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'Babes' can be worthwhile role models, too

By Peggy Drexler, Special to CNN
May 14, 2013 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peggy Drexler: Disney retooled Princess Merida from "Brave" movie as "babe" for doll
  • Director's criticism of "sexist marketing" implies pretty girls not role models, Drexler says
  • She says dolls are for fantasy, and parents help kids use their imagination
  • Drexler: Calling new Merida sexist sends poor message

Editor's note: Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @drpeggydrexler.

(CNN) -- In the three days since Disney crowned its 11th official princess and people got a glimpse of the "new" Merida -- Disney's doll version of the fire-haired heroine of the Oscar-winning animated film "Brave" -- there's been much uproar. The princess-ified Merida aimed at the merchandising market is hippier, her neckline a little more plunging and off-the-shoulder than it was in the film. Her features are softer. And is that lipstick she's wearing?

Disney was quickly taken to task by many, including the film's writer and co-director Brenda Chapman, who called the makeover a "blatantly sexist marketing move based on money" that strips the character of her place as a "better, stronger role model ... something of substance, not just a pretty face that waits around for romance." The implication, of course, being that pretty girls can't be role models. Or have substance.

Peggy Drexler
Peggy Drexler

Let me be clear: As a female heroine, Merida was revolutionary, and we should have more like her. Increasingly, we do. Disney's Mulan -- the female warrior from its 1998 animated film -- was one, in fact.

And indeed, in the film, Merida's best features were the ones that had nothing to do with her body, her face or her outfits. She was outspoken and unafraid, independent and empowered. She stood up for herself and others. She carried a bow and arrow, and she knew how to use it -- far more skillfully than the boys, besides. She was perfectly subversive as a princess for all the reasons that had nothing to do with her looks. (Though let's be honest: Her wild mane of red hair could not have meant to be anything but ravishing.)

At the same time, she was undeniably sexy, if you consider strong women sexy -- and don't we?

Dolls are built on the notion of fantasy. They are not true to life -- but even less true, by nature of their technical limitations, than cartoons, which benefit from animation that's often so precise as to appear real. As toys, dolls take on many of the characteristics that the child playing with them chooses to impart. Part of parenting is to help children explore the many options that life offers, to tap into the vast reaches of their imagination, but also to know the difference between what's fiction and fantasy and what's reality.

Disney sexing up 'Brave' heroine?

And dolls, perhaps more than most toys for children, are not meant to be taken at face value. Otherwise, we'd be making the case for legions of 8-year-olds to be running around suburban America with bows and arrows. And that's not, I don't think, the point Chapman was trying to make in her movie.

The reality is that in deciding to make some changes to Merida, Disney probably was thinking about money. How corporate America works is a conversation for another day. But more poignantly, moneymaking is how Disney, and others, help new films get made -- and yes, even the progressive ones.

Disney's Princess Merida doesn't take away from the positive message that "Brave" put forth: Lipstick or no, she's still the same girl inside. But Chapman's argument does -- by bringing the focus back to Merida's looks in a way that's exclusionary of all else.

The fact is that "babes" can be worthwhile role models, too, and no less so than those women whose looks are more rough and tumble. What's sexist, polarizing -- and most damaging -- is the suggestion that women can be only one or the other: pretty or powerful. Vulnerable or strong. Pink wearing or substantive. These are incorrect messages that serve to confuse and contain. Instead, the message should be about how these days, women can be many things. Girls -- and boys -- are listening.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peggy Drexler.

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