Social Justice: Disney Straddles the Line on Merida

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Last week we covered Disney Enterprises’ withdrawal of their application to trademark Day of the Dead.

Although the company never publicly stated it, the outrage expressed by the Mexican and Mexican American communities caused them to change course.

Disney’s public statement said the decision to withdraw from pursuing the trademark was due to changing the name of the movie; what most of us believe is that they realized that trying to own a sacred culturally holiday was too repulsive to a very important demographic.

We also touched on past incidents of Disney changing course when faced with powerful voices speaking out against them.

Last Sunday the post ended with our questioning the fate of Merida, the independent princess from Brave. As we left you, outrage from women and parents was loud and gaining momentum.

The Conforming Merida

If you somehow missed the entire Merida makeover uproar, here are the facts:

  • Brenda Chapman, Oscar winning creator of Merida, modeled the princess after her own daughter. At the heart of Merida is a strong, brave young woman who refuses to conform to society’s plans for her.
  • Brave was a blockbuster, grossing over $550 million worldwide, and winning a Best Oscar for Animated Feature.
  • For reasons known only to Disney, as Merida was about to be crowned the 11th Disney Princess, they altered her image.  A thin waist, smoothed down hair, and a made up face, sent Merida admirers into an online tailspin.

The Merida Uproar Grows Louder

As we left you last Sunday, the Change.org petition demanding that Disney stop the makeover had over 100,000 signers; today it has just under 225,000.  Not only did Disney have to deal with a loud and vocal backlash, Brenda Chapman herself came out hard against the sexy new image:

When little girls say they like [the makeover] because it’s more sparkly, that’s all fine and good but, subconsciously, they are soaking in the sexy ‘come hither’ look and the skinny aspect of the new version. It’s horrible! Merida was created to break that mold — to give young girls a better, stronger role model, a more attainable role model, something of substance, not just a pretty face that waits around for romance.

As the mother of a 5 year old who loves Princesses and Merida in particular, and as the writer of this post, I listened with heightened antennae. What would Disney do?

Disney Kinda-Sorta Gives In

When a company, no matter the size, suffers a PR backlash and the outrage of passionate consumers, changing course is not always a bad thing.

Just like people, companies make mistakes, and we applaud the decision maker who is willing to face, admit, and move past those mistakes. Disney has shown itself to be one of those companies many times.

Merida Princess Coronation

This time, their response to the fierce reaction to their decision has been, well…. Wishy Washy.

On Thursday, British broadsheet The Guardian published a story stating that Disney was retreating from the makeover and that her revised, sex kitten image had been removed from Disney’s official website.

As many social media watchers began to celebrate, my wise friend Shelly Kramer  cautioned all of us, saying that the change had only been made on the US site; Australia’s  still showed the wasp-waisted Merida. Brenda Chapman is a client of Shelly’s, so I knew that Shelly’s always-wise words were to be heeded.

I happened to be out in San Francisco for work this week as we launched Influence Marketing officially, and had the pleasure of meeting Communications Pro, and friend and neighbor of Brenda Chapman, Rick Rice.

We talked about the “Merida situation,” both hoping that the heroine would remain as her creator saw her.  I told Rick of Shelly’s cautioning message; on Thursday Rick tagged me to this post on G+.

It turned out Shelly was right; Disney put out a couple of luke warm ‘defense of the makeover statements, one on their own blog,  and this official statement.
It appears that Disney is trying to have it both ways, a PR strategy we don’t applaud.

Disney’s Schizophrenia

One can only imagine that the reasoning for Disney’s muddled messaging is that they are not convinced by the anti-makeover outrage.

Their success with the past 10 almost-twin 2-D princesses and the ungodly amount of merchandise sold to sparkle eyed girls and their families must have them thinking hard about how Merida’s image will impact the bottom line.

Of course this is all conjecture because Disney hasn’t come out with a strong statement either way, but it’s conjecture based on what we all know drives business: profit. Disney must think that there may be more money to be made with sexy Merida.

Following Disney’s attempts to ‘have it both ways’ is fascinating enough to PR watchers, but when compared with the very recent Day of the Dead about face that we covered last week, there is one glaring question: WHY? 

And there are many more questions:

  • Why does Disney see the Mexican/ American – Mexican movie going audience as more valuable than the women and parents who are appalled by this situation only a week later?
  • Or, by some reasoning we can’t fathom, do they see women as a split market?
  • Do they think that the women speaking out, including the character’s creator herself, as not representative of women movie goers?

Are Women Less Valuable to Disney?

Women Moving Millions reports that women represented 55% of US movie goers in 2011, totalling 113 million . That’s enough to strop smart executives in their tracks, but look at this additional data from the same website:

Women directed 5% of the top grossing films.
Women wrote 14% of the top grossing films.
Women comprised 18% of all executive producers.
Women comprised 25% of all producers.
20% of all editors were women.
4% of all cinematographers were women.

Old versus new MeridaPerhaps the question is not whether Disney sees women divided on this issue, but more about who is making the decisions about women’s attitudes at the company.

3 out of 18 of Disney’s top management team are women.  I can’t tell you that these numbers are the definitive reason Disney is muddled over its answer to the Merida question, but it certainly is cause for wonder.

Anyone who has spent a millisecond in marketing knows that women are an incredibly important part of the purchasing power in the US; in many, many households the woman is the Chief Purchasing Officer.  Can Disney really not value this?

Of course not – their merchandising machine is zeroed in on women.

Are Women Divided Over Merida?

We’ve been watching this story closely all week, and following the A Mighty Girl blog in particular as they launched the change.org petition and have interviewed Chapman. They, like other blogs, are still awaiting a definitive statement from Disney.

I have searched, and searched, for a collective group of women who support the Merida makeover. I did find one post deriding the controversy as contrived, but alas, that sole voice is a man.

I polled the most important person in my little household, my 5 year old daughter.

Without any editorial from me (and yes, that was not easy), I showed her both the before and after images and asked her which one she liked better, and she quickly picked the original. She did say she liked the sparkly dress better on New Merida, but thought that  her face  ‘looked like a clown.’

I’m surmising that was her reaction to the makeup.

The reality is that it does appear that women, and parents in general, ARE united in rejecting the made over Merida.

Why Anyone Cares

In the many conversations I’ve had online over this makeover controversy this question has been raised: Who Cares?

The reasoning usually goes something like “with all of the tragedy and horror in the world, does a Disney Princess really matter?”  The other statement that makes sense is: I don’t rely on Disney to raise my kids.

Jon Stewart nicely skewered both Disney, and parents, on his show:

 

 

Here’s why it matters: these images profoundly effect our children’s self image.

Think back to your childhood, especially the early teen years; did you want to be different?  Our children use images of these ‘heroines’ and measure themselves against them.  Sit down and read Cinderella, or Snow White, or Beauty and the Beast; the story for our daughters is: be ideally beautiful and find a man.

Merida was an alternative for them, a way out on their own terms.

How it Must End

Even Disney can’t have it both ways, especially when there is no group outside of Disney supporting the tarted up Merida. As we’ve illustrated, Disney is no stranger to changing course in the midst of a backlash from consumers.

There can’t be 2 Meridas – what company in their right mind would want to muddy the brand of a supremely successful franchise? What marketing professional would ever advocate 2 logos, 2 company images?

What Disney has now is a Brave-loyal fandom that has let the corporation know how much they love the original Merida.

What Disney does NOT have is any vocal group supporting their makeover. At the end of the day, Disney has to make the smart business decision, and having two Meridas is unwise.

Merida Made Over must exit stage left; if it’s about the bottom line, that’s the only wise business decision Disney can make.

VP of Content & Strategy at ArCompany. She has an extensive background in Sales, and focuses on generational marketing and content. With Hessie Jones she founded ArCompany’s Millnnnial, GenX and Boomer Think Tanks and writes and speaks on those topics from an insights/strategy perspective.

4 thoughts on “Social Justice: Disney Straddles the Line on Merida

  1. […] Last week we covered Disney Enterprises’ withdrawal of their application to trademark Day of the Dead.Although the company never publicly stated it, the outrage expressed by the Mexican and Mexican American communities caused them to change course.Disney’s public statement said the decision to withdraw from pursuing the trademark was due to changing the name of the movie; what most of us believe is that they realized that trying to own a sacred culturally holiday was too repulsive to a very important demographic.We also touched on past incidents of Disney changing course when faced with powerful voices speaking out against them.Last Sunday the post ended with our questioning the fate of Merida, the independent princess from Brave. As we left you, outrage from women and parents was loud and gaining momentum.  […]

  2. susansilver says:

    Wowzer, what a muddle of facts and information. I had no idea how deep this rabbit hole really goes. It feels like there is far more to this story than what has aired in public.

    • AmyMccTobin says:

      susansilver Yep… that’s what makes the entire thing so confusing Susan.  I can only guess that Disney’s lack of a declarative statement is because they are waiting to see if they can have it both ways.

  3. JoseRodrigoMartinez says:

    The whole Disney buy Dia de los Muertos freaked me out too. Also, I’ve seen the new re-redesign of Merida and I think it does justice. I’m also, surprised to see how far my Disney Princess line-up has gone and I’m slowly realizing my mistake on the shadows and Mulan’s missing flower hahaha. Oh well still nice to see it in other places.

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