There might be an anti-climactic air about this interview with director Brenda Chapman who, a couple hours after speaking to me, would find movie studio Disney rescinding their plans to revise the look of Merida, the main character from ...
There might be an anti-climactic air about this interview with director Brenda Chapman who, a couple hours after speaking to me, would find movie studio Disney rescinding their plans to revise the look of Merida, the main character from the film Brave. Merida is a special character to Chapman, who developed her to be an alternative to a lingering Hollywood trend: the princess syndrome.
The classic princesses from the Disney pantheon were mostly products of their time. They were designed to be pretty, svelte to the point of incredulity, be brave when it was called for, but mostly they were waiting for their Prince Charming to charge in, fresh from the fight, to save them.
Merida, on the other hand, wants to be in the fight. She has a realistic body type and prefers her wardrobe to be functional. She doesn’t like how the culture of her times is forcing her into the bodice and the role she doesn’t relate to. To say Merida is not feminine is a mistake. She is a modern understanding of what it means to be feminine, in a world where glass ceilings are made to be shattered, not feared and backed away from.
And so it was with much anger and disappointment that animation fans, fans who appreciated that Disney and Pixar had the guts to take a chance on a “real” girl in their movie depictions, would then try to reconfigure her for the sake of marketing, with a shoulderless gown; flowing, feathered hair; and that unnaturally thin frame which has vexed young women for decades as an unrealistic ideal. It wasn’t so much that Merida was being sexualized, although there’s a bit of truth to that. It was that Disney seemingly didn’t even see their own movie, didn’t realize that one of the main plot points was Merida rebelling against her parents’ insistence she had to be something other than herself, get a man, and be happy with whatever comes of it. It was that, with this change had it come through, an unspoken message might have been sent to the young girls who saw themselves in Merida — you can be an independent woman and know yourself, but one day you’ll still have to give up, dress up, and play your princess role. You’ll have to do what Merida did. What a sad message to send to girls.
But people stood up and rejected the plan. It shows, perhaps, that America is ready for that leap into a mature phase in animation; something that the rest of the world has outpaced us on for decades. Perhaps. Still I think there’s a lesson yet to be learned from my conversation with Brenda Chapman, because as easy as it was for the Mouse House to flip the switch and change the main principles of a now-beloved character, then change back, it would be just as easy to forget this whole thing ever happened.
Chapman is an artist in the best sense of the term, because she doesn’t see her creations solely as the means for profit generation. When she speaks of the characters, and specifically of Merida who was the integral part of her original story pitch for the film, they are “they”, realized as beings, with already fleshed-out traits and behaviors. To then find the company that brought the characters to the screen would want to mess with them for the sake of asset optimization was a shocking turnabout for many. Not so much for Chapman who had a clear-eyed understanding of the possibilities, but nonetheless she made her dissatisfaction known. And perhaps surprisingly, a large portion of the audience agreed thoroughly.
Popdose: How did you find out the design change had occurred? I have to assume Disney didn’t pass on any indication to you this was going to be announced.
Brenda Chapman: No, I wasn’t brought into any of it! (Laughs.) I actually found out about it from Change.org‘s A Mighty Girl petition. Someone forwarded that to me and I was kind of stunned. I was in Santiago, Chile at the time, speaking at an animation festival down there. That’s