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?