Merida from "Brave" is not your typical Disney princess. Pixar's first female protagonist may be beautiful, but she is not in any way dreaming of her prince to come. Instead, the firstborn heir of the Scottish kingdom of DunBroch, would rather sling her arrows and defend her homeland than primp and prepare for the eventuality of being queen -- which makes her a refreshing alternative to the canon of Disney Princesses.
The Disney Princesses have come under a lot of scrutiny for being (for the most part) a bunch of lovely but helpless lasses waiting for princes in shiny armor to free them from oppression. No matter how generous and kind Cinderella, Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty are, they can only become who they're destined to be with the help of a man, specifically one wielding a sword.
Disney Princess culture is so dominant that the glorification of these traditional, outdated role models has spawned an entire "anti-princess" movement, with mothers pledging to not allow their daughters to watch the Disney Princess films or get sucked into the profitable merchandising industry that makes princess costumes so ubiquitous at every playdate (and forget about Halloween).
I've struggled with the princess mania with my own seven-year-old daughter, but have found a happy medium by exposing her to all sorts of princesses, from the slate of Disney beauties (my favorites are Rapunzel from "Tangled" and Belle from "Beauty and the Beast"), to the much less conventional princess-themed stories like "The Princess Knight" (Cornelia Funke), "The Secret Lives of Princesses" (Rebecca Dautremer) and "Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots?" (Carmela LaVigna Coyle). And now, we can add Merida to the list.
Unlike most of her predecessors, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is neither cursed nor orphaned. She doesn't have an evil stepmother, a fairy godmother, or a maniacal enemy plotting her downfall. In fact, Merida has two active (and in love) parents, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Like most teenagers, she has a fundamental difference of opinion with her mother about what she should and should not be able to do.
"Brave" is not a fairytale romance. There are three potential suitors from the other clans in the kingdom, but none of those firstborns (even the long-haired dreamy one) is of interest to Merida. She's not interested in betrothal, marriage or love at all. She keeps her amazing curls wild and unkempt. In one scene, where Elinor forces her to wear a tight-fitting circlet, Merida defiantly pulls out a stray curl just to demonstrate her independence. She just wants to be left alone to revel in her talent for archery and a wee bit of mayhem -- absolutely not to be married off without her consent.
Even though it's initially in the kingdom's best interest for Merida to follow in her regal mother's footsteps and accept one of the clan heirs, she can't see beyond her own desire to be free (queue the William Wallace yelp for "Freedom!"). And what could be more genuine than a teenager who desperately wants to shake her parents, especially her demanding mother, by the shoulders and yell: "Just listen to me." Merida is self-absorbed at first -- what teenager isn't -- but that's authentic, too.
Merida's journey from misunderstood and misguided teen to loving daughter and selfless princess is a fantastic tale of both self discovery and of the bond between a mother and daughter. The great love story in "Brave" isn't about Merida finding her Prince Charming but about her realizing she actually has something to learn from her mother. Queen Elinor, in turn, transforms both literally (she turns into a bear, thanks to Merida asking a witch to help change her mom's mind about the betrothal) and emotionally into a more accepting and flexible mother.
Now that's a legend, and a heroine, this mother of three can stand behind. My own seven-year-old daughter is already feisty, strong-willed and occasionally defiant. I love that Merida is a different kind of princess for a new generation of girls who don't need to rely on the idea that one day their princes will save them. They can grab a proverbial bow and arrow and save themselves (and be nice to their mothers while doing so!).
<strong>Virtues:</strong> She's the "fairest one of all," but she's quite the humble young princess. She loves forest animals, cleans and tends for the cottage she thinks belongs to children, and then befriends and cares for the misfit dwarves. She's a vision of loveliness inside and out, always trusting and helping others. <strong>Flaws:</strong> There's a line between trusting and gullible, and poor Snow crosses it when she bites into that Old Hag's poisoned apple. She's not the brightest of the Princesses, and her naivete hasn't aged well with time.
<strong>Virtues:</strong> Like Snow White, Cinderella is a friend to animals -- even rodents! The mice and birds adore their Cinderelly so much they even make her original, albeit doomed, ball gown. She's gorgeous and self-sacrificing and never complains, even under unthinkable circumstances. <strong>Flaws: </strong>In the face of her step-mother and step-sisters' cruelty, she never once resists -- humbly accepting her lowly place in their lives until she's visited by her Fairy Godmother. If it weren't for Prince Charming's persistence, she'd still be wearing rags and scrubbing floors.
Aurora ("Sleeping Beauty")
<strong>Virtues:</strong> Having been blessed by fairies with beauty and song, Aurora (brought up as Briar Rose) is not only gorgeous but talented as well. Like all of the old-school princesses, she's sweet and gentle. She dreams of falling in love and having a life outside of her humble home with her elderly guardians. <strong>Flaws: </strong>There's not much to Aurora. She's kindhearted and lovely and instantly falls in love with Philip, although at the time neither of them knows she's the hidden princess. And let's face it, she showed no restraint when it came to that spinning wheel!
Ariel ("The Little Mermaid")
<strong>Virtues:</strong> The flame-haired mermaid is courageous and curious and talented. Her voice is renowned for its beauty, and she's quite the adventurer -- wreaking all sorts of havoc for straying too far from her underwater home to search for treasures from above the sea. <strong>Flaws:</strong> She renders herself literally voiceless and abandons her home for a guy. That's not exactly a good message to send young girls. Of course, everything ends with a happily ever after, but she makes a rather unwise decision to barter with Ursula.
Belle ("Beauty and the Beast")
<strong>Virtues:</strong> Belle is smart. The "peculiar girl" of her village, she loves books and prizes intelligence and character above popularity and good looks. She turns down a proposal from Gaston, her town's most desirable bachelor who's nonetheless a dim bulb, and winds up falling in love with the Beast despite his frightening appearance ... and the fact he's imprisoned her. <strong>Flaws:</strong> Her only major flaw is believing Gaston and the townsfolk would listen to her when she explains the Beast isn't a threat to them.
<strong>Virtues: </strong>Unhappy and bored with her sequestered life in the castle, Jasmine -- the Sultan's daughter -- longs for adventure and flees to visit the marketplace, where she stumbles upon Aladdin. She and Aladdin realize they have a lot in common, even though he's a "street rat" and she's a princess. Jasmine falls in love with Aladdin, even though he's a commoner. <strong>Flaws: </strong>OK, so she's a bit of a diva, but in the context of this humble and sometimes docile lot, that's not a flaw at all!
<strong>Virtues:</strong> The 17th Century daughter of the Chief Powhatan is Disney's first historically based Princess. She's brave and adventurous, and despite how corny that 'Colors of the Wind' song is, Pocahontas follows her heart to aid and then love Captain John Smith. <strong>Flaws:</strong> We'd love to rank Pocahontas higher, but the movie is controversial and riddled with inaccuracies, so we suggest supplementing the movie with books about the Native American princess or waiting until the kids are old enough to see Terrence Malick's "The New World."
<strong>Virtues:</strong> She fearlessly disguises herself as a boy in order to take her father's place in the army. As a conscript, she trains as fiercely as her male cohorts and proves herself without revealing her true identity. Since at one point she's deemed unfit for marriage, she finds her worth in helping her family and country. Of course, eventually Mulan does find love -- with a commanding officer who understands her abilities as a warrior. <strong>Flaws</strong>: It's a shame Mulan is one of the underrated princesses, because she rocks. Her only flaw is that she had to deceive those around her about who she really was to serve in the Imperial army.
Tiana ("The Princess and the Frog")
<strong>Virtues</strong>: Now here's a princess with ambition. She's hard working and is determined to earn enough money to start her own restaurant -- a dream of hers passed down from her late father. She's intelligent and self-possessed, and even when she agrees to kiss the frog -- and subsequently becomes one -- never loses sight of herself. <strong>Flaws:</strong> She might be the only princess who waits a beat too long to admit that she's fallen in love. But again, it's fine with us, because she gets her man AND her dream restaurant!
<strong>Virtues:</strong> She's fiercely protective, powerful and loyal. When Eugene needs to be saved, she doesn't hesitate to rescue him with a toss of her long and magical hair. She's willing to sacrifice her happiness to ensure her dangerous "Mother" doesn't harm Eugene. Rapunzel also falls in love based on character and not status, since Eugene is a reformed thief, not a prince. She sees the best in people, even those who are labeled outcasts or misfits. <strong>Flaws:</strong> Having been imprisoned in a tower for her entire life, Rapunzel is understandably naïve, but that's not her fault.