Can We Have a Braver Princess, Please?

Twenty years ago, our mother walked down the Walmart Pink Isle, past all the Disney-heroine Barbies, Disney-movie-inspired vanity playsets, sequined polyester fish-tail skirts with seashells, and itchy yellow off-shoulder Belle dresses, and decided, “Not for my daughters.”

We were 4 and 6, and like most little girls, were each on our quest for the holy grail of femininity, the all-inspiring vision of who to be when we grew up.  Like many mothers, Mom realized that the entire panoply of Disney “woman” options, from Snow White to Ariel and Belle, were not it.  Unlike many mothers, she ditched the entire franchise, tossed Barbie, and made us beautiful cloth dolls based on our intrepid Swedish-immigrant great-grandmothers, and taught us how to make clothes for them ourselves.

Seven years ago, Disney-Pixar also saw a problem with their insipid line of princesses.  “I love fairy tales, but I am tired of the message of waiting around for your prince to show up and you’ll live happily ever after,” said Brenda Chapman, writer and co-director of Disney-Pixar’s newest movie.  “[M]y goal was to offer up a different kind of princess — a stronger princess that both mothers and daughters could relate to, so mothers wouldn’t be pulling their hair out when their little girls were trying to dress or act like this princess.  Instead they’d be like, ‘Yeah, you go girl!’”

So last week they unveiled…

…Princess Merida of “Brave,” a fiery-haired, fiery-tempered, arrow-shooting, teenaged tomboy, who doesn’t want to get married, doesn’t want to mind her manners, and hates being a princess.  She takes after her boorish warrior father instead of her polished power-woman mother, who tries in vain to shape her into a responsible and proper future queen.  Merida’s head-butting with her mother turns into all-out war when she’s faced with an forced marriage to her choice of three slobbering buffoons in order to keep the kingdom’s peace.

To make a long and rather weak story short (you can read our brother Isaac’s analysis of it here and here), Merida strikes a spiteful and reckless bargain with a witch to fix her mother-problems, which endangers her mother’s life and causes a national crisis.  She then has to fix her mistake, which involves reconciling with her mother, and the two then overrule the kingdom’s tradition together in perfect, heartwarming mother-daughter harmony.

This spunky new princess is supposedly breaking all kinds of stereotypes, and presenting a brave new kind of role model for America’s daughters.  But is she really?

Let’s first ask why this even matters, as some might complain, “Merida is just pretend,” “’Brave‘ is just a movie,” or “It’s just entertainment.”  Disney knows better.  Interviews with any of the writers, directors, or producer make it clear that their goal was not to entertain girls.  They wanted to inspire them.  Nor did they ever mean for “Brave” to be just a movie.  “Brave” is an advertisement.  It’s trying to sell something, and we’re not just talking about billions of dollars’ worth of Merida merchandise.  What it’s offering is a new product in Disney’s catalog of personalities, attitudes, and identities.  If you didn’t want to be the singing scullerymaid, the vapid plot-vehicle, the defiant teenaged mermaid, or the daydreaming bookworm — now you can be the Amazonian spitfire!

Analyzing Merida matters because she was designed specifically to be a model for others to follow, by people who know girls will.  So what did they put into the package, and how brave is it really?  Let’s examine Merida’s example.

• Whining for time off from responsibility, rules, expectations, and having to be a role model: not all that brave.

• Resisting self-discipline, education, and training for the future in favor of outdoorsy hobbies: not all that brave.

• Defying parents (while freeloading off of them): not all that brave.

• Refusing to follow basic rules of manners: not all that brave.

• “Making things happen” in your life (instead of sitting around) by causing mayhem in others’: not all that brave.

• Fighting for your own way over anything else: not all that brave.

• Confessing and actually repenting for her catastrophic mistake at the end: very brave.

• Realizing that her mother was a person too, who could be terribly hurt by her daughter’s selfishness: extremely brave, for a kids’ movie about parent-child conflict.

• Refusing to marry any of her suitors: Sorry, we’re saving our thoughts on this one for the next post.

Yes, there were some points to her example that we were happy to see, but honestly, doing no more than owning up to and fixing the mistakes she herself made hardly makes her a hero.  We’ve seen little toasters braver than this.

Nor does her example rise above stereotypes of femininity – it just creates one new one (which isn’t even that new).  Not only is Merida not as brave as a toaster; she can’t even make toast.  That is to say, she’s yet another heroine with excellent motor skills in the woods but who’s totally incompetent indoors.  She can sit the trot, but not sit up straight in her chair at royal functions (nor walk without lumbering, eat without gobbling, and so forth.)  How are all these socially and domestically challenged heroines who swing swords but fumble with teapots broadening society’s expectations for what a girl can do?  How is this a more empowering womanhood?

Full-orbed biblical womanhood should involve more than pouring tea or singing with forest creatures, of course – but should also involve more than spending all day shooting arrows into nothing (which is maybe why our mother used to buy us tea sets and bows and arrows.)  The helpless someday-my-prince-will-come vision and the autonomous barbaric tomboy vision are both narrow, unhealthy, and most of all, unbiblical.  In other words, “Brave” can just join the roundup of usual suspects for creating unhealthy stereotypes for girls, along with Queen Victoria, Aristotle, June Cleaver, Rousseau, Rosie the Riveter, and Barbie.  And like our mother, we can just say “no” to all of them, because they’re all inventions of man and they’re all wrong.

There is a vision out there that is bigger, better, and braver, and it is because it’s God’s.

It requires a lot more than being the kind of “heroine” that “girls [can] look at and not feel inadequate” (the goal of Merida’s creator Brenda Chapman), because it was designed by a God Who wants us to become more than we are.  We all start out immature, foolish, weak, clumsy, and yes, inadequate, but He calls us as women to move on and develop courage, compassion, wisdom, knowledge, strength, dignity, discretion, diligence, gentleness, resourcefulness, entrepreneurship, generosity, submission to authority, and sacrifice for others.

The Bible tells tales of women who were intelligent, brave, beautiful, and who acted like women instead of little barbarians.  Of women who didn’t fit inside personality-type clichés like “the lovable klutz,” “the beautiful bimbo,” “the steely battle-ax,” “the mealy-mouthed Mary Sue,” “the defiant teen,” “the snarky geek,” or “the tomboyish wildcat.”  The godly deeds of these heroines never included teen rebellion, ruling over men, or “following their hearts,” though they did include a lot of things that would have shocked Queen Victoria.

Of course, our culture will keep trying to give us new “role models” to expand our catalog of options, but the spread is still too small, and always will be until the Bible becomes the basis for a new vision of femininity.

Now, as soon as Disney gives us a princess who can put tent pegs through enemy generals’ heads, hurl millstones at invading armies, defy pharaohs, shelter spies, rebuild walls, work in the fields, water camels, and risk her life for her people, as well as sew and cook and raise a family[1] — then we’ll call that a brave princess.

1 (Respectively, Jdg. 4:24, Jdg. 9:53, Ex. 1:15-21, Josh. 2, Neh. 3:12, Ruth 2, Gen. 24:19,20, Esth. 4,5, Proverbs 31, Acts 9:39, Gen. 18:6, Tit. 2:4, 1 Tim. 5:9,10, and Prov. 31:27.)

Recommended Resources:
A Biblical Worldview for Film
What Hollywood Knows that You Don’t, and What You Know that Hollywood Doesn’t
Walt Disney: A Christian Critique
True Beauty: Cultivating Christ-Centered Father-Daughter Relationships

16 thoughts on “Can We Have a Braver Princess, Please?

  1. Again, you girls have managed to put into words what I could only describe as a bad feeling.

    I have no issues with tomboys, and if my daughter wishes to be a tomboy that’s fine. I still get along with men better than women and prefer camping to a spa day. I’m grateful for a husband who does not think I should fit into some artificial mould of womanhood which includes tea parties and handmade doilies (not that there’s anything wrong with these things).

    Womanhood isn’t about whether I prefer table manners or archery, or whether my daughter pushes trucks in the sandpit or cooks pretend food. That’s one area that some proponents of womanhood fall down, in confusing being biblically feminine with having a personality suited to nothing but quiet needlework. A woman who is incapable of anything but embroidery is as useless as a woman who is incapable of anything but riding a horse.

    Womanhood is about many things and none of them can be judged by external interests and superficial hobbies. And that’s what’s wrong with this. The idea that your hobbies should define you, the idea you can and should dedicate all your energy to a single persuit, the idea that being a bumbling idiot with no intention of improving in a key area of life is not only acceptable but a sign of strength and bucking a system. I expect young men to have table manners too you know. And embracing womanhood needn’t mean forsaking all outdoor persuits and being locked in a tower spinning thread. It shows an all or nothing approach, which ultimately gives children the idea that they can’t have both, that they must choose, that they cannot possibly be womanly and still follow their dreams, and forcing them to forsake one or the other instead of truly being who they are, including who they were born to be.

    As a tomboy who learnt many many ‘steryotypically male’ skills as a teenager, it’s amazing how many of those skills have fit perfectly with my husband, either making up for areas where he lacks, or being able to help him in a practical way. I can’t see my husband having ever managed with a feminine delicate flower who refused to get her hands dirty. Oh he treats me like a porcelain doll, but only because he knows he dosen’t have to, so he can choose to spoil me, as opposed to having to care for me like a child.


  2. I love your line: “The godly deeds of these [Biblical] heroines never included teen rebellion, ruling over men, or ‘following their hearts.’ ” Preach it! 🙂


  3. Fantastic! If only more girls would understands this, many of them would not grow up to be feminist dullards! Instead, they’d grow up be fantastic feminine women who are REAL!

    Better than these fake princesses-wannabe! Geez!

    Keep up the good work, spread the word of what it means to be REAL women, for you girls will define what real feminine is, instead of the dull feminists whose brainfog left them clueless!

    Praise Jesus!


  4. Let’s not forget that the following is the sin of sorcery or witchcraft.

    “Merida strikes a spiteful and reckless bargain with a witch to fix her mother-problems, which endangers her mother’s life and causes a national crisis. ”

    I’m so thankful that my dd is too old to care about this. Just what we need in this world where paganism is gaining a HUGE foothold–someone for girls to idolize who seeks out someone to cast spells to fulfill her selfish desires.

    We need to flee from and cast out demons/witches, not seek them out to take over our souls.


  5. the movie does not portray witchcraft as a good thing, mereda pays the consequences of following witchcraft to solve her problems.


  6. Excellent! Shortly after my parents married, they decided not to have anything to do with Disney … mainly because of the witchcraft/sorcery issue. If witches and sorcerers are deserving of death penalty according to Scripture, then why should we be portraying them as something positive?

    Now that I’m an adult, I can really appreciate how my parents decision benefited my sisters and myself. It’s so sad to see girls totally consumed with these unrealistic and unhealthy “ideals” that are not just a poor example of Godly womanhood, but instead portray lifestyles that are in direct opposition to it!


  7. Amen and Amen! Thank you so much for this. I really look forward to your perspectives on issues. After seeing Brave, I knew there was going to be a post about the movie explaining why it is wrong on many levels. It is so nice and refreshing to see that I am not the only one that found a lot of things wrong with it! I also greatly appreciated the paragraph in the end in which you explain what a truly godly woman actually looks like, with examples directly from Scripture.

    God bless you both.


  8. You make some good points. I agree that saying sorry is brave. However, I don’t agree with your idea that defying everyone to do her own thing is not “brave”. That is exactly the kind of behavior that is considered brave in mainstream society — i.e fighting for your religious freedom in a Muslim country; fighting for equal rights in Alabama; fighting against the government etc.


  9. Well, my mom has been an excellent mother and raised her daughters in a realistic world, without turning her nose up at Disney.

    Having said that, your review is excellent. Merida’s father sounds like a bad disappointment. Merida showed bravery BEFORE the end, by fighting for herself and her mother, but quite a bore during her pre-spell time. As it happens, every heroine has weaknesses, so this boorishness was probably deliberate. Aside from this, you were too hard on Disney’s princesses. Of course they’re often simple, they’re supposed to be; sweet little Snow White was, but she and the story were supposed to be, a child’s magnificent opera tale. Belle risked herself for her father; Ariel risked a lot for others beside herself; Jasmine was tough but extremely feminine, and Cinderella had kindness but realistic spark. Offhand, these girls are definitely preferable to Barbie and truly cardboard characters. And Mulan? She’s my favorite, an awkward doll who genuinely wanted more than anything to please her parents, practiced domestic arts with sincere desire to excell, and by no means waltzed into the army camp and dominated the men; she was, frankly, terrible at manly arts at first and only learned them to save lives. Out of all these characters, in fact, she’s the best and most well-rounded.

    Nonetheless, I loved your final points, sealing the deal for me. Your comments about a real woman defined by God painted a broader picture for me than the one I thought you had about womanhood.

    Just one thing: you said, “Now, as soon as Disney gives us a princess who can put tent pegs through enemy generals’ heads, hurl millstones at invading armies, defy pharaohs, shelter spies, rebuild walls, work in the fields, water camels, and risk her life for her people, as well as sew and cook and raise a family[1] — then we’ll call that a brave princess.”

    Did you mean a woman should be able to do ALL those things? Even in Disney, that’d be unlikely.


    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jenn!

      Our point in this article is not that Disney Princesses are comprehensively evil, nor that little girls should never watch those movies; rather that their examples are lopsided and incomplete, and every little girl should grow up knowing that the full scope of biblical femininity is far, far bigger. The point is not that there aren’t any good qualities in any of the Disney princesses, because there are — even in Princess Merida, we enjoyed seeing a heroine who loves the outdoors and is skilled with weaponry (I also love riding, archery, marksmanship, hiking, and exploring, and would like my daughters to know those are perfectly compatible with femininity). Our concern is that this film, like the others, presents the idea that the options are either A: to fit one very narrow definition of a woman, or B: to fit a different very narrow definition of a woman.

      You asked about our final paragraph: “Did you mean a woman should be able to do ALL those things?”

      Well, honestly… my goal is to be the kind of woman who could do all those things. Should I aim for less? If we have a hard time imagining one woman being capable of doing and being all those things — and a hard time realizing that none of those traits or abilities are contradictory — then maybe we still have a few of our own mental pigeonholes to break out of before we’ll grasp the full scope of the vision God has laid out for us.



  10. For augustmaat–when you mentioned that defying everyone to do her own thing is brave and you gave some examples of how people have done just that and it is very brave. Well, I think you are missing Anna’s a Elizabeth’s point. The examples you mentioned were not just benefitting themselves, they were one person’s actions that contributed to the betterment of many. In this movie, I think their point was that the heroine defied everyone NOT for any great cause, but just to buck ANY authority who might try to tell her what she should do(that would be the right thing), especially if she didn’t like what they were telling her. Obviously, as redeemed individuals, we need to learn to accept and even act on things that we don’t like. I’m sure Jesus himself didn’t “like” being on the cross. But He did it anyway, willingly. And a movie that puts an independent, she-knows-best, teenager on a pedastal, who won’t accept any wise counsel from anyone is a dangerous heroine to impressionable girls.
    For the Botkin girls–I’ve read your description of Biblical womanhood in your book, on your blog and so on. As a young married woman of four children,(boys) I am a busy lady. We homeschool our children, the youngest of which is only 2. In a discussion lately of entire home management, I was encouraged to not do certain things around the house because they were viewed as the manly, heavy jobs, that were not feminine; jobs like mowing the lawn, trimming hedges, and was even encouraged to use my clothing dryer as opposed to hanging out clothes(as a time saver, which we can’t really afford!). As a mother of boys, I don’t see how not to do these things if I want to teach my boys work ethic(yes my husband does, but his work takes him away much of the time, and I still need to be an example to them!). Not only that, these things MUST be done. Do you see any division of labor at all by gender in the Scriptures?? I felt that she was telling me that as a woman these things were not feminine and I had no business crossing into the man’s zone in my work. My frustration with that is this–1)the work has to get done 2)as a human, I need to exert myself sometimes to be fit and healthy! 3)There are lots of Bible women who worked hard!(Rebekah, when she watered the camels! 4) This advice doesn’t make me more content, but could make me less so, or embittered by the work “I’m stuck doing”.
    Any comments on any lines of gender division?


    1. Claybyfaith, thank you for the excellent question about gender-specific jobs. The Bible provides the key when it sums up the essence of the woman’s woman-ness as being “a helper suitable” for the man. In other words, femininity was designed to be fit for masculinity, to help masculinity. That’s what it is, and that’s what it does. In the Bible, we see that this sometimes involved joining him in his work (Priscilla helped her husband make tents, Shallum’s daughters helped him rebuild the Jerusalem wall), and sometimes doing a job for him to free him up to do other things (Rachel watched her father’s sheep, an outdoor job that boys also did; Rebekah drew the water, which involved a lot of heavy lifting; the Proverbs 31 woman invested in real estate and other business dealings).

      In fact, in Scripture, the delineation between the “man zone” and the “woman zone” isn’t as much about the activity as the context of the activity. In other words, women aren’t actually biblically banned from certain kinds of work (we’re never told, for instance, to avoid anything strenuous, anything that involves killing an animal, or anything that involves dangerous machinery, etc.), but rather from certain positions — such as leading in the church, leading in the gates, and serving as soldiers. (By the way, from the homefront, as wives and daughters, they did fight back against enemies, build up the church, and support the men leading in the gates, according to Jdg. 4:18-22, Jdg. 9:53, Rom. 16:1-6, Col. 4:15, Est. 7:3-6, and Prov. 31:23. Again, it’s all about the context of the activity, not the activity itself. And we believe none of these activities were less “feminine” than baking cookies or setting a beautiful table for dinner.)

      “Feminine activity” is really all about doing whatever the men in our lives need us to do. For us, sometimes that’s sewing, cooking, or hanging laundry (yes!) out on the line. Sometimes it’s helping write books or speeches. And sometimes it’s mowing, weed-eating, power-washing, chopping wood, and using power tools. Our guys do tend to do the more physically strenuous jobs when they’re around… but sometimes they’re busy doing something else that’s more important, and the best way for us to help them get those more important things done is to roll up our sleeves and jump in the gap!


  11. Elizabeth, thank you for your nice response! I agree with you about the Disney franchise; obviously girls all have to learn that there’s more, and as you originally pointed out, the franchise of dolls itself can get incredibly fluffy and materialistic.

    “Well, honestly… my goal is to be the kind of woman who could do all those things.”

    You’re right; I guess it just occured to me that few women actually get to do all those things in one lifetime. But we should certainly aim to do everything God calls us to, and that means being prepared for anything. What an awesome thing to know.


  12. YES! YES! YES!
    Thank you ladies for voicing what I felt about the movie all along,
    and thank you for all your wonderful insight on what it means to be a biblical woman!
    God bless you both


  13. Ladies, I know this is late, but on the topic of Disney, have you seen “Hunchback”? I know you’re movie analyzers. Please watch this song, just out of my curiosity for your opinion; I recently came across it again for the 1st time in years and was stunned by the adult issues and pathos in the film. Thanks.


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