The Bold and the Brave

Brave, Pixar’s 13th feature film, is indeed rather brave. Yes, it strays from the romance focus; yes, it gives us a strong female lead; yes, it questions hetero-monogamous-marriage as the happy ending. But the real derring-do comes from the fact that it is woman-centered and focused on a mother-daughter relationship. Less overtly, it also supplies a witty visual onslaught of gender as performance, particularly via the body-swap portion of the narrative in which Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) acts out her uber-feminine ways in big bear drag.

The relationship between the rebellious Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald), who is more interested in archery and horseback riding than in learning how to be a “proper lady,” and her very proper mother, the queen, captures the complexity of mother/daughter relationships and (mis)communication. Indeed, the film could serve as a companion text to Professor Deborah Tannen’s book You’re Wearing THAT?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.

Noting that the book was inspired by a reporter asking her, “What is it about mothers and daughters? … Why are our conversations so complicated, our relationships so fraught?” Tannen wrote:

There is a special intensity to the mother-daughter relationship because talk–particularly talk about personal topics–plays a larger and more complex role in girls’ and women’s social lives than in boys’ and men’s. For girls and women, talk is the glue that holds a relationship together–and the explosive that can blow it apart. That’s why you can think you’re having a perfectly amiable chat, then suddenly find yourself wounded by the shrapnel from an exploded conversation.

In the film, Merida and Elinor have many such explosive conversations, with Merida railing against her mother’s attempts to imprison her in the princess box via directives such as, “A princess does not chortle … rises early … above all a princess strives for perfection. … A princess does not raise her voice.” In these exchanges, Elinor comes off not only as an overbearing uber-critical mother, but also as a defender of the patriarchy. However, referring to Tannen again, who speaks of her own mother’s focus on marriage, “I think she was simply reflecting the world she had grown up in, where there was one and only one measure by which women were judged successful or pitiable: marriage.”

Elinor’s quip to Merida, “It’s marriage. It’s not the end of the world,” reveals that she grew up in just such a world. And though the film is set in a mythic past, this is still largely true of our present–so much so that reviewers still have to insist, “The pinnacle of a woman’s achievement doesn’t have to always be a husband.” It is disconcerting that such a statement is still necessary here in 2012.

Also disconcerting is the same reviewer’s claim that, “For all the feminism, the boys will still get a kick out of the movie as well.” Ah, yes, ’cause feminism is sooooo off-putting, especially for the testicle-carrying pack. Thankfully, as Variety put it, “This new Celtic princess comes off as enough of a tomboy to ensure near-universal appeal.” Wow! So male-centered films are “universal,” while ones with females at the helm better have a “tomboy” element so as to be appealing.

A similarly bewildering response is the attempt to “out” Merida as a lesbian simply because she doesn’t wish to marry. For instance, Indiewire claims “Merida goes out of her way to assure middle-American audiences that she is not a lesbian.” (I missed this assurance from Merida, or maybe my more hopeful feminist-viewing self chose not to see it.) More problematically, the reviewer suggests that, despite assurances, “She totally is [a lesbian] and the movie would have been much stronger if it had actually admitted it.” This “she must be a lesbian” read is reductive. Sure, it would be awesome to have a lesbian lead in a family-oriented film, but let’s not force Merida into a sexual-preference label just because she is more interested in horses than in her decidedly unappealing male suitors. To her credit, Merida seems more bent towards a queer take on love than beholden to fitting into any hetero or not-hetero label, as when she asks in a crowd-pleasing speech, “Might our young people decide for themselves who to love?”

What makes the film most brave is not its non-glorification of hetero-romance and it’s poo-pooing of gender norms but that it focuses on female characters relationships with other females. Finally! Yes, readers, this film passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Not only does it give us a likeable, non-evil woodcarving witch (Julie Walters), it also gives us (gasp!) a mother that is not dead, not jealous, not vengeful and not absent, plus a heroine who does not need saving any more than she needs/wants a man. This is a rarity in any genre, but especially in animation. Sadly, this is what some reviews cite as the weakness of the film. Indiewire, for example, bemoans the focus on the mother/daughter relationship as simplistic:

The movie changes … going from the tale of a plucky young girl who discovers herself and her power (and causes everyone else to acknowledge the same) to being both broader and more simplistic. It’s now about the relationship between her and her mother (Pixar can never walk away from a good buddy movie set-up), and instead of a young girl’s empowerment it’s about things like responsibility, entitlement, selfishness and communication. Things get much, much less interesting.

I’m not sure when responsibility, entitlement, selfishness and communication became so uninteresting. Maybe this is linked to Hollywood as a largely male club where adventure, death count and special effects are what counts as “interesting.” I found the film’s focus on Merida refreshing–not to mention how beyond gleeful I was that Merida never hooks up with, nor shows interest in, male suitors. Furthermore, though she clearly loves her fun-loving hulk of a dad, Fergus, she also loves and defends her mother–unlike the mostly absent mother/father-focused females that precede her. (For example, as noted at Hypable, “Mulan fought in the Chinese army for her father’s honor. Tiana builds a restaurant in her dad’s memory.”) Merida, in contrast, defends her mother, stating defiantly to the evil man-bear Mordo, “I’ll not let you kill my mother.” Sheesh, if only she had been around to tell Walt and crew to keep mom alive.

In addition to its woman-centered tale, Brave also offers a funny take on gender as performance when the very prim and proper Elinor is transformed into a hulking bear with a decidedly non-feminine body. Despite her new furry form, Elinor still “performs” femininity, prancing and posing and doing her best to have “good manners” with her unwieldy claws as she eats berries and fish. Though she can’t speak (perhaps a sly wish-fulfillment on the part of many a daughter, let alone the male filmgoer/maker, that mothers–and women in general–were rendered mute), she is actually able to say volumes with her actions and gestures, allowing for real communication between her and Merida to finally occur. Once the words are out of the way, once the past arguments between mother and daughter become impossible, the way for true communication is made possible. This is no doubt partly due to the fact that Elinor is able to get outside her own role as queen–one she earlier bemoaned by telling Merida, “I can never get away with anything. …I am the example.”  Merida, in turn, complains, “My whole life is planned out.” Hence, for both of these females, the role of being female is confining.

Masculinity doesn’t get away without critique either. Instead, men are shown as adopting various masculine tropes as they try to out-macho one another to win Merida’s hand. Their propensity for endless, pointless battle is also skwerered, as they fight their way through the entire film, chasing a bear that does not exist through the castle while unaware of the real adventure, or the real stakes, that are taking place in relation to Merida and Elinor.

Despite its rather groundbreaking depictions of a positive mother/daughter relationship and a princess that doesn’t give a fig for traditional romance, the film is getting a rather meh response. Variety claims, “Brave seems a wee bit conventional by comparison with, say, how radically The Incredibles reinvented the superhero genre … on par with such beloved male-bonding classics as Finding Nemo. The Hollywood Reporter bemoans the “standard-issue fairy tale and familiar girl-empowerment tropes,” arguing that the film “has played it safe instead of taking chances and going for something new.” The Indiewire review cited above complains that as “it’s been this long since they’ve taken on a female protagonist … this really should have been a bolder, more experimental exercise.”

I didn’t find The Incredibles all that radical. White male hero–how experimental! And aiming to be “on par” with a male-bonding classic? Yeah, what we need is more films focusing on male bonding, with females as side candy.

As for the “familiar girl-empowerment tropes,” I wish these were more familiar. We need more girls who can hold their own, who rebel, who fight against being crammed into too-tight dresses and having their hair tamed (as Merida is forced to experience in the film).

I did find the film to be bold, and that is sad. It shouldn’t be a bold move to have a strong female protagonist–but, alas, it still is. As Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood notes, Pixar’s next three planned films will not be about women nor directed by women.

Much like Merida grouses to her mom, “Do you ever bother to ask what I want?,” I feel like asking Hollywood the same question. And I want to tell Hollywood to give us more characters like Merida, Katniss, Lisbeth and Elizabeth Shaw. Give us more good mothers, more complex females characters interacting with one another instead of with the hunk-o’-the month, more women of all ages and colors and sexualities that don’t need saving, and more dads like Fergus, who, instead of “protecting” their daughters, say things like, “Princess or not, learning to fight is essential.”

Princess or not, Merida is brave. So, too, is Elinor. Thank you, Pixar, for finally having the ovaries to peg a summer-tent-pole movie around female characters rather than giving us more Woody.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the great review. Now I can see Brave without fear of yet another paper doll princess.

  2. I am senior undergrad film major, and I regularly read your film reviews, and I should say that despite my unyielding feminism, I do sometimes disagree with them. However, I am in love with this critique. Thank you for it. I just read Time magazine’s critique of the film as a poor attempt at feminism and was hugely disappointed. Not in the film, but rather in the reviewer. Instead of looking at the mother daughter relationship, the reviewer just tore apart Merida for not having ambitions like Tiana and Mulan. While these princesses are great, I think it does need to be noted that they, unlike Merida, all ended up married (or, in Mulan’s case, engaged-ish).

    I haven’t seen the film yet, but I am buying tickets for Sunday. I’m eager to form my own opinions on the film.

  3. Strangely, I kinda understand why some people may be “tired’ of the ol’ “girl-empowedered” story. BUT, not because giving power to girls who started off with none, unlike boys, is wrong, but because I just wished, similarly like in this Era, girls were already BORN with power. Basically, a post-allsexism Era, instead of the past/present Era having partially to get in the way of the story with the typical stereotypes plaguing all women. And it’s hard to openly come out with the dealings of sexism, racism, etc., in general, without coming out as “preachy.” Or too preachy.

    People come to the movies or watch stories to ‘escape’ real life and serious issues like real life isms, in general. And the latter, imo, should mostly be subtle rather than blunt (except sometimes), and resolved, if apparent. Just have a story, “of a world,” where there’s no such sexism, that even the sex/gender of a person is pretty much irrelevant, until actual sex is involved. Therefore, the one who asks about a children’s character’s sexuality, it speaks more about their character (sex-obsessed) than the character they’re talking about themselves.

    I look forward to watching Brave out of a lot of typical male-centered movies, but from its forefront, without enough quantity of different stories based on different female heroes, it’s pretty much the same story of the same boundaries that come off as an “anti-feminine” (even though, I LOVE female characters who may be called kinda “masculine” in behavior, similar to myself, but variety is important, too) or an overly preachy tale. Is she ‘gay?’ Is going to keep coming up (Similiar to the questions of MLP’s Rainbow Dash character), until a gay female character main is introduced.

    You’re totally on with the, “more women of all ages and colors and sexualities that don’t need saving (Though, I can accept sometimes, just not more than men),” because if Pixar, for instance, wouldn’t RARELY come out with female heroes and every other past movie started a female main instead of all males, we can have a feminine girl and a more masculine girl, and while some or a rare few have to deal with sexism against them, an example of a world without sexism can be made of the others.

    Pixar could have made it clear, that “every girl is different, just like every boy is different.” They could have said by showing it, that sexuality is not important to their character, like the color of their skin (or as I wish, their sex/gender, too), unless, romance is involved like in ‘Ratatouille.’ But, they didn’t, and because of that, this movie just has too many issues to cram in such limited time space. The Mini Movie was also about a male, AGAIN, instead of a girl, too!

    What may be haunting this movie is probably why I love Avatar: The Legend of Korra so much. Other than having to deal with the idea, that girls can only have equal power if magic is involved (I don’t consider the series magical, other than spiritual), sexism is pretty much a non-major threat to whatever career you may want in the series. And sexism does get mentioned in Avatar, and it’s annoying, but in a good way, because it shows the sexist males in a annoying light that doesn’t get ignored and actually resolved. It’s not a perfect, of course, but it’s the best feminist show you can get right now.

  4. Janell Hobson says:

    I got a chance to see Brave, and like you, Natalie, I’m very pleased that this wasn’t yet another Disney princess movie (although I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed Princess and the Frog, not just because she is the kind of princess my young black self would have been excited about but because she had such strong, independent, ambitions AND still found the time to open her heart to love, NOT with a prince but a FROG!).

    Having said that, while I appreciate the Mother-Daughter angle and was moved by the story in Brave, I must confess to a rather “unfeminist” desire that at story’s end, I really really REALLY wanted Merida to find a man/partner who was her equal. Perhaps that desire comes from the compulsory heterosexuality conditioning that we’ve constantly gotten – not just in Disney princess movies but in society in general.

    But I mostly think that desire for Merida’s “equal” is based on the utter buffoonery of the men in the story. Seriously, for all the fuss and carrying-on of the mother reminding Merida that she’s a “princess” who must passively accept her suitors, I couldn’t take this queen seriously. For real, what mother would gladly see her beloved daughter married off to any of those doofuses? They were all LOSERS with a capital “L”!

    So, yeah, it’s great that Brave was able to envision a heroine staying uncoupled at the end and reconciling with her mother, but just for gender equality’s sake, the movie needed a guy who was worthy of Merida and who was her genuine equal.

    Spoiler Alert:
    i.e. I would have gladly settled for an alternate ending in which the Bear-turned-Prince was presented as a potential love interest.

    It’s great to have feisty, strong-willed heroines in movies, but I wish filmmakers didn’t subscribe to the idea that, in order to have such a heroine, all the men (except her father of course) have to be morons in comparison.

  5. Found your article by Googling my favorite line in the movie- “I’ll not let you kill my mother.”

    Part of what made the line great was that it wasn’t said to Mordo, or any antagonistic character. She said it after finding the strength to defend her mother from Fergus himself.

  6. morgaineofthefairies says:

    I absolutely adored the movie, and I agree with your review 100%.

    However, when you said, “Elinor is able to get outside her own role as queen – one she earlier bemoaned by telling Merida, ‘I can never get away with anything. … I am the example.’” That’s incorrect. There is evidence that the queen may feel this way, but it is actually Merida who says that exact line in her voice-over in the beginning, when she compares her situation with her brothers’ (they “can get away with everything”).

    Great review otherwise! And I would love to know what kind of crack the reviewers at Indiewire are smoking, so I can avoid it like the plague and tell everyone I know to do the same!

  7. Of course Merida is a lesbian! Any woman or girl who does not put men/boys and their interests/demands first and hers last is automatically viewed as a ‘lesbian.’ Male Supremacist System constantly proclaims that a female’s only reason for existence is to serve men in whatever capacity men demand. Women and girls are not autonomous beings no instead we are expected to devote our lives to serving men. So that is why the (I assume he is male) reviewer of Indiewire made that misogynistic claim ‘Merida is a lesbian!’

    Adrienne Rich’s essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’ detailed how and why Male Supremacy demands women must be focused 24/7 on men and Indiewire’s misogynistic claims prove compulsory heterosexuality continues ad nauseum for women.

    Incredibles was another boring propaganda exercise promoting the lie that men are always the intelligent, resourceful ones whereas women are weak pathetic creatures.

    The Bold and The Brave however is radical because the female characters are not male created views of how women and girls are supposed to behave and act. The female characters in Bold and Brave are individuals and that is why malestream film critics are getting their knickers in a twist. Can’t have a film depicting females as autonomous, independent beings can we? Might give girls viewing this film ideas that the lies malestream media constantly churns out claiming ‘a female’s sole value and worth is being sexually hot to males’ is just that – misogynistic lies.

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