Spoiler Alert: This blog will give away key plot points from Disney-Pixar’s Brave.
I’ve come to expect great things from Pixar. Both before and after their purchase by Disney, they have managed to produce films that capture the imagination with vivid imagery, incredible story lines, and captivating messages. In Up, the geniuses at Pixar managed to create one of the greatest love stories in cinema history in the first 10 minutes. In Monster’s Inc., the writers capture the idea that joy is more powerful than fear with tremendous depth and cross-generational accessibility. I could go on and on.
Thus, I was particularly excited to see Brave, the first film from Pixar with a female lead protagonist!
Instead of a powerful story with an important moral (and dazzling visuals) that can empower women and girls with its feminist message, what I found was a bland recreation of traditional gender roles.
Set in Scotland, the story follows Princess Merida, a defiant and independent heir to the throne of an allied fiefdom. More interested in riding horses and archery than in being a proper “lady,” Merida butts heads with her mother, Queen Elinor, clearly the ruler of her own roost (and arguably of her husband’s kingdom). When Merida comes of age to marry, she discovers that she must wed the son of a nearby lord, the one who performs best in an archery contest. Seeing her chance at freedom, Merida chooses to compete in the archery competition to win her own hand, easily besting her potential suitors. When this only upsets the established order, Queen Elinor tells Merida that she must simply fall into line. Angry, Merida visits a witch, who she asks to change her mother in a way that will alter Merida’s fate. The witch then turns Elinor into a bear (the most feared and terrible foe of the king). Merida then has about 36 hours (“until the second sunrise”) to mend the relationship with her mother. After a fun montage of bear mom and Merida bonding, Merida staves off war between the clans competing for her hand by giving an impassioned speech about how the young leaders of the clans should be able to marry who they choose, not forced to marry through arrangement. The young suitors pipe up in agreement, and all of the fathers reluctantly agree. Celebration about the new-found freedom begins but is cut short when King Fergus finds bear Elinor and chases her into the woods, trying to kill her, with an angry mob not far behind. The film climaxes with bear Elinor fighting off another bear (actually an power-hungry prince from long ago turned bear) to save her family. Brought together through this harrowing ordeal, Elinor turns back into a human, and the family lives happily ever after.
So Close . . . Yet So Far
Let me be clear. I enjoyed Brave a lot. It was fun and funny and left me with a smile. It’s notable that Pixar’s first female lead departs from the Disney tradition of weak princesses who only exist to find love and live happily ever after. The plot doesn’t even have a love story, which (in some weird, backward sense) is progress! Merida is strong and independent (if not petulant) and works hard to get herself out of the incredible trouble she creates for herself. The film comically alludes to the idea that Queen Elinor actually rules on many occasions when her bumbling husband seems incompetent. While these depictions of the female protagonists are surely better than what we saw in Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, et al., they are far from the feminist positioning I was hoping to see in Brave.
After all, the most powerful message in the film does little to upset the established, patriarchal order. It simply says, “young people, regardless of gender, should be free to follow their dreams, unhampered by tradition.” Does that change the the system of patriarchy, whereby women are expected to be “ladies” and the men “warriors” and “rulers?” At best, it’s unclear. At worst, no.
Essentially, Brave is Mulan meets Little Mermaid – a young woman who can fight her own battles gets to marry whomever she wants, regardless of her father’s wishes.
The female characters aren’t particularly ground breaking. They are simply pushing outward on the tiny box into which women are expected to fit. They aren’t tearing down that box, building a new box, or envisioning a world without gendered boxes. Further, they aren’t even deep, captivating characters like the ones Pixar is so known for creating. Instead, they seem to be little more than plot mechanisms meant to advance a poorly-contrived story.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the portrayal of the two female leads was in the depiction of the mother-daughter relationship. I am so happy that the film highlighted the intergenerational struggle to understand one another that so many mothers and daughters face, but their attempt was lackluster. The relationship remained shallow, and the crux of the plot (repairing the rift) was not explored in any depth. One of the great struggles in the different waves of feminism lies in how the movement, its gains, its struggles, and its perspectives have been passed from generation to generation. The film hints at this, but there is little exploration.
An arguably more powerful plot line would have been one where Merida challenged the idea that men must be the rulers rather than one that focused on a mother-daughter conflict. What about an epic saga (ala Mary Queen of Scots or Queen Victoria) of a woman who finds herself matriarch in a patriarchal order? Even that, though, essentially sends the message to young girls that to be independent means that you act like the men, that girls have two options: act like a “lady” or rule like a man.
Independence Means Act like a Man
What I hoped to see from the brilliant minds at Pixar was a dramatic re-envisioning of gender in the way that they dramatically re-envisioned family in Finding Nemo, re-envisioned heterosexual love and intergenerational relationships in Up, and re-envisioned social order in Monster’s Inc.. What would a powerful, feminist female lead look like? The sky’s the limit! That’s the beauty of fiction! And if I knew what that would look like, I would be a writer for Pixar. However, what I do know is that it cannot be too hard to find a way to say more with your first female lead than “being an independent woman means loving who you want and acting like a man.”
Pixar Played it Safe
Pixar is a game changer. When Pixar created Toy Story, they changed animated film. With Up, they changed the genre of romantic film. When they created Monster’s Inc., they changed fantasy to say, “Monsters can actually teach us more about ourselves than human characters ever could.”
Unfortunately, with Brave, Pixar played it safe. Pixar played it so safe that they missed a monumental opportunity: to change mainstream animated film by offering a truly feminist lens through which future mainstream filmmakers (particularly of animated film) can offer messages to men and women, young and old.
Will Brave hold your attention? Absolutely. Will it make you smile? Undoubtedly. Will it empower your niece or daughter to begin envisioning a world without the bounds of patriarchy? Look elsewhere.