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.


Natalie Wilson is a literature and women’s studies scholar, blogger, and author. She teaches at Cal State San Marcos and specializes in the areas of gender studies, feminism, feminist theory, girl studies, militarism, body studies, boy culture and masculinity, contemporary literature, and popular culture. She is author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. She also writes the guest columns Monstrous Musings for the Womanist Musings blog and Pop Goes Feminism at Girl with Pen. She is currently writing a book examining the contemporary vampire craze from a feminist perspective. Dr. Wilson is also part of the collaborative research group that publishes United States Military Violence Against Women and is currently working on an investigative piece on militarized sexual violence perpetuated against civilians. She is a proud feminist parent of two feminist kids and is an admitted pop-culture junkie. Her favorite food is chocolate. Visit her online at NatalieWilsonPhd.