That's Not Merida: The Disconnect Between the Merida we love, Disney, and Target

Pixar Merida vs Disney Merida - Was the sexualization necessary?

The Merida Makeover has been big news the past couple of weeks, and rightly so as families are fast becoming tired of the continuous sexing up of female characters and toys for girls. Viral blog posts, viral petitions, viral satire cartoons…. the story and disbelief of the sexy makeover has proved to be highly contagious.  Discussions and shares on the Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies blog and facebook page last week alone engaged over 60,000 users.

The backlash over Sexy Merida was primarily driven by social media activism giving consumers an aggregated voice that went viral and then hit mainstream media. We’ve seen this before a dozen times (think JC Penney t-shirt gate, Chap Stick, LEGO, sexist Abercrombie tees, SPARK girls vs Seventeen), so this in and of itself is not phenomenal or new.

What was new last week (and phenomenal!) was parents and concerned adults active in communities like Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies became teachers, taking the messages about sexualization and gender stereotypes to their circles. These people turned their friends into informed activists, and that is an incredible thing. The ripple effect can be powerful, which is something I discuss in my upcoming book, “Redefine Girly”.

Disney has not budged in light of the media frenzy over the change.org and other smaller petitions. The petition was a good start and was useful in calling a huge amount of attention to the story. But it only required three seconds of activism. Now we need to go several more layers down, and as experienced activists, I know this community is the perfect group to get busy creating true, lasting change.

There are three things I want us to focus on today:
1. Contact Target to let them know their exclusive versions of Merida dolls are inappropriate and they have lost a sale because you will not purchase these dolls for a child. You can see my comment to Target here.
Effect: This tells retailers that as consumers we will expect more from them and what they carry from suppliers. This tells suppliers/media creators (Disney) their retail partners will also feel pressure when products like the Merida makeover go amiss.

2. Help the Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies Community create a list of 5-7 Action Items that creatively lays out steps Disney can take to make this right.
Effect: By using our consumers voices to talk *with* a corporation (as opposed to making demands from) we demonstrate to the people inside that we understand they are friends and parents and neighbors who may not completely understand the issue or how to get out of it. This community believes in “When you know better, you do better”. Let’s show Disney how they can do better.

3. A little bit later today I will introduce a new interactive website that was created by a team of allies dedicated to making sure girls are seen as smart, daring, and adventurous. This website will connect the dots between Merida being a symptom of a much larger public health issue.

Effect: This will be a way to inspire ongoing, informed activism to create lasting change.  The website will simultaneously teach on the issues and harness the power of social media to attract more voices to the discussion with Disney.

First, I want us to focus on letting retailers know what we think when they carry versions of Merida that are disingenuous of the character created by Brenda Chapman, consumers become frustrated and angry and hold them accountable for taking part in spreading sexualized messages to children. Chapman has been very clear on why Merida was created in the spirit she was. Target stores carry some exclusive Disney licenses produced by Mattel. Whether it is a complete lack of common sense, a void of creativity, or both, this doll is not Merida:

Target stores offer the Disney Princess Merida Sparkle Doll.

I wrote a review for this doll, which has yet to populate on the Target website:

While looking for an “end of the school year” gift for my brave and spirited daughter, I stumbled upon this doll and was completely taken aback. I cringed and laughed out loud at the same time.

I would never buy this for my children. This is insulting to the fans and consumers of Pixar’s gem of a female protagonist from last summer. Be sure that the majority of children and parents see right through this. We fell in love with Merida *because* she was different. I would think Target is a large enough retailer to be able to demand better from Disney. Did no one at Target or Disney actually see “Brave”?

This doll is clearly a drastic departure from the Pixar Merida; the wild, strong, fresh faced princess that my entire family fell in love with last summer. I find myself continuing to ask why toy manufacturers insist on such a narrow depiction of female characters, shoving all of them into the “pretty and delicate princess” toy mold. Surely there is more creativity involved in creating this second tier merchandise.

When you put the daring, tangled hair, non-perfect Princess Merida on your shelves, you’ll have a customer in me. This doll is ridiculous and I will be spending my money elsewhere.

 

While I was showing my daughter the doll above, I came across this doll also exclusive to Target:

Only at Target, the Disney Brave Storytellers Meet Merida doll.

And wrote another review, which like the other review has yet to appear on the Target website:

While reviewing Target’s new Princess Merida doll, virtually unrecognizable as Merida, I pulled up this doll to show my daughter the difference between the two and we could not believe what we were seeing.

I purchased this doll in this exact box in November 2012 as a Christmas gift for my daughter. Six months ago the doll did not have a sparkly dress with sweetheart neckline. The doll I purchased wore the emerald green dress Merida wore in the movie when she declared her independence from her mother’s plans for her future. The bow for the doll I purchased was true to the movie, this one is gold and fit for a princess, I presume. Gone is the leather quiver that came with my doll, replaced with a golden comb, natch. A core part of Merida was the character her unruly, wild hair held.

If these dolls are exclusive to Target, licensed through Disney, I have to wonder if Target thinks its consumers are stupid, or if the toy designers never saw the movie or understand exactly what was so popular about it.

I am glad I purchased the Merida that I did before she got the Disney Princess makeover. I would not purchase this current version for my children. When viewing this, my seven year old asked that you be brave enough to make bold dolls for girls. I hope you are up to the task.

My research revealed that both of these dolls seem to be exclusive for Target, designed by Disney and produced by Mattel.  Disney is responsible for the design. My question to my community is, does Target have to carry them? Or can Target be the retailer who stands up and says no to the ridiculous sexualization of these dolls? While the dolls themselves are not overtly sexual, the sexualization comes in when we see a doll like the first one in this post be made over to fit beauty norms and have her beauty be her sole attribute to the exclusion of all other things; she is made into an object of beauty, so much so that she is unrecognizable as the character she is supposed to be.

Let’s inform Target we do not appreciate them carrying dolls that teach our children a girl should be valued for beauty and nothing else. Merida broke that mold in her movie, and I’d like to see Target be the retailer who breaks that mold for our familes. My comment on Target’s facebook page is here, and I would love for you to add your thoughts underneath it or create your own respectful message to Target. As my seven year old daughter said today, she would like toy companies and the grown ups who sell the toys to be brave.

After you make contact with Target, let’s focus our energy as a group on making a list of 5-7 action items to be sent to Disney, sort of a road map for Disney, that includes some creative problem solving but also lets them know we will not stand for the strong female protagonist we fell in love with to fall into the dainty, pretty princess trap. What would we like to see Disney do, and what are reasonable asks? Let us craft this as if it were going into a board room with top executives and as a group of tens of thousands of concerned consumers, this is what we would like to see them do.

For example, toy production for a line like this starts 12-18 months out. Can Target or Disney pull all of the dolls? That may not be possible, and it may not be doable immediately. Could they change website content to erase all instances of the new Sexy Merida and release a statement committing to doing so? Or create content with a counter message, to reassure families they got this wrong and understand now how to get it right? Could they work with Pigtails Pals & Ballcap Buddies to join with us to spread our message “There Are Many Ways To Be A Girl”? Could they write an open letter to girls (but maybe ALL kids, since so many boys loved Merida, too) and express to them they understand why Merida was loved by so many, they are proud of these girls for using their voices, and they promise to do right by them in the future? What are some of your ideas?

I refuse to believe it is a foregone conclusion that corporations act void of ethics or caring.  I run a business and I don’t operate that way. Corporations are made up of people who have families and these issues affect them just as much as they affect us. If it is their job to work at Disney, how can we help them do this aspect of their job better? When my customers contact me and ask for a change, I take it into consideration and many times have made those changes asked for. (Example — remember when I forget the bike helmets on the Bike Riders design? Whoops! It was pointed out to me on our facebook page, the constructive criticism was spot on, and the change was made the next business day.)

Let’s act together as a group and with the members of our sister organizations, be strong advocates for our children. Disney may not know or understand a way out of this. Let’s give them some ideas.

Ultimately, what we do as parents and concerned consumers matters because our children are watching our actions (or lack thereof). My seven year old daughter and five year old son wanted nothing to do with new Sexy Merida. We love Original Merida. As a parent who is conscientious of the media my children take in, the Pixar Merida up against the Disney Princess Merida feels like a bait-and-switch. Disney was remiss not to capitalize on their giant hit popular with boys and girls. The adventurous, bold, fresh-faced princess was a mega-hit because of those qualities. We want to qualities to stay in place.

“That’s not Merida” is the echo from children everywhere. Target and Disney, we ask that you do better, and honor who Merida really was. By doing so, you send a strong message to my son and daughter when they see bold and brave Merida on the shelf. Children learn from the media around them. Let’s give them the healthiest messages possible.

Okay, tell us what you said to Target, and what ideas you have for our list to Disney! And let’s move fast on this! I want a printable ready by Wednesday morning for our new collaborative website!

Comments

  1. I tweeted at Target and shared the link to this post on my Facebook. As for action items:

    1) We need to tell Disney, Target, and other big name companies to take sexed-up Merida off their shelves, physical and virtual.

    2) We need to tell said companies why sexed-up Merida isn’t good enough for our children–the appeal of the Original Merida and the non-appeal of Sexed-Up Merida are symbols of a seachange in what parents want their daughters and sons to learn about being girly. Being girly is not being a sex object–being girly is being brave, bold, smart, athletic, independent, vocal, talented, and daring, among other things.

    3) We need to tell said companies that we want them to do away with gender segregation and stereotypes in their toy sections! What’s good enough for girls needs to be the same as what’s good enough for boys, and vice versa.

    These are a few things I can think of. Looking forward to reading the suggestions of other parents. This is a critical time for all of us! Let there be change for the better!

    • Excellent suggestions!

      • Melissa

        To target the ´retailers´is unproductive as Disney issues the licenses for the them to ´manufacture´and distribute the products, if Disney produces an image for Merida then they will follow the guidelines for the product. We need to concentrate unanimously on stopping it at the source or the root of the problem so to speak. Targeting the end seller is just diluting the campaign – which if won could have an impact on the overall issue of sexing up childhood. Spread the word to sign the petition https://www.change.org/petitions/disney-say-no-to-the-merida-makeover-keep-our-hero-brave and twitter/email/call Disney.

        • Splums,
          I respectfully and completely disagree. The petition, others like it, and the work of all the activists in the field was important to call attention to the issue. And now there are several different tacks to take to encourage Disney to change course. My position is an informed, connected, and productive approach.

  2. Any publicity is good publicity, especially if you have a predetermined spin for your bad publicity. Getting groups to run a free viral marketing campaign for your brand is genius. If sales for the original Merida doll are dipping, give her an offensive make over and let people throw her image into social media and national headlines. Both dolls will see increased sales. It would also be very interesting to monitor how many online sales are generated by those who visit Target’s website to leave a message. I can’t walk in the store without being persuaded to buy something, I’m sure the website is no different. My suggestion is to let the doll flop on its own and not give it any free advertisement.

    • Hi John –
      I hear what you are saying, it is the double edged sword we think about all of the time. I don’t, however, think the corporations are as dubious (or creative) as you lay out in your comment. In fact, I think it is quite the opposite and they are falling back on exhausted depictions of girls because they don’t know how else to do it. I believe the doll will flop, and from the large outcry I’ve seen I do not think it is going to earn Target any sales on this item.

      I would rather aggregate voices and speak out than sit silently and wait for the fall.

  3. This is a good start on the specifics of this case. ESPECIALLY with your strong parenting community. (wallet whackin’ ftw)

    Still, I feel a strong public health/medical approach to this in a large scale ‘connect the dots’ is necessary in tandem, TEDMED meets TED ED on adolescent health repercussions involving socioemotional and physical health will begin to shift the conversation from brand-based gaffes to wellness in a larger cultural context.

    So it’s a “YES, let’s do this AND”…for sustainable long term overhauls thumping some sense into the corps re: larger public health/societal reverb.

    Feels parents are in ‘one off’ cause-marketing mode with ‘targeted’ victories here vs taking a larger macro vs micro lens to the whole shebang. (I mean, we just finished this with the Reebok sponsorship of rap/rape lyrics you know?)

    It’s exhausting to fight a war for hearts and minds w/media and marketing literally manufacturing public health issues (from spindly sexualized dolls to misogynistic misfires and the need for rap rehab) when the corps and even parents are so embedded in the culture they can’t SEE the problem.

    I’ll go tweet/share this pronto, but will meanwhile start unearthing more in the medical meets merchandising public health lens of kids & play patterns…Rock on!

  4. Elizabeth Sweet says:

    Thank you for getting this started! I’ve been watching parents and advocacy groups like Let Toys Be Toys in the UK use social media to successfully challenge gender stereotyped toys and wishing we had something similar happening here in the U.S. I love both your action plan and your positive framework!

    In re: to Disney, (1) I’d really like to see them move away from using gender as the primary organizing framework for all of their media and products. A 2012 study by Auster and Mansbach found that ALL of the toys on the Disney Online store were categorized according to gender, even though a small portion of toys could be found on both lists. As we know, this kind of rigid gender segregation really limits kids in all kinds of ways and they could easily reorganize their stores (online and on the ground) to offer just toys as opposed to girl and boy lines.

    (2)I’d like to see Disney media (movies, TV programming) become more gender-balanced and gender integrated, and to see them offer a richer, more complex set of characters like Merida which move away from gender stereotypes. Instead of reducing complex characters like Merida to one-dimensional princess themes, I’d like to see them offer more complex characters period. There are zillions of roles that girls can imagine and envision themselves in that aren’t princesses. In fact, prior to the 90’s, the princess role was hardly evident in toys. It would be nice to see them explore some of these other roles, and to explore masculine roles that don’t revolve around physicality and aggression. Having a greater diversity in re: to gender and race/ethnicity on their creative team would be a big help in this regard.

    I did contact Target via their FB page (though I cannot see my post on their page so I wonder if it got quashed) and via e-mail. This was my message: “I have long been disappointed in the way that toys are organized in your stores. The use of gender segregated, color coded toy aisles and gender-stereotyped toy themes unnecessarily limits children and is rather remarkable to see in this day and age. I was even more disappointed to see that you are selling dolls such as the one linked below, which take a character who actively resisted ideals of beauty and romance and portray her instead as an emaciated beauty object. I am asking you to consider the problematic messages that such products send to children and to consider the limiting effects of your marketing practices. I am asking you to stop relying on outdated gender stereotypes to sell toys and to instead offer them in a way that promotes both positive gender messages and choice for boys and girls. Until this happens, I will not make another toy purchase from your stores.”

    I received this e-mail reply from them:

    Dear Elizabeth Sweet,

    I’m sorry to hear you’ve been offended by the Toys featured at Target®.

    Target welcomes everyone to shop in our stores and has a long history of offering a large assortment of merchandise to a wide variety of guests. Though we serve a significant number of families across the country, we also serve many guests with diverse tastes and interests. Occasionally, we carry merchandise that some guests may find objectionable, as was your experience.

    I apologize that you’ve been disappointed by our Toys selection. Your feedback is a big help to us, so I’ll be sure to share your comments with our buyers.

    Have questions or want more information about our stores, products or service? Give us a call at (800)440-0680. You can also drop by the Guest Service Desk at any store, or visit us on Target.com. Either way, we’re here to help!

    Thanks for shopping with us. We look forward to your next visit to Target.

    Sincerely,

    Vidyadhar
    Target Guest Relations

    I really dislike the “I’m sorry you were offended” response and given that I’ve observed their gender-based marketing tactics to get worse, as opposed to better, over time, I’m not super optimistic that they heard me. But I did put it out there.

    Thank you!

  5. I would offer them a challenge to not sell our kids short on how smart they are. They are sponges. There needs to be a bridge from pre-K programming to “Tweens” (I hate that term. ) It seems there is a disconnect between let’s teach the wee ones the basics and show how smart they are to ::bat bat, giggle:: “I’m a girl.” ::flex, flex:: “I’m a boy.” What is the justification for the leap from education to vapid?
    Also, why can’t boys and girls just play together? Why does there have to be a happily ever after to tween fairy tales? And if you’re going to have happily ever after? Why does it always have to be a boy and a girl?

  6. The reason so many parents are upset about Merida’s makeover is that she was a strong female character who girls could relate to and who was NOT all about her looks or sexiness. She was not stereotyped or sexualized. She was a character girls and parents could really respect. Disney needs to practice some corporate social responsibility now. It is time for them to stop profiting from selling girls out. It is time for the to step up and use their powerful corporate role to create characters, movies and toys that empower girls and let them BE girls. Time to take the sexy out of childhood, Disney. It never belonged there to begin with, and it’s a creepy and damaging way to treat girls. Here’s the thing, Disney: You know what we’re talking about. You can pretend you don’t or make up whatever excuses help you sleep at night, but you KNOW you are stereotyping and sexualizing girlhood for financial gain. You know what would be even more powerful? If you didn’t. Because you don’t have to. You’re the Walt Disney Corporation, and you can choose to do the right thing and it will sell. We promise you.

  7. Megan MJ says:

    I like the idea of impact training for Disney employees so that they can understand what their marketing is doing in the long run.

    I also would like to see strong female characters that aren’t princesses as well as more lead female characters in general.

    Cross-gender interaction without a romantic end result is also important.

    More diversity in their characters is another important step. Not just ethnic diversity, but diversity in the types of characters they portray (less of the damsel in distress) showing more real types of women and girls in body type and characters. Basically more acceptance of differences.

  8. Some possible action items for Disney:
    – hire more female directors and screenwriters
    – make it clear to all your writers and directors that they are free to, even encouraged to, write strong female characters

  9. I agree with the suggestions so far, particularly with pushing Disney for more diversity across the board and showing more combinations of cross gender play and significantly less gender stereotypes.

    With respect to the princess brand, with it, Disney has created this princess culture almost single handedly. It is relentless and hard to avoid even for girls who may like pink, but not necessarily princess. And the characters themselves, if you look at their movies, are/have the potential to be strong interesting women in their own right. Really, most of them have strengths I’d love to see in my daughter – self starting and sufficiency (Cinderella, Snow White), love of reading and learning (Belle), interest in other cultures (Ariel), independent spirit (Mulan, Merida, Rapunzel), physical confidence and strength (Mulan, Merida), even rejection of the very princess culture Disney is promoting (Mulan and Merida, again – those two pair up a lot in my mind).

    Sofia was such a squandered opportunity in that respect, particularly for redefining what a princess means. The whole concept of the show is her trying to figure out how she fits into this idea of what a princess should be and there have been episodes – when she insists that participating, not spectating, *is* a princess thing, when she realizes that it’s more important to have fun with her friends than to try to be a mean girl – there are some decent messages there if they didn’t cast every other girl in the series as a stuck up little snot.

    Disney is, in the end, about Disney – they want to sell products and movies and experiences. And they’ve pushed hard on this idea that girlhood = sparkles and princesses and floofy dresses. But lets see the princesses themselves go out and *do* things. They’ve tied the “I am a princess” marketing piece to Sofia, and it’s a lovely start in redefining princess as a concept, not a title. But , I want to see actual marketing beyond one campaign with actual self rescuing, get dirty options. Mulan and Cinderella and Snow White could build a kickin’ tree fort. Pocahontas and Merida could have an archery competition. Let them get dirty and have fun and invite the boys over for a water balloon fight. Let their spirit and strength show, not just pretty dress and coquette smiles. Sparkle Merida would be a lot less problematic if there were multiple images for all of the characters – it is not completely outside her character to think that after their experiences, she might come to peace with some of her mother’s desire for propriety, provided she keeps her self determination and doesn’t have to completely erase who she is. The fear – well, at least my fear – is that the fancy ball Merida becomes the official image of her, just as whitewashed Mulan has become the primary image of her, despite having nothing to do with her actual character. Let the girls have their weapons – be they swords or bows or books.

    More generally, I want to see more examples of cross-gender play and less emphasis on stereotypes and singular visions. The problem isn’t that they have this vision of girls as liking pink and glitter – it’s that it’s the only vision they seem to have. Izzy from Jake and the Neverland Pirates and Doc McStuffins are great, and there is potential in the new Henry Hugglemonster show, but girls need to be able to see themselves in a variety of characters, not just different versions of the same two or three. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is good about showing cross-gender friendships, but my goodness, are Minnie and Daisy walking stereotypes in appearance and the flirty femininity is really troubling at times. But at the same time, they are strong, capable, intelligent, entrepreneurial characters. Disney can do this – they just need to push past the glitz.

    And the missing elementary/tween market is a real growth potential for them. There’s a reason my substantive thoughts are all about Disney Jr. My 4th grader still watches Phineas & Ferb occasionally (which is another show that is witty, but missing non-stereotyped female characters), but if they came up with some non soap opera live action science stuff, he’d be all over it. But everything else is boys acting like idiots and girls trying to flirt with them and he hates it. If Disney could harness the power of shows like Mythbusters which most of his class watches and gear it more appropriately for a younger audience, kids would be all over it. Maybe a reality show where teams of kids do tech challenges or something – I’m not a marketer, but surely someone over there can think of something that is outside the box.

    • I love this comment especially because I think it’s not about doing away with princesses but broadening the spectrum of toys, abilities and who can do and like what.

  10. Gabrielle says:

    I’d like to see Disney commit to growing beyond princesses and showcase other examples or role models for girls. Doc McStuffins and Vanellope from Wreck-it-Ralph are great characters, so they’re capable of thinking in different directions. They just need to keep going.

    I’d like to see them require their creative teams to undergo media literacy training regarding the impact their images and the toys spun off from their characters have on children, particularly in terms of developing sexuality and identity. I’d like to also see them commit to maintaining certain controls over the images, etc. released to manufacturers making products based on their creations. So we never end up with another stick-figure sparkle Merida.

    I’d like to see them commit to having all their movies pass the Bechdel test and the Smurfette test. I’d like to see true cultural and ethnic diversity, including LGBTQ diversity. I’d like to see cross-gender friendships and more than just a token female in a group of boys.

    I’d like to see better tween options that aren’t full of stereotypes and sexualization inappropriate for children under 13 (or under 18!). I love the suggestion of creating a kids’ Mythbusters-type show. My daughter really enjoys that show, and showcasing science to kids in that manner would support STEM as well as demonstrating how science can be fun.

    I agree with so much that others have said as well – we have some great minds here!

  11. “What was new last week (and phenomenal!) was parents and concerned adults active in communities like Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies became teachers, taking the messages about sexualization and gender stereotypes to their circles.”

    This makes me feel better. I posted a link on facebook earlier this month, with my comment that my girls loved Merida how she was, and that Merida shouldn’t become sexy. Several of my friends saw nothing wrong with new Merida. Sometimes I feel like I am the only mom I know who feels this way. But you make a good point–at least I was having that conversation, with moms I know. They may not have agreed with me on that day, but at least they heard my points, and took a moment to think about it.

  12. “Disney should take some changes
    – hire female directors and screenwriters as they r good at what is good and bad.
    – and should focus on strong female characters”

Trackbacks

  1. […] it’s your turn to help make a list: On the Pigtail Pals blog, Melissa Wardy is looking for input from other girl advocates who were disturbed by Disney’s sexy makeover […]

  2. […] devolved confection dipped into a sparkle silo of singularity and stereotypes, parenting powerhouse Pigtail Pals posts THIS Merida misfire marketed ‘exclusively’ at Target. (finished with the […]

  3. […] devolved confection dipped into a sparkle silo of singularity and stereotypes, parenting powerhouse Pigtail Pals posts THIS Merida misfire marketed ‘exclusively’ at Target. (finished with the alliteration now, […]

  4. […] this is Mattel’s “Sexy Merida Moment”, when a company unsuspectingly receives massive consumer backlash as savvy parents now educated on […]

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