THE BLOG

Why Merida Matters

05/27/2015 03:44 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

It's no secret that representation is important. Whenever Disney releases a new princess movie, stores make millions on dresses and crowns that emulate the princess's wardrobe. Kids everywhere try to match their new role model, wearing wigs and coating on makeup to match the girl on the screen.

As a generation, we've always wanted to look like movie stars and TV show characters. From princess costumes to celebrity clothing lines to workout tips in magazines, we've been given small tools which are supposed to help us become Hollywood-ready. There's this massive societal desire to match one specific image of beauty, and that desire has created some grave issues.

In Disney specifically, the issues stem from the fact that animation allows for unrealistic character shapes and features. Like photoshop artists who airbrush skin and digitally delete curves, animators create acne- and freckle-free, skinny women to be role models for our kids. The overly-perfect, ultra-feminine Disney princesses have reinforced gender binaries and caused some extreme body image struggles among young people.

There have been plenty of articles written about the problems with Disney's princesses, though, so here's one about how things are getting better.

Disney seems to have paid attention to their own critics, and they've given us a few new movies that somewhat mended the problems they caused in the past. Tionna was crowned as the first black princess, and Frozen created a female-centric storyline wherein neither of the leading women needed to be "saved" by men. Through Brave, Merida became a strong, arrow-shooting role model for little girls who want to be a princess but don't want to abandon their sense of adventure or love of grittiness.

The Princess and the Frog and Frozen are both great steps forward for Disney, but Brave is an entirely new level.

As a redhead, I've come to view Merida as such a crucial new addition to the Disney royal lineage. This is mainly because she fulfilled so much of what the other princesses were lacking. Not only is she outdoorsy and not afraid to get dirty, making her personality realistic and relatable, she also paves the way for different types of beauty like no other princess has.

Redheads have few princesses to turn to, and though Ariel provided me with an easy go-to princess, she did not represent me or any other redhead I've seen.

Growing up with red hair, I was most made fun of three things: my freckles, my too-light (nearly invisible) eyebrows and eyelashes, and my hair's orangey tint. Ariel reinforced all of my insecurities. She was the perfect redhead: hair the color of a fire engine (a shade I've yet to see on a natural redhead), brown/black eyelashes and brows, and beige skin.

Ariel was flawless in all of the wrong ways. Past her horrifying, disempowering story (as an adult, I'm appalled that I grew up thinking it was cool to sell your voice and change your appearance for a man), her unattainable appearance did more harm than good for little redheaded girls. We needed someone whose rosy-pink skin blushed the same colors as ours, someone whose hair was a messy combination of auburn, red, and orange: someone who actually looked like us. The Little Mermaid erased every aspect of being a redhead, and she forced us to put on redder wigs, foundation, and extra mascara every Halloween.

Merida may not have enough flaws to be completely realistic, and while there's still much work to be done in terms of representing different body types and skin tones, Brave created a character so much closer to what young viewers actually need to see.

Disney is allowing for much greater diversity, in personality as well as physical features, within their group of well-loved princesses. Feminists don't have to flinch every time a new trailer comes out, because so many of the new animated films are getting more and more inclusive and empowering. When I visited Disney World this March, I saw lines of fans waiting to meet Merida, Tionna, Anna, and Elsa, and it became clear that these four new role models are easily the most-loved Disney princesses.

With their massive fan bases and critically praised stories, movies like Brave, Frozen, and The Princess and the Frog have gained so much positive attention. We can only hope that Disney recognizes that these successes can be amplified with more relatable, inspiring princesses and fewer stories about girls needing to give up their lives for a man.