The big news about Brave, as I’m sure you’ve all heard, is that it’s the first Pixar movie with a female main character. Twelve other Pixar movies, and each has focused on a story about a male, leaving females to be love interests (save Finding Nemo). I was pleased when I heard Merida, a girl, would be the main character. Then I was disappointed the other twelve movies have been male-centric. Then I was embarrassed that I’d had to have that fact pointed out to me.
And now we can’t seem to let it go. We, as a culture, especially as a feminist culture, can’t seem to talk about anything else. Every review I’ve seen has focused on this aspect, and found Pixar lacking. Why a princess, some wonder? And I suppose this point of contention has some truth to it—too often female-centric movies, especially animated ones, have to center around a princess or around a male (or a group of males, such as Ice Age or UP). Feminism is not a concern of the past, and questions or gender roles, gender performance, and gender stereotype should be asked.
I’m a feminist, but I’m also a writer. I write fiction. I make up stories, and while I usually write about women, I’ve found that forcing overt feminist messages into my art cheapens it. I’ve written about a girl who rebels against her conservative father and questions her faith—and his authority. I’ve written about another girl who believes, truly, that a sexually and emotionally abusive male might be the love of her life. I’ve written about women stuck in relationships where there’s really nothing wrong but there’s not really anything right either. I’ve written about a girl too self-conscious to wear her mother’s swimsuit on vacation when she forgets her own.
As a writer, I often have trouble squaring my beliefs as a feminist with my number one belief as a writer: that it’s a writer’s job to sometimes look at the parts of society the rest of us would rather forget, or look past—the parts that we ignore. There’s story everywhere, in every character, if you know how to tease it out.
And this is where feminism—at least the kind I often see splayed across the Internet—fails for me. The stories feminists want are imbued with feminist meaning. But what is feminist about criticisms such as Merida being skinny and Pixar continuing the myth that skinny is beautiful? Critique the cause, not the effect. Critique the fact that all we ever see in animated media is skinny women (even animals in animated films meet our country’s beauty standard), but how can each individual piece of media be held accountable? Yes, we need more diversity in age, color, size, etc., and yes, ultimately the change will come through individuals making changes, but the writer in me gets offended when critique of one aspect becomes critique of the whole.
To bring it back to Brave, there is no mention of looks. The closest thing to it is perhaps the scene with the corset. Merida is not prized for her beauty, and since her beauty is not integral to the story (it would change nothing in the writing), to critique the story’s validity based on this is to miss the mark. Instead, consider what would change if Merida were black, or overweight. The story being told doesn’t change—what changes is our interpretation of it, how we, as a collective audience, respond.
And this is the crime, but it is not one committed by Brave. Brave is a step forward, taking the princess narrative and flipping it on its head. Brave tells us that stories about princess do not have to be sloppy love stories about women giving up their liberty, their family. Brave shows us a woman who refuses to be bound by gender roles.
Stories about women are not universal. It’s a sad but true fact that a man’s experience is considered human while a woman’s is considered niche. And to me, this is where Brave’s largest strength comes in. There are special concerns still held by women, concerns that are overlooked because they are not applicable to men—they are not universal. Yes, Brave is set in 10th century Scotland, but the idea that women have a narrowly defined world to inhabit is still true today. Brave tells us that doesn’t need to be so. Brave tells women and girls—and everyone, really, if we could all accept that the message is more broad—that you do not need to meet anyone’s definition of yourself, even when the one doing the defining does so out of love. Brave tells us that we can change our fate, that we can change our reality—and that the only way to do it is by being ourselves.
How can anyone think that is less than feminist?by
I read your post and was moved to tell you i am very proud to know we share a common genealogy.
Thanks! It’s always good to know your family supports you!
While I think that you’re right that Merida’s looks aren’t the primary focus of the story (and the story is better for that fact), I don’t entirely agree that in Brave “Merida is not prized for her beauty,” and that changing her looks would change nothing about the story. “Brave” takes for granted that Merida is desirable — that the other clans and their first son proxies would all desire to marry her — and while that’s primarily because she’s the daughter (heir? That’s not made clear) of the king, it’s also — in marked contrast to at least two of her male suitors — because there’s no question of her physical fitness or desirability.
If Merida’s desirability were not able to be taken for granted (or, alternatively, if there were not a conventionally attractive physical exterior behind which Merida’s frustration with her dictated gender roles could be hidden during her presentation to the clans), if the king and/or queen were going to need to persuade the other clans of her marriageability rather than being able, in effect, to auction her off, Brave would be a rather different story. I’m not saying it would be a better story, but it would be a different one.
The more pertinent feminist critique may, however, be the one my wife made as we left the theatre: “For a movie about a mother and a daughter, there aren’t very many female characters.”
I don’t feel that Brave succeeded in any way to be a step forward for feminism or women and I don’t feel that her looks are related to the topic really.
It absolutely should have been a triumph…but it fell on it’s face and here’s why,
Merida is awesome! She is clever, a talented horse rider, a bad-ass archer, independent thinker. She is someone that any young girl OR young boy, for that matter, could look up to. And of course she is indeed Brave…
but there lies the problem…She is WAY too good for this movie.
The plot line is so meek and constrained. The beginning and the trailers promise of an epic adventure filled with magic and grand battle. The magic wisps, her desire for adventure, the archery…it’s all a tease.
It’s ironic and criminal to take such a powerful, heroic, and admirable character and plop her into such mind numbingly girly story…why is that a problem?
Because ANY ditzy princess could have done this. Her skill as a warrior…her courage…her ingenuity are never called to action (she doesn’t even defeat the friggin’ evil-bear!)
The whole point of having this hero is that she go out and actually do something that it would take a hero to do…this plot would have been perfect for Barbie.
Comments or rebuttals?
Maybe I should have said her looks “should” change nothing. The story, to me, isn’t written in such a way that her looks had much to do with it. It more felt like a bone the audience had been tossed in terms of sympathizing with and relating to Merida (why we as a culture need attractive female heroines is another issue). I tried to get at this when I said only our (the audience’s) interpretation would change. Also, I didn’t see anything that implied she was desirable because of the way she looked. Instead it was because of her worth, her position, which admittedly were not things she had any control over or accomplished (I did see her as the heir).
As for female characters, this is true. But it does pass the Bechdel test at least, and, as I tried (and maybe failed) to discuss above, something doesn’t need to take a leap forward to still be considered to be an improvement.
And Joshua: rebuttals? Probably not what you meant, but it does seem a bit like you’re looking for a fight. No, the movie isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t need to be to be either considered good (and I did think it was good) or perfect to be progress. And the major point of my post is that I’m tired of things being declared worthless because they don’t meet some magical standard of feminist perfection—if, indeed, such a thing even exists.
And I disagree that any ditzy princess could have done this. Her courage and skill as a warrior give her the ability to stand up for herself, to run away from home, to feel comfortable spending a day in the wilderness (not singing to birds and animals or cleaning a house but rather finding food, tracking), and that did allow her to fight (not flee, as many of the Disney princess have done, and not to use her sexuality as a weapon like Jasmine did). And heck, she gets a moment where she gets to discover her power beyond weapons. I reject the notion that a strong female character has to have masculine qualities, because that leaves us back at square one with male equating to strength. So to me, it’s irrelevant that Merida doesn’t defeat Mordu (though it is still a woman who does defeat him—and not by using strength or weapons, but rather her brain).
Yes. I agree with all of this. Thank you.