Carmen Rasmusen Herbert: Glamorized Disney princesses may not be affecting girls the way parents believe

Published: Monday, Oct. 5 2015 7:24 a.m. MDT

Ariel, the princess from "The Little Mermaid." (Disney) Ariel, the princess from "The Little Mermaid." (Disney)

Little girls love princesses.

Growing up, my favorite was Ariel. I thought she had the prettiest voice I’d ever heard. On the ride home after seeing "The Little Mermaid” in the movie theater, I decided I wanted to be a singer.

I was 4.

I honestly didn’t think much about her little seashell bra at the time, either, nor did it really bother me as I grew older. She is a mermaid, after all!

Now, I’m a little more aware of what girls (Disney princesses included) are wearing in movies. I appreciate and root for “realness” and modesty just as much as the next person.

Ariel, the princess from "The Little Mermaid." (Disney) Ariel, the princess from "The Little Mermaid." (Disney)

But I’ve been a little surprised at the controversy surrounding Disney Pixar’s other redheaded princess, the feisty Merida.

In preparation for her official induction into the Disney Princess Collection, the fiery “Brave” princess received a 2-D makeover that included more eyeliner, a smaller waistline, tamer hair and a slightly off-the-shoulder gown.

She was changed, parents worried, to look more “sexy.”

For the record, I disagree with that description. She looked a little different, yes, and perhaps more grown-up with character makeup, but I think “sexy” is a bit of a stretch. (But, while we’re on the subject, how come none of these parent’s have an issue with Jasmine’s belly-baring gown? Or Tiana’s completely strapless dress?)

Anyway, the Merida image circled the Internet and received a huge online backlash, including protests for Disney to change the picture and “Keep Merida Brave.”

Meaning, non-glamorous.

Even creator Brenda Chapman was appalled at the new look, telling the Marin Independent Journal that she created Merida to “break the mold — to give young girls a better, stronger role model, a more attainable role model, something of substance, not just a pretty face that waits around for romance."

Chapman went on to tell CNN, “Merida wouldn’t be caught dead looking like that and I think that’s what’s angering everyone. They’ve (Disney) totally lost sight of the character in this new design.”

But, Disney disagrees.

“The artwork used on Merida’s official social media sites has always been the imagery from the movie — there have been no changes,” read a statement from Disney on www.today.com. “We routinely use different art styles with our characters and this rendition of Merida in her party dress was a special one-time effort to commemorate her coronation.”

And a source familiar with the product line said, “For a wedding or prom, even a tomboy is going to dress up for a special occasion. That doesn’t change who she is or who she will continue to be or who she remains on the Disney websites or in most of the products.”

Well, we know parents are sure up in arms about the new, “fake” version of Merida. I can understand that. They don’t want their daughters to think of Disney princesses as overly glamorized, sultry beauties whose sole purpose in life is to win over Prince Charming and live in a castle.

But hold on a minute. What do girls REALLY think?

I decided to call on some of my favorite little princesses and find out.

I interviewed some of my nieces and their friends privately over the phone without any prompts or help from either myself or their parents.

Here are some of their answers. They’re really quite fascinating!

Question: What makes a princess?

Jacquelyn, age 8, said a princess is someone who is “always kind, and never mean to people.”

Bridgette, 6, said princesses are “nice and pretty.”

Six-year-old Hallie said, “A princess is someone who’s brave. You are a princess by being someone’s friend.”

Mia, 7, said, “You have to be royal and kind to others.”

Interesting. Most didn’t mention “beauty” as a requirement.

Question: Who is your favorite princess and why?

Sarah, 7, said “Ariel, because she’s a mermaid.”

Evelyn, 3, said “All of the princesses!”

Hallie said Belle, because “she’s smart!”

Jacquelyn said “Jasmine, because she’s courageous.”

Question: Do you think you’re a princess? What do you have to do to become one?

Cozette, 6, giggled and said, “No! But you have to be nice to others. I am nice, but I would have to be even more nice (to be a princess).”

Jacquelyn said, “Yes.” When asked if you have to be pretty, she quickly responded, “No! You don’t have to be pretty. It doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside, it matters how pretty you are on the inside!” (For the record, Jacquelyn is a very beautiful little girl — all of them are.)

Bridgette said, “Anybody can be a princess.”

Hallie said, “You need to be nice to your friends and family.”

Evelyn, my spunky little mini-me, said, “I don’t want to be a princess because every time I try to wear their dresses, my hair gets caught and it hurts.”

These sweet, honest answers both surprised and amazed me. Here is the core Disney demographic, ages 3 to 8, telling me what they think it means to be a princess. And very rarely did any of them mention dresses, makeup or high heels. And not ONE brought up Prince Charming!

To these little girls, being a princess means being a good person. They don’t notice or pay attention to princesses being “sexualized.” Could it be that, possibly, we parents are the only ones worried about such a thing? That our insecurities are being projected on our children?

Chapman argues that Merida was finally a princess that a girl could look up to. But I disagree.

What about Mulan, a girl who disguises herself as a boy and joins the army to fight in her father's place, clad in heavy armor throughout most of the film and learns to love herself exactly the way she is?

Or Cinderella, a poor housemaid taking care of her family with little complaint, who wears nothing but rags most of the film and never gives up hope?

Or Belle, who only becomes a princess after she learns how to truly love someone for who they are inside?

Or Pocahontas, who is willing to literally lay down her life to protect her friend, pleading understanding and tolerance for others whom we think are different?

I think Disney has always celebrated the “inner princess.” In fact, in most Disney films, the big ball gowns and glass slippers aren’t introduced until the end of the movie. It’s the imperfect, “normal” girls we all fall in love with, right from the get-go, and the single most common trait the young girls relate to in being a princess is, in the words of my 6-year-old niece Cozette, “having a big heart.”

I think we need to stop worrying and give our beautiful little princesses more credit. It’s fun to play dress-up and look “pretty,” but we don’t need to worry that’s all our girls will think of when they look at a Disney princess.

Chances are, their sweet innocent eyes see past the “perfect” and focus on the important qualities each unique Disney princess — and little girl — possess.

Just for fun, I asked my two boys their thoughts.

“Is Mommy a princess?” I asked with a wink.

“Not yet!” my 4-year-old replied.

Not exactly the answer I was hoping for!

“Who is a princess?”

“Grandma!” my 2-year-old declared.

Yes, indeed. Princesses take time, and I hope to one day be as “kind," "nice," "friendly" and "courageous” as my dear princess mother who continues to be an example of what being a queen in training is all about.

Carmen Rasmusen Herbert is a former "American Idol" contestant who writes about entertainment and family for the Deseret News.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company