Pixar’s Brave: A Not-So-Brave Attempt at Feminist Film

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.

Plot Summary

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.

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13 thoughts on “Pixar’s Brave: A Not-So-Brave Attempt at Feminist Film

  1. Since you so often talk about race as well as feminism, I’d be curious also about your reaction to the Scottish stereotyping. From Shakesville:

    Scottish people, with their clans and tartans and ubiquitous red hair, have become the go-to group for makers of pop culture who want all the fun of racial stereotyping without the charges of racism.

    “Scots are tribal with weird indigenous clothing and silly instruments and some old language and funny words and goofy accent and ginger hair, and these facts have been used to marginalize this occupied nation for centuries, but they’re WHITE, so it’s okay!”

    These are the exact things that have been used to paint reductive pictures of people of color in animated (and non-animated) films for years.

    That Scots are now frequently used as “hilarious” sidekicks and broad comedic punchlines, and historical Scotland as a shorthand for “magical kingdom,” and that Scots are the most identifiably tribal white culture is not a coincidence.

    Whiteness is not a monolith.

    http://www.shakesville.com/2012/06/brave.html

    • I guess I would be curious to know what evidence there is of widespread oppression of Scottish people exists in modern society…

      • I\’d go read the whole post over at Shakesville. The material concern (one of the material concerns) McEwan is raising is that there is a pretty direct line between 1) borrowing an apparently tribal white culture to play with tribal stereotypes 2) telling people they are overreacting when they identify those stereotypes as problematic and 3) using all that as justification to repeat the pattern with tribal cultures (usually or exclusively compose of p.o.c.) whose people are systematically oppressed.

        Since I\’m not sure if you\’ll have time to click through, here\’s the other (more explicit about material harm) relevant part of the article Emily quotes above (I can\’t figure out how to blockquote in your comments, but suffice it to say the entire rest of my comment is actually an excerpt from http://www.shakesville.com/2012/06/brave.html:

        Whiteness is not a monolith.

        Acknowledging that a universal white culture is a fallacy even though a universal white privilege is not, is an important part of dismantling white supremacy. Othering certain groups of white people isn\’t a part of dismantling white supremacy; in fact, it serves to reinforce the racist narrative that there is a default \”normal (white) culture\” from which people exclude themselves by being \”different.\”

        When people of Scottish extraction don\’t object to Othering, that silence is construed as tacit tolerance and used to suggest that peoples of color, particularly indigenous peoples, who object to similar treatment of their cultures are \”oversensitive\” and \”overreacting\” and all the other familiar silencing tactics.

        Meanwhile, when people of Scottish extraction do object—surprise!—the same silencing tactics are used against them.

        Which is all the evidence one should need to identify that it\’s the same gross game, in a whiter package.

    • Thanks for the insight, Carolina and Emily. After reading the article at Shakesville, it reminds me of a lot of the scholarship on why White Supremacy hurts White people too. In order to become “White,” people with a certain skin complexion from a diversity of cultures had to give up their cultural identity in order to buy into a club that got them the benefits of White Privilege. To stereotype and marginalize the cultural realities of Scottish people for comedic effect is a perfect example of this. Scottish people in the United States have almost exclusively bought into the system of Whiteness where their Scottish heritage is little more than a fun throwback, and as such, they are divorced from the realities of occupation and from the cultural experience of being Scottish, and as such, it’s easy to make fun of Scottish culture and experience.

      The danger I see in this article, though, is the slippery slope into, “I understand racial oppression because, even though I’m White and benefit from White Privilege and Supremacy, my culture is stereotyped and mocked in a Pixar film.” Even though Whiteness is not a monolith, White Supremacy and White Privilege tend to act as one, and White people, whether or not we are connected to our tribal or other cultural heritage, benefit from that system, and as such, we cannot hope to understand the true realities of racial oppression in this system.

  2. With all due respect, I entirely disagree. There were things about Brave that disappointed me, but their step towards having a heroine rather than a hero wasn’t one of them. I don’t feel that Merida was just a girl acting like a man, I felt like she was Merida, acting like Merida. She wasn’t interested in archery and horseback riding because those were manly things, she was interested in them because that’s what her character likes, and I think that’s the message Pixar was sending. One must limit themselves based on society’s view of things–in fact, one should never decide anything based on society’s view of things. Ever. Merida made her own choices based on her own preferences, and that’s the goal, isn’t it?
    I’m not entirely sure I understand what is meant by “independence means act like a man” either. In the story, Merida has to fight for her freedom, but so do we all! That’s not something specific to men; wanting to be free and the willingness to do whatever it takes to obtain freedom is something all humans, not just men, can relate to. And so what if, to get that freedom, you have to fight giant, hulking bears? Again, that’s not something specific to men. It’s something specific to people whose fate is hinged on giant, hulking bears, and that’s why Merida did it. Not because it was manly, but because she had to. It might have just as easily been “learn to sew to save your mother”….oh, wait. It sort of was.
    Overall, I was disappointed more with the shallow feeling the film gave me than anything else. We all know deals with witches never end well, and that to reverse a spell one has to have some sort of epiphany, and walk a mile in another’s shoes, and all that, and I was frustrated that Pixar couldn’t find a more original way to have Merida and her mother make amends. Maybe the kingdom is in trouble, and King Fergus is unable to save it, so Merida and Queen Elinor have to work together, acknowledging one another’s strengths and their own weaknesses. Or maybe they both get lost in the woods and only Merida’s knowledge of the wilderness and Queen Elinor’s maturity will save them. I felt like they dropped the ball there.
    But everything else from the characters, to the animation, to the comic relief, and especially the soundtrack, was amazing. Even the voice actors all hit the target perfectly, for me. If I didn’t know and love Pixar as much as I do, I probably wouldn’t have given this movie the time of day, and though it’s definitely not my favorite, I don’t regret seeing it at all.

    • Agreed 100%. Merida didn’t want to act like either a lady or a man, she just wanted to do archery and go on adventures. The movie was a good time, but it was too by-the-books. I wish it would’ve explored the Bravery and “changing your fate” themes more.

      • I read Jamie as maybe trying to evoke, with his “independence means act like a man” thing, the same argument that has been raging in feminist circles as long as I have been alive, and that has been reopened lately with some of the Mommy Wars content (including the Having It All article in the Atlantic). It is the argument that in very simplistic terms is often characterized as the difference between second and third wave feminists.

        It can be formulated as something like, “Does it constitute a feminist triumph for women to win the right to enact traditionally masculine roles (eg be doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, for example)? AND if that happens and it is a triumph, it enough of a triumph (ie. is the feminist project completed)?”

        The problem presumably raised by questions like this is that if women get to do the stuff men kept them out of for so long and that counts as a triumph, then we seem to be saying that traditionally “masculine” activities and cultural cache are indeed more highly valued than traditionally “feminine” ones, since everyone wants the former and is trying to ditch the latter, apparently. SO the best of the third wave wants a more fundamental restructuring.

        If that’s what Jamie’s gesturing at, I can see where that’s there in Brave a little bit. However, I didn’t see that (the thing above or anything else to do with who has claim on what roles and who ought to aspire to what) as the main gender problem with Brave, really. Actually, I kind of agree with the general sentiment of Trent and jennifer above, though–I was not dazzled but nor was I enraged by the gender politics on display in Brave. I enjoyed Brave pretty okay if not quite a lot, and had about as many problems with how it handled gender as I expected to have going into a Disney/Pixar film. My biggest beef would probably have been the tired old competent mum/doofus dad thing–that particular one really gets my feminist knickers in a knot–but honestly it was not any worse than anything else I’m used to seeing in the mainstream media and I don’t really expect radical gender anarchism or anything from flippin’ Disney.

        I think in the final analysis, my expectations are not as high as Jamie’s about all the Pixar wonder–I always think they are good films, but reliably mainstream in their politics and morals. As one example, I would in particular critique the notion that Monsters Inc somehow introduced the concept that monsters have something to teach us about humanity to the genre of speculative fiction. I don’t know what pre-Monsters Inc spec fic you’ve been reading, dude, but that is a powerfully present trope all over fantasy and sci-fi long before Pixar got their sticky paws on it. I know a lot of people have a big old giant crush on Pixar, but to me they aren’t the messiah or anything, just some rich white dudes who can be counted on to make a quite entertaining film. Which they have once again done.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jennifer. Caroline did a good job of describing what I meant by the “Independence Means Act like a Man” section, but let me expand. You’re right that through Merida, Pixar tries (somewhat successfully) to tackle general themes of bravery, overcoming expectations, and truth to self. However, I was questioning whether that had to be done through traditional masculine themes (fighting, sport, and power over). Does this send a subtle message that young women who simply are powerful women in traditionally-feminine roles are somehow less worthy of our attention and respect? That’s what I worry about when a “feminist triumph” in animated film (much like Mulan) depicts a woman who acts like a traditionally-defined man (fighting, archery, hard-headedness, etc). I would like to think that the brilliant writers at Pixar could have come up with a more nuanced and creative way to encourage strong, independently-minded young feminists than the trope of “act like a man.”

      • Jamie, have you read “Blood and Guts in High School” by Kathy Acker? If not so you know IT IS NOT A STORY ABOUT A ROUGH TIME IN HIGH SCHOOL! I WOULD RATE IT A SRTONG R! It is about the life of Janey told by Janey, a 10 year old girl. She is a victim and ultimately suffers from the patriarchal system.
        It is a crazy postmodern book with pictures and poems thrown in (this is the account from a 10 year old) it is unusual. Kathy Acker writes this way because she is try to escape the patriarchal system and create a language of her own. Postmodern feminism literature from the 70s is some good stuff. But that extreme feminism has caused this backlash for women’s rights we are still in.

      • Ohhh, I see. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but now that you mention it, I agree. I’d like to see a woman/girl heroine who commands respect in more subtle ways that aren’t necessarily geared around physical strength. Thanks for explaining. 🙂

  3. […] 3. I was SO INCREDIBLY EXCITED about the first Pixar film with a female protagonist.  What I found when I saw the film, though, was a boring, safe film that was FAR from feminist.  Coming in at number 3 is Pixar’s Brave: A Not-So-Brave Attempt at Feminist Film. […]

  4. […] Change From Within was upset that 16 year old Merida didn’t topple the entire patriarchy and take over the kingdom (talk about unrealistic expectations for girls to live up to) and Feministing seems to be upset that the whole movie has to be seen through a “sexual lens”, which doesn’t even make sense. Were they watching the same movie I was watching? […]

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