Sunday, June 24, 2012

Pixar Gets Brave

This is part of my series on the gender of the 2012 big budget blockbusters. Check out the others:The Hunger GamesPrometheus, MIB3The AvengersSnow White and the HuntsmanMagic Mikeand Ted/Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

Remember that lie we're told in which children's stories/movies with female protagonists don't do well because boys don't like girl driven stories? WELL, HA! In your face! Disney/Pixar's Brave is doing really, really well which is awesome.

I caught Brave yesterday afternoon. I was super excited for it, especially after I heard this quote from director, Brenda Chapman: "I wanted an athletic girl. I wanted a wildness about her, so that’s where the hair came in, to underscore that free spirit. But mainly I wanted to give girls something to look at and not feel inadequate." Yay! So as I sat down yesterday and the lights went dark in the theater, I was amped for a strong female character. What I got was that and much more. Without further ado, and while trying to keep it as un-spoilery as possible, here's what I loved about Brave!

1) Merida is a strong, female character. And so is her mom, Elinor. 

Merida is a powerful, free spirit who stands up for herself, and is strong both physically and emotionally. She isn't to be pushed around. And her mother, Elinor the queen, is the same way. She leads with integrity and only wants what is best for the clan and her children. While Merida's father is the brawn of their family, Elinor is clearly deferred to for decisive leadership.

2) It's all around a female driven/centric story.

As mentioned, I went into this knowing that I was in store for a strong female character. What I didn't know was that it was actually an entirely female driven story line. The whole plot focuses on the mother-daughter relationship, specifically the shift that often happens when teen girls begin to seek autonomy and defy what their mothers want. Previously extremely close relationships can become strained during this time as mothers learn to respect their daughter's independence and daughters struggle to create their own identity. There's a particularly poignant scene where Merida and Elinor fight and each destroy something the other loves dearly out of anger. It's certainly something that most women can relate to.

The main tensions between Merida and Elinor also center on the struggle between tradition/duty and individual happiness. It's actually a very frequent theme, but usually from a masculine perspective. Here, we see it through a female lens. Merida doesn't want to get married "right now if ever" but Elinor is pressuring her to make a decision in order to maintain harmony and balance between the clans. Both things are actually really important, and in the end, Elinor and Merida must both find a balance.

3) It reminds us that relationships, compromise, and understanding matter.

When the movie opens, we see young Merida with her mother in a happy, extremely loving scene. However, as years pass and through their conflict, they loose sight of that close, loving relationship. The biggest message I kept getting over and over again is that relationships matter. (Trying so hard not to spoil, so forgive vagueness.) In order to right things again, Merida has to repair the bond with her mother, both metaphorically and literally. And as mentioned above, Elinor and Merida both must learn that there is actually a balance between their two perspectives--it's not one way or the other, it's about living in the gray area and finding compromise through listening to one another.

But this lesson is not limited to the women; you see relationships are important to us all. Merida helps the male leaders of the clans realize that they don't need a marriage tradition to keep them bonded and at peace. Instead, they have understanding, their friendships, and their histories together to unite them regardless.

4) It advocates for loving who you want (but it's not a love story!)

The lesson that Elinor and the clan leaders learn through Merida's example is that betrothal ain't cool. But maybe, just maybe, this lesson has bigger implications than just the microcosm contained in Brave. Maybe, just maybe, all people should be left to love who they love. 

But beyond that, even though Elinor stands up for her right to love who she wants, she doesn't actually have some other guy waiting in the wings. She's happy and complete just as she is. She wants to leave open the door for future love, but unlike every fairy tale in the history of the world, is isn't rewarded for finding a beau. She's rewarded for being herself.

5) It's about female agency. 

Lastly, a huge message is that female agency is a great thing. (And by female agency, here I mean, "an individual’s (or group’s) ability to make effective choices and to transform those choices into desired outcomes.") Because Merida and Elinor achieve agency, they are able to save not only their relationship, but each other lives, and their clans in general.

I don't usually write these analyses with the intention of motivating y'all to see or skip a movie, but I can't help to sign off this one with a hearty feminist endorsement. Seriously...Brave was so, so good. And I hope that its success serves as another nail in the coffin of that lie we are told that I opened with.

Edited to add: I kept trying to think about the race situation in the film, and I didn't know what to say...I'd like to defer to Melissa McEwan at Shakesville for a look at Scottish stereotyping. (However, I feel it's noteworthy to add that she hasn't actually seen it, so she doesn't really highlight all of the good things the film has going on. In the comments she said, "A character can be progressive and needed in one way, and regressive and problematic in another. Intersectionality means these things are rarely zero sum games." That's what I'd really like to acknowledge here. I think that's important)


  1. I left the theatre thinking it was yet another movie where women have to compromise in order to make sure that men don't destroy everything.

    The key (and disappointing) scene for me was where Merida effectively surrenders to an arranged marriage in order to keep the peace. I was hoping for a more powerful message where determination and bravery means that women do not have to compromise (and indeed should not) and the world does not end (but becomes a far better place).

    Maybe my expectations were too high.

    1. I definitely see where you're coming from with that interpretation, but I don't really agree. I do feel that compromise is a theme, as I said above, but not in a way that depicts women compromising for men; rather the importance that everyone compromise. (The men had to do so in agreeing to keep the peace despite there being no betrothal. Yes--the men were way too destruction focused but I think it is because they serve as a comic relief to the heavy stuff women are dealing with.)

      I don't think that Merida really surrenders--rather, I see her and Elinor as two sides of an issue and both of them had to take the time to understand the other. In the scene that I think you are referencing, Elinor concedes and supports Merida in NOT surrendering to marriage. Together they both advocate for marriage based on love.

      Like I said above, Merida stands for individual happiness and Elinor for stability and tradition. They both give a little--Merida learns to understand that the stability of the clans is important but Elinor -and this is the more important lesson, IMO- realizes that her daughter is right to follow her heart, and brave to want to do so.


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