July 8, 2012
It’s a strange moment for women in American cinema. The popular and critical successes of movies like Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games have proven that more complex female protagonists are marketable (surprise!). Studio executives, previously so resistant, are now eager to build entire franchises around women who fight and lead others and call attention to themselves. At the same time, the alt-fairytale genre has moved into the mainstream, with familiar narratives revisited and revamped to suit new norms (Snow White and the Huntsman, in which an armored Kristen Stewart faces off against the wicked queen, is a perfect example of this).
Pixar’s Brave comes in at the intersection of these trends. Though Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a fairytale princess, she scorns this role in favor of days spent horseback riding and rock-climbing. Charming and relentlessly clever, the fiery redhead represents Pixar’s riff on a common cultural staple.
Merida’s stubborn, independent spirit gives young girls a fictional model for deviance, and her skill with bow and arrow works nicely as a symbol for accomplishment. In a landmark moment early in the film, Merida is given the choice of how three princes will compete for her hand in marriage. Maximizing her limited agency, she picks archery. A comic scene follows, in which the three competitors are shown to be coddled, simpering caricatures whose arrows hit their marks only by sheer chance. Merida then reveals her own incredible skill and quickly defeats all three, even splitting the last arrow in two. This scene is exhilarating in the same way that, years earlier, it was to see Disney’s Mulan land her first punches on Li Shang. Both characters take back their autonomy and demonstrate that through practice and determination it is possible to beat men at their own game. As women strive to earn recognition for their work, these kinds of small victories, in which ability trumps all else, can be comforting. In the end, these narratives of success are what we want our daughters to see.
Yet much as Mulan was urged to “be a man,” Merida’s show of skill is performed within a man’s world. Archery remains a man’s trade, though Merida happens to be very good at it, perhaps the best. By having Merida aspire to roles typically assigned to men, the film seems to offer the message, Women can someday be men. Masculine goals are deemed worthier, and while an occasional woman can achieve them, there are no men in this fictional world who desire femininity.
Moreover, Merida’s gender-transgression is very much the exception rather than the rule. Masculine power struggles are essential to Brave—King Fergus seeks revenge against the bear that took his leg, Merida’s three brothers get away with all kinds of mischief, and the four clans make constant reference to wars passed. When the princes are presented to Merida, they each claim to have killed an extravagant number of men in battle. The movie has a kind of cartoonish self-consciousness about all this and it uses the strengths of the medium to exaggerate the masculine for comic effect. The men puff up their chests, wave around swords and axes, and boast to extreme heights. But while the male ego is slyly critiqued, it is not depicted as harmful. The clans bicker and rib, but never kill (at least on screen). Only Merida and her mother seem to find these displays ridiculous, and the gap between genders is signaled by their eye rolls and pointed jabs.
Thus what’s worrying is that, while an admirable protagonist, Merida is an anomaly. The only other women we see are housekeepers, wives, or peripheral girls sighing over the three princes. The effect on the viewer is that Merida’s way of doing things is privileged but not normalized. Merida is a feminist pioneer, but she is not a modern woman.
Does it matter that she isn’t? It is difficult to construct a character that is all things to all people. Criticism has called Merida out as too much a princess, protesting that she’s so much a Disney creation that the Pixar stamp is unrecognizable. Certainly Merida falls within a particular demographic common to early Disney creations (think Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella)—skinny, white, and sometimes corseted, she doesn’t break through any barriers beyond gender. In fact, beneath her unrepentant tomboyishness, Merida is surprisingly safe and inoffensive. If female empowerment is the new project of mainstream cinema, then when can we expect a blockbuster that shows the world through the eyes of young girls of color, or those of different body types? By keeping the issue of gender within predetermined boundaries, Brave and other movies like it leave key segments of the population high and dry.
While it may be unfair, it’s unsurprising that Brave is under such strict scrutiny. Merida has both the honor and the burden of acting as Pixar’s first female protagonist. As such, she has been endlessly dissected and framed as a makeshift “state of the union” of how gender is marketed towards children. This has some legitimacy. Because children’s movies mirror a presumed “nuclear family” audience, they have the authority to critique or affirm these relationships (I went to see Brave with my mother, and I saw many other mother/daughter pairings in the theater). Often these movies reassert traditional values and in this sense Brave does not deviate from genre—in the end, Merida moves to sacrifice her own desires for the good of the clan.
But despite its evident shortcomings, Brave is a joy to watch. In one scene played for humor, Elinor maintains her courtly manners despite having been turned into a bear. We see her lumbering form attempt to walk elegantly, clothe herself in drapes, tend to her children, and wear a small crown perched atop her head. The audience laughs at these moments because when gendered behavior is transposed onto another form, we realize how fundamentally ridiculous it is. This theme continues in the forest, when Merida must teach her mother-as-bear to fish—here, Elinor is forced to unlearn her unnatural behaviors in order to survive. Moments like these combine humor, tenderness, and critique to paint a complex picture of our society in a way that children can understand.
Indeed, the makers of Brave show a gracious and genuine interest in the concerns of girls today, and in the lucid depiction of these concerns. Merida is rambunctious and eager, unhesitant and prideful, compassionate and adventurous. The movie gives her narrative space and a voiceover with which to demonstrate these qualities and to exercise her power. The story, whatever its content, is assuredly her own.
And a rather different story it is: Brave becomes almost an anti-narrative within the princess genre, as the tale of a princess who does not wish to marry the prince at the end and, moreover, who doesn’t have to. Merida’s complete lack of interest in the opposite sex, and in romantic relationships in general, is refreshing in a genre that is often defined by marriage. Whether Merida’s apathy indicates youth, willfulness, or something lying outside of heterosexuality, this small shift can be counted as progress. Leaving her narrative open-ended allows the young girls watching the film to likewise decide their own fates.
Further, the film succeeds in creating a rich portrayal of the contentious but loving relationship between Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor. This alone is a significant improvement within a genre populated by dead mothers (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin); surrogate, often wicked mothers (Cinderella, Snow White); and mothers barely seen or absent from their daughters’ lives (Mulan, The Princess and the Frog). Merida’s mother is not only present, but also deeply involved in her daughter’s life and in her choices. (Her inclusion, happily, also allows the movie to pass the Bechdel Test.) This consistent engagement, no matter its faults, gives Merida a female role model and prevents isolation or tokenism in a world dominated by men.
The mother may even be seen as an alternative to Merida herself. Both Elinor and Merida are recognized for their positive attributes. Queen Elinor is able to ride and protect herself, pacify the clan leaders, and command the attention of a room full of armed men. She takes the First Lady approach whereas Merida chooses the Presidential—her power is channeled through her husband’s position, but she possesses power nonetheless. Which brings us to perhaps the strongest message of the film: reconciling generations of women. Intergenerational feuds aren’t uncommon in movies about strong-willed teenagers, and like those that came before it, Brave ends in compromise. It is no wonder that the film began as Brenda Chapman’s exploration of her relationship with her own daughter, before she was taken off the project and replaced by director Mark Andrews. Queen Elinor’s method is not perfect, no, but neither is Merida’s. Both are trying to find ways to maintain their identities in a world that privileges the masculine.
Ultimately, I was left wondering—with Merida’s immense, well, bravery, what will Merida’s daughter be like? Or her granddaughter? We see through Merida that an accumulated break from tradition breeds progress. It’s exciting to think what kind of woman Merida could become. And this excitement makes me feel that Pixar is headed in the right direction.
Courtney Duckworth is a junior at Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.