Growing up, my mother always encouraged me to ‘cry it out’. How fitting then, that a film exploring a difficult mother-daughter relationship caused me to cry like a baby not once, not twice, but three times.
I walked into the cinema not knowing anything about the film, except that it is Pixar’s first with a female protagonist, and that said protagonist has an untameable cascade of bright red curls. As someone with similarly unruly hair, I was quite prepared to like it.
And there certainly are many aspects of Brave that I did like. The film makes its attempted feminist agenda clear from the beginning, when Queen Elinor sets out what is expected of her regal daughter Merida. ‘A princess must be knowledgeable about her kingdom… Doesnae doodle… Does not chortle… Doesn’t stuff her gob… Rises early… Is compassionate… Patient! Cautious! Clean! And above all, a princess strives for…well, perfection!,’ she explains, as the film obviously, and with approval, sets up our heroine Merida to subvert these expectations.
Another pro is that unusually for most films, particularly those aimed at girls, Brave features no love interest. Instead, the focus is on the mother-daughter dynamic between Elinor and Merida. Which is certainly more age-appropriate for the intended audience, and helps to teach that there are more important things in a woman’s life than finding a man.
Merida initially goes further than this and rejects the idea of marriage outright, even competing for her own hand in the archery competition in order to beat out the unsuitable suitors. It’s a pretty kick-ass scene, not just because she splits an arrow in twain (I may have stolen that phrase from Robin Hood: Men in Tights) but because to do so she breaks out of her corset and splits her dress, almost literally throwing off the shackles of female oppression.
On a less ideological note, I also appreciated the lovely voice acting of Kelly MacDonald and the stereotypically Scottish names given to the characters (it’s not often you hear a ‘Fergus’ in Hollywood). But it wouldn’t be a can be bitter post without a few ‘helpful’ criticisms.
Firstly, Brave has gotten the Tangled treatment, by which I mean the title is bereft of female identifiers in order to appeal to a broader audience. You’ll also notice that the poster above depicts Merida as being slightly more androgynous in comparison to her form in the film. It bums me out that Disney/Pixar felt the need to disguise the true focus of the film in order to make a buck but I am willing to put that down to a signal that Brave is a new, ‘different’ sort of fairy tale.
Worse is that male characters still far outnumber the female ones. The men provide the comic relief and are the ones to encourage Merida to ‘change your fate’ (more on that later). Her father gives her the totemic bow, and it is her brothers who save her from the tapestry room (by diving into the decolletage of the very put-upon servant lady. I still don’t know how I feel about that.) Men, in the shape of King Fergus, also manage to get off scot-free (heh) in relation to Merida’s impending betrothal. Fergus never bothers to support Elinor in explaining why Merida needs to get married, but only undermines Elinor’s authority. Subtextually, the character of Fergus supports the idea that feminism is only necessary because women keep each other down, and not because of, say, the patriarchy.
The men also get away with being drawn as comically ugly and grotesque. We know instantly that the clans’ suitors are unacceptable because they are unattractive and slackjawed/incomprehensible/look like Mel Gibson circa 1995. This ugliness also prevents us from seeing them as serious characters and helps to absolve them of blame for the whole marriage thing. By contrast, Merida and her mother are drawn to be quite beautiful and shapely (despite the aforementioned unruly curls), helping to both blame them for the predicament but also to reinforce that you can break all the princess rules you want, as long as you are pretty. On the other hand, ugly chicks who subvert expectations are witches, i.e. straight up evil.
Brave‘s tagline is ‘change your fate’. It’s a super positive message, which would be great for little girls who think that they have to grow up to sweep some dude’s house, if the film actually taught that. While Merida originally sets out to make her mother see that marriage isn’t for her (yet), she ultimately makes the decision to follow her mother’s wishes. She is Danny Zuko turning up to the commencement carnival in a letterman jacket to Elinor’s Sandy Olsen rocking up in skintight satin pants. That is, she makes the dutiful decision but everyone forgets about it because ASS/oh wait, I don’t have to marry a guy whose attack method is the same as the killer rabbit from the Holy Grail! If Bear-Elinor hadn’t intervened, in fact, Merida would have become Lady Dingwall – quite the opposite of changing her fate, and playing into the expectation that women will always put the needs of others before their own. Feminism!
I do applaud Pixar for making the commercially risky decision (sad, but it is) to make a female-driven film with no real love interest. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite reach the feminist heights promised by its opening scenes, and it doesn’t teach me how to fix my relationship with my mother short of turning her into a bear. If anyone has a spell for that, by the way, hit me up in the comments section.
RESULT: Brave marks the first time I have actually shelled out some $ to directly further the writing of this blog. I just wish I’d gotten a little more bang for my feminist buck (actually $35, including popcorn).
Up next: Dilemma – what should I call my female friends?