Skip to main content

'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.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT