. (For boys, that attraction is swiftly turned to shame, and then when they get a little older, they’re told to be sexually attracted to the very things that they were expected to shun as children.)

It seems to me that this “Brave” merchandising is trying something a little better, taking a girl’s interest in pretty things and telling them that there’s no conflict between beauty and being an assertive, brave person. Considering that even grown women fear identifying as feminists because they think doing so means they have to give up their lipstick, I don’t have a problem with starting young with the message that there’s actually no conflict. Or, to put it more simply, previous Disney princess nonsense seems like it’s geared towards raising young women who think you have to diet yourself into misery and wear towering high heels to be reasonably attractive, but the Brave merchandising looks like it’s better equipped to for developing women who enjoy having some muscle tone and buy shoes that manage to be cute while not mutilating your feet. Which strikes me as a reasonable and feminist goal to have.