I had high hopes for “Brave.” Megan Kearns, my go-to movie reviewer (and a new, official part of the Fem2.0 team!), raved about the strong female protagonist, the multi-dimensional bond between mother and daughter, and the lack of love interest, or even “male best friend” that we’ve become so accustomed to.
Megan mentions a few of the problems with the movie – the princess motif especially troubles her (as it does so many of us). But there are larger problems that permeate this film that no one seems to be talking about.
I want to be the type that gives credit where it’s due. I do. But in this case, I feel like the congratulations and back slapping to Disney is going a little overboard. Sure, the movie passes the Bechdel Test and features a female protagonist, but is that really enough to spark the praise and admiration being lavished on their heads? I feel about this the way I do about women who smile at men who change diapers or take the kid out in the stroller. As though by taking responsibility for their kids they are somehow making fire or discovering the atom. It’s insulting to both them and me to view that as some sort of accomplishment worthy of parades and medals. Disney? Welcome to the real world. Thanks, but you need to do better.
Let’s take a look at the plot. In all honesty, it was rather bizarre and more than a little complex. In short, Merida is the strong, independent princess who would rather shoot arrows than be a proper princess. When the clans come calling with their first born sons for her hand in marriage, she tells a witch she wants to be able to choose her own fate. The witch ends up casting a spell on Elinor, Merida’s mother, turning her into a bear, and Merida must save her from the overzealous attacks of her bear-slaughtering husband and his fellow clanmen. Elinor, surprisingly, becomes the most complex character in the film, and you get the sense that the writers don’t really know how to make her “fit.” She plays the stereotypical, ladylike figure who encourages Merida to act more like a princess, and there is an element of Queen Victoria in her, encouraging her daughter to “lie still and think of the empire,” as the story goes.
And so Elinor is tuned into a bear, forced to act unladylike by trampling through the stream to eat her dinner while the kingdom goes to war over Merida’s refusal to marry any of the clansmen’s sons. And suddenly the world is falling apart and Merida bemoans all the trouble she’s caused.
Every time a young girl who is portrayed as strong-willed and independent cries alone in the woods about the movie’s central conflict being “all her fault,” warning bells go off in my head. Disney, get it together! The idea is not to tell young girls that by seeking their own path and creating their own fate they are risking the peace and stability of entire nations.
Particularly disturbing was how Merida learns exactly how much is at stake by her impulsiveness, bravery and independence. Weaved throughout the plot is the story of the evil bear, Mor’du. Merida discovers the ruin of an old kingdom that was destroyed by greed when one of four heirs decided he wanted more than his fair share of the kingdom. He, apparently, went to the same witch Merida did, seeking an advantage – the strength of ten men. He, also, was turned into a bear – the same one which now haunts the woods around Merida’s home. The dangers are clear – if Merida does not save the kingdom by “mending the bond torn by pride,” as the witch says, her mother will become a ferocious, evil bear as well, and her own kingdom will falter.
While this seems simple enough, the implications are deeply disturbing. The son who sought an advantage from the witch wanted what was not rightfully his. His pride and selfishness and greed transformed him into an evil bear and ruined his kingdom. How is Merida’s story the same? She also wanted something that was unfair and selfish of her – she wanted to do whatever she wanted to do and did not care about the consequences.
To even suggest that these situations are the same is outrageous. One character wants what is unfair and selfish and greedy. What does Merida want? To not be given away as a prize to the highest bidder. And so when Merida sits in the woods and cries about all the trouble she has caused her family and her kingdom, I felt a little bit like taking one of her arrows and shooting myself.
It was Jaclyn Friedman who wrote in her newest book, “What hasn’t been blamed on women’s sexuality? When women act on behalf of our own sexual desires, we get blamed for being raped, for the demise of modern masculinity, for men’s cheating, for getting cervical cancer, for homophobia, for street harassment, even for earthquakes.” Now, in this case, it isn’t Merida’s sexuality. It’s her free spirit and independence that is instigating all of this trouble and conflict. One couldn’t help but consider the undertones – if Merida had just done as she was told and married whom she was told, none of this would have happened. Hardly the message we should be sending young girls.
Merida learns other lessons along the way. In true stereotypical fashion, her mother Elinor is the upstanding, slightly disapproving lady while her father plays a baffoonish child, always telling tall tales and drinking and playing around too much. The disturbance of these gendered stereotypes is obvious, but when Elinor teaches Merida how to command a room by “the presence of a lady,” walking head-high through a crowd of aggressive, combative clansmen, it’s hard not to cringe when Merida successfully mimics this behavior later in the movie. (Speaking of which, it never ceases to amaze me that more men aren’t offended by this incessant portrayal of grown men as being akin to slobbering, childish idiots.)
Of course, in the end, Merida saves the day by repenting her brash, selfish actions, proclaiming her undying love for her mother and her mother’s good intentions and well wishes for her, and most importantly, sewing back together the family tapestry she had destroyed in anger. As New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis points out: “hers is a contingent freedom won with smiles, acquiescence and a literal needle and thread with which she neatly sews up the story, repairing a world where girls and women know exactly where they stand.”
The end of the story - that which is supposed to reiterate the moral lessons – is equally confusing. Merida restores peace to the kingdom, and her mother kills the evil bear before returning to her human form. Merida is permitted to choose her own course, which in this case, means a compromise. Sure, she’ll still marry, but instead of being given away to the winner of a skills-and-strength contest, Merida will marry whom she chooses, and the young men will have equal opportunities to woo her however they can.
And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder, so what? The closure of the question of marriage is presented during an impassioned speech Merida makes to distract the clansmen while her mother, still in bear form, fetches the tapestry for Merida to resew, and is in no way the conclusion to the movie. So the importance of the marriage aspect of the plot is diminished, which I appreciated. But what happens to Merida? She wants the freedom to “do whatever she wants,” to not be bound by traditions and customs which restrain her free spirit and her unruly red hair. In essence, she is the exact same character as Belle and Mulan and Jasmine. She’s fierce and fiery and fiesty (words never used to describe male characters, let’s just remember), and she wants her freedom. But what does she do with it, exactly? Unclear. Sure, the bond between mother and daughter is stronger now, with Elinor riding alongside her daughter in the woods with her hair untangled behind her, but what does this mean for Merida’s future? For the future of the kingdom? Does being free mean absolving oneself of all responsibility and being able to do whatever one wants? Again, unclear.
Ok, so enough doom and gloom. Let’s talk for a quick minute about what’s great about this movie. Like so many others that have deeply disturbing undertones, this one was a pleasure to watch. Delightful, really. The beautiful graphics, souring musical score accompanying Merida and her horse as they wildly canter through the forest, tug at your heartstrings and instill a sense of Belle’s “I want an adventure in the great wide somewhere” that even overly sensitive feminists can’t help but love. The script is fairly uninspired and dull, but the action moves quickly and does keep you interested. And most importantly of all, you literally cannot stop yourself from staring with unabashed longing at Merida’s wild, unkept red hair.
Disney is selling something, as usual. And from reading reviews and blog posts, it seems that an enormous number of six year old girls are obsessed with this film, while mothers delight in the strong female role and the lessons of independence and freedom its inspiring in their children.
So it’s a start. But it’s not nearly, nearly enough. See the film, enjoy the film, and get a good laugh at the comedic antics of Merida’s three clever, mischievous younger brothers. But don’t think that Disney has completely broken away from the mold of telling women that in order to keep peace in their kingdoms, their choices are limited and the consequences of seeking their own fates are very grave, indeed.