(Posted this at zekefilm.org earlier today. Thought I’d share it with you all, too.)
I didn’t see Brave on many best-of-the-year lists, but it made mine. I’ve been watching children’s movies as a parent for over twenty years and Brave was not only one my favorite films this year, but I thought it was an important film; a movie that matters.
I have young daughters and like most little girls, they like princess movies. We’ve seen our share of Disney princess merchandise pass through the house, and I confess that the youngest daughter even got a Disney princess poster for Christmas last week. We’re also Pixar fans here, and it was exciting news when Pixar announced that it was releasing a film with a female lead – a first! This didn’t just grab our attention, but was heavily anticipated by feminist film critics who were thinking that after 17 years, it was about time for Pixar to build a movie around a female.
So you can imagine the reaction when the news broke that this groundbreaking movie, this giant step forward for Pixar and girls everywhere, was about a princess. And to add insult to injury, a significant part of the plot involved who that princess would marry. The responses were predictable, if somewhat understandable: Brave was a “failure of female empowerment”; showed a lack of feminist imagination; was a product of the Pixar “boys’ club”.
I am as happy as the next feminist when a girl who is not a princess slips through security and captures our attention (Hooray, Mulan!), but it’s a disservice to Brave to lump this film in with every other movie about a spunky princess who follows her heart and finds true love. Brave is not that movie. It breaks the mold in ways that really matter, and that really do move “girls’ films” forward.
Before I discuss plot and character, I must say a word about the animation in Brave. Much has been made of Merida’s hair, and rightly so. After our family saw Brave, my 21-year-old son said, “I could have looked at her hair all night.” Merida’s hair is a glorious orange-red galaxy of whorls and tendrils. Pixar actually had to develop a new animation technique just to get Merida’s hair right, but it was entirely worth it. That beautifully unruly mane tells us something important about the untamable Merida, and it’s no coincidence that Merida and her mother battle over keeping that hair confined. What is true of the animation of Merida’s hair is true of the rest of Brave: the CGI is top-notch. This is a wilder, less artificial world than the one of Cars or Toy Story, and not just Merida’s hair but grass, wood, fabric and bear fur are richly rendered. In short, the visuals of Brave are brilliantly realized.
But I want to point out other ways in which Brave goes off the beaten path; beyond technical excellence to thematic importance.
First of all, Merida has a mother. Not a dead mother, not a stepmother, not an absent mother or an evil mother stand-in, but a really and truly present and active mother. This is still an anomaly in children’s films. Just think back through those Disney princess films and you’ll see what I mean: Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Jasmine, Belle, Rapunzel. It’s a rare Disney girl who has an involved mother in her life, but boy, is Queen Elinor ever involved. On behalf of well-meaning if overbearing mothers everywhere, I appreciate Pixar letting Queen Elinor live, raise her daughter, not be completely evil, and even grow as a character. What’s more, the plot of the film is not really about who Merida will marry: it’s about the conflict between these two strong women. While Elinor seems to be making Merida’s life miserable, she is not simply a wicked stepmother minus the step. Queen Elinor has learned not only to survive but to thrive in a traditional, patriarchal culture. She has played by the rules that society has given her, and has turned them to her advantage (we clearly see that she is the real leader in this this monarchy, rather than her kindhearted but boorish husband). Elinor represents the countless mothers through history who have tried to pass on to their daughters the same systems they have received – not to oppress them, but to protect them from the high price of rebellion and nonconformity. And in this case, in a royal family, the price of rebellion may be not only personal, but social, driving clans to war.
Merida, in turn, represents all the women through history who have not only resisted patriarchy, but their beloved mothers who have helped to perpetrate it. Feminism has never simply been a conflict between men and women, but a much broader conflict between generations, between stasis and change, between the relatively-secure known and an uncharted future. As harshly as Queen Elinor comes across in Brave, I could empathize with her, even as I rooted for Merida to assert her agency in matters of love and marriage.
And that leads us to the second way in which Brave departs from the well-trodden path. Merida doesn’t marry or even fall in love in the course of the movie. She isn’t rescued by a prince; she doesn’t change her essential nature to be with a man; she ends the movie happily independent and still alone. The message is not anti marriage, but it is refreshing to have a movie featuring a princess in which her fate does not hinge on finding Mr. Right. The day before writing this essay I took my two youngest daughters to see Hotel Transylvania – a mediocre movie in every way (with a dead mother, to boot!). But particularly galling to me was the idea that you “only zing once”, a theme so critical to the movie that they turned it into a finale song. Here’s Charlie Jane Anders on the subject:
We’re sort of pounded, sledgehammer-style, with the notion that you only “zing” with one person in your life. This is treated as a great universal truth, which Mavis’ mother leaves for her in a weird little book, with much fanfare. But Dracula and the other monsters also treat it as an absolute truth about the universe. The very first person you experience even the slightest infatuation with is the one, and is the person you are going to spend your entire life with, absolutely for certain. It’s sort of weird, the extent the movie goes to, to drive home this notion — mostly because it papers over a big plot hole, but also because I think the film-makers think it’s romantic. I’m not even talking about “love at first sight,” which is a different sort of idea — the neurotic terror with which they keep shrieking, “You only ‘zing’ once in your life,” as if failing to hook up with the first person you have a crush on will leave you alone until you die, is kind of weird. Not sure this is a message movies for kids ought to be sending, really.
I’ll be far more dogmatic about this than Anders. A message like “you only zing once” is mad, bad and dangerous for girls. You wonder why so many young women keep a death grip on clearly unhealthy relationships? The notion that if you lose a boyfriend you will never find love again is not helping.
And so, back to Brave, in which Merida leaves open the possibility of finding love – but she is a complete person without romance. Merida is strong enough to choose for herself, and (we trust) choose wisely. Can I get a witness!
One last thing about Brave: it is a measured victory that Merida wins. Some critics of the film have complained that Merida accomplishes very little. Sure, she speechifies on behalf of “love” marriages rather than political arrangements, but she remains a princess. She will remain in the castle, with her parents, in a patriarchy, and undoubtedly she will continue to live under many of the expectations that fell to women in the medieval world. Even the needlework which Merida mends (along with her family relationships) is seen by some as symbol of female oppression. But if Brave was going to have a consistent worldview, what would the viewer ask of Merida? Should she have taken this mythical Scottish kingdom from male-dominated clandom to Ms. Magazine in one move? Real, pragmatic feminism has always moved by steps, not by taking down societies in one one swift move. Women have always dealt with competing loyalties, with cost-benefit analyses applied to life choices. Part of empowerment is learning to live in the tensions between freedom and responsibility, and perhaps we both learn from our mothers and help our mother to learn from us. It might have seemed a more gratifying ending to have Merida ride off on her beautiful Clydesdale, Angus, shouting “Freedom!” with her red hair streaming in the wind. But it was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a far braver choice to show Merida and her mother riding together, knowing that they will return to the castle and to life in the royal household.