“Brave” Still Teaching Girls The Wrong Lessons

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.

Um, what?

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.

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  • Claravaz

    This is great – thank you. I just saw Savages, another movie where a keen feminist analysis is deserved through the roles of both Blake Lively and Selma Hayek – and again, the ending is left unresolved, as if movies nowadays are willing to slightly bring to light some advantageous situations for women, or at least raise some interesting points (that we’ve been discussing for years) but they are never willing to quite go the length, to really throw down the gauntlet (much like the Snow White movie, where neither woman’s character was fully developed, but only hinted at) as to what a woman’s position is, what it could be, and how it can change and be changed, depending on her actions. I always leave cinemas thinking “I wanted more out of that.” And I keep feeling like, I can’t even applaud the baby steps, because I’m sick and tired of retracing them when the “look at all the female leads we’ve given you” period inevitably dies down.

  • Suzanne

    I wanted to “like” just about every sentence in this post. Thanks. Totally random thought. Elinor (Merida’s mom) had to be a bear to get angry. Watching this movie with my two princess-obsessed nieces and my own young (non prince-identifying) son, the roaring bear scenes reminded me of ugly angry mommy incidents. Wonder if any other parents of small children saw this.

  • Megan Kearns

    I love this post. So many fantastic issues are raised. I also did love Brave (I hope you still read my movie reviews, Abigail!) but
    it contained a lot of problems, especially the princess label and the
    rigid gender stereotypes.

    Regarding the ending, I don’t think it’s a guarantee Merida will marry. I interpreted it as she could choose who she wants to marry but she could also choose not to get married at all. She could choose any path she wished. Despite her nebulous future, I don’t see Merida as automatically synonymous with Belle, Mulan or Jasmine. Their lives
    (and films) ultimately revolved around men. But Merida’s did not.

    The portrayal of female anger in Brave is definitely problematic. Men are allowed to behave
    however they wish but women’s anger has severe consequences and
    punishment. Abigail and Suzanne, I agree with both of you that it was especially problematic that Elinor turns into a bear. It rubbed me the wrong way although I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

    However, I saw the fact that Elinor could only get angry as a bear — that society mandated she remain calm and docile — not as a way to prove that women should be kept in their place or as a means of stripping women of their power. But rather as a condemnation of sexist patriarchy and how it impacts us all. But perhaps I’m giving Pixar and Disney far too much credit.

  • I think I was annoyed by the same thing as you were with perhaps a slightly different framing. The way I put it was, “Who cares if the very fabric of society will be torn asunder, we’ve got patriarchy and gender roles to tear down.” The film to me almost made feminism seem irresponsible, which is obviously not a good thing.

  • oldscrumby

    I don’t like the obvious hand of Disney in the film either, but your attempt to force this narrative into the one you expect of a princess film is also a disservice. The story is about Merida and Elinor refusing to listen to each other. Free choice vs. marriage and proper ladyhood are mostly just window dressing to a basic mother- teen daughter conflict that shows up in any number of films and shows. ( Freaky Friday and Gilmore Girls come to mind)
    Despite all the film’s and your blabbing about destiny, Merida does not ask the witch for a spell to change her fate. She asks for a spell “to change her mother.” Right after we find out the lords are coming there is a scene where Merida and Elinor have a one sided conversations that shows they are both fully aware of the reasons for the others positions and the flaws in their own; it shows that if they would just communicate instead of fight, one would either win the other over or they’d find a compromise. Merida’s mistake with the spell wasn’t in putting her freedom above her duty, but forcing a change through deception instead of earning one honestly.
    That theme is paralleled with the men’s stories. The prince who became Mor’du wanted to be king and sought to achieve it by force; it’s implied he started a war over it and explicit that he sought a spell to increase his strength. In the scene almost right after that we get another story about the making of a king. Fergus was elected king by the lords because he rallied everyone together to defend themselves from invaders. While a battle was involved, Merida’s speech makes it clear that compromise and mutual respect were the foundations of their country, and it’s telling that it’s after expressing that particular sentiment that her mother makes the one about ending the betrothal custom in favor of letting people follow their own hearts. It brings the theme full circle with both of them listening and understanding each other to get to a solution everyone was happy with.
    All that being said, I was disappointed in how overall loose this story was in comparison with most Pixar films. It’s not at their level, but is on par with the last couple of Disney Princess films. Tangled and The Frog Princess both suffered from similarly loose narrative and a serious case of “because the story requires it” plotting. Releasing Mor’du from the curse is shown to have been the driving force behind all of it, but it’s never shown how important that is. Is that what freed Elinor from her spell? Maybe? And there’s the bow and the tapestry, and the crown, and the weird henge none of which ever get fully explained or tied into the story. Pixar may be able to convey a great emotional narrative, but Disney still can’t write a compelling story about girl characters with any depth.

  • Marie

    I am absoulutley obsessed with Merida and her gorgeous red locks. I don’t believe one word of your critical artical. I love the Scottland scenes, her hilarious father, her ” devil- like” brothers, and the dramatic scenes of her and Queen Elinor. I love Angus, the Wisps, and the idea of her speaking for herself and she wants. Plus, her tomboy- like things she does makes her a true Don- Broch. Merida is definally my favorite princess, and Brave is my favorite movie.

  • mforrester

    I think the reviewer missed a few key points. One of them being, Merida went to the witch and asked for a potion to “change her mother”.  She put all the blame on her mother and was so angry that she destroyed the tapestry her mother had made for her. When she sowed the tapestry back together it did not undo the spell. It was when Merida started to cry and begged for her mother back. When she stopped blaming and quit trying to be the victim of a viscous mother and realized that the only person she could change was herself.
          Elinor learns to see things from Merida’s point of view and she gains understanding of her daughter. I think this is an important lesson for parents because as the adult it is our job to make the changes in ourselves before we can see them in our children. 
         As for the conflict of role verses our own desires, this is something women have to balance all the time.  Now one can just do what ever they want all the time with out consequences. Yes, it sucks that women use to and in some countries still do get treated like objects and traded to the higher bidder.  It was not wrong for Merida to fight to be treated as a person with opinions and value. But the person she blamed (her mother)  and the way she went about it (asking to change her mother) was the wrong way. And there are consequences and high prices to pay when a person sets out to change the way society sees a sex or race, just ask Rosa Parks. Merida had to decide if her future happiness was worth the risk of civil war.
         I also loved the fact the men in the movie were just comic relief, and in the back ground.      

  • Tres

    I have to say I was sadly disappointed in Brave! I wanted to see a head strong female lead strike off and accomplish real goals, to prove that not only was she a princess, but she was brave, skilled, strong enough to take her life and forge her own destiny. The meek existance and silly transformation really put me off and I found the story line dull and almost walked out! I have to say it is the worst Pixar movie I have ever seen and I saw so much potential, they just failed at having a good story from the onset.. Oh yeah, I am male.

  • Mr. RHC

    Ah this points out quite a few things I found disturbing about Brave, thanks for putting this into words! I just alltogether didn’t agree with the lessons taught by Brave. Something just felt really off.