05/21/2013 12:58 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2013

Why Merida Matters

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Who is Merida? She's the soft-hearted but strong-willed protagonist from the Disney/Pixar film Brave. With her penchant for archery and sword-fighting, I'd put money on her as the victor in any Disney Princess Battle Royale. (The only one that might give her trouble would be Mulan).

This month, Disney announced that 16-year-old Merida would join the ranks of the Disney princesses. Suddenly, a drawing of Merida in more formal -- and markedly more sexual -- attire appeared. Her bow and arrow had gone missing, her unruly curls had been tamed, her eye makeup painted on and her waist tapered down. Even her facial expression, a smirk, seemed to say "come hither" in a way that 16-year-old monarchs should probably not be saying.

A public condemnation from Brave director Amy Chapman and 220,000 signatures on a petition later, it appeared as if Disney's would-be consumers and Merida fans had won. Disney released a statement that claimed the new drawing of Merida in her "party dress" had been merely a celebration of her coronation, and that her original likeness had not been erased from Disneyworld or the Disney Princess homepage.

Disney also made it clear, however, that the more "mature" and sexualized image of Merida isn't going away. She still appears on Target's website and will be featured in some lines of merchandise.

I suppose I shouldn't expect much from a company who made its fortune peddling the stories of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty as ideal, wholesome, coming-of-age stories for young ladies. Snow White features a queen who will literally murder people to be considered the most beautiful, and Snow White requires the help of eight men to function on a daily basis. Cinderella and her Prince are no more than drunk college students at a party: She's losing her shoes, he can't remember her face, the whole thing's a mess. And Aurora from Sleeping Beauty essentially transmits the message that sexual contact with a sleeping girl who can't consent is the stuff of pure romance.

But for Disney to dismiss this image of Merida as a breezy "celebration" is a dismissal of the influence of these images in the lives of young girls.

As an educator, I witness the reality of the power of media images all too often at the high school where I work. Young ladies -- and young gentlemen -- internalize what they see, and they lack the media literacy skills to safely dissect it and to realize when Disney and other multi-billion dollar companies are feeding them nonsense. We surround these children -- yes, they are still children -- with images and songs revolving around sex and money, and then we condemn them for their premature sexual behavior and appearances.

You try telling a young freshman girl not to wear the tightest jeans she can find and a blouse that doesn't show her bra, when her pink binder and, likely, her room, are plastered with photos of models wearing nothing but a string bikini and stilettos. She might not be able to hear you, when the music she listens to contains subject matter almost exclusively limited to strippers, sex and money.

Few and far between are the age-appropriate images of adolescent girls: girls who dream, who read, who are not yet interested in the opposite sex, who may not have yet physically developed. The original image of Merida, then, was precious and clung to by moms who adored Merida for her adventures, her love of her family, and her resemblance to the young girls they know and love.

Yet even the Princesses, a group of young women who are notoriously pure -- or, at least, so claims Disney -- are not safe from sexualization.

Judging by the content of our media, we want young women who are content with eye makeup and not adventures, to wear the party dress, but not to brandish the bow and arrow.

The issue extends much further than Merida and Disney, but Merida serves as an allegory of a larger movement in American media to sexualize the young adolescent girl. To me, for this reason, all the outcry over an animated character serves a deeper purpose: to at least hold multi-billion dollar corporations without consciences like Disney accountable to answer for their choices, if we cannot compel them to change.