Movies and television shows for and about women usually find themselves subject to more scrutiny than other pop culture products. Last summer the critical and commercial success of Bridesmaids (2011, Paul Feig) had reviewers declaring that yes, women are funny, as if no women had ever been funny on film before. Oh Mae West, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, Gilda Radner, Catherine O’Hara, Whoopi Goldberg, Roseanne Barr (etc.) it’s like you never even existed. And more recently, Lena Dunham’s new HBO series Girls was criticized both for not being funny enough (even though the show was never billed as a sitcom) and because Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, is too fat and frumpy to be a credible (i.e., beautiful) leading woman. Place a woman before the camera and eventually, she will be labeled as either not measuring up or as measuring “over.” She will be almost perfect, but not quite. She will be:
also too fat
also too fat
also too skinny
once too skinny…
but now too fat
Still Mischa Barton
3-year-old Paisley Dickey, profiled on TODDLERS & TIARAS, imitates an actual hooker
Kim Kardashian’s ass
too stuck up
The Real Housewives of Atlanta
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Fiona Apple, with octopus
Didn’t complain enough about being physically assaulted by her boyfriend
Rihanna and Chris Brown
Complained too much about being physically assaulted by her husband
Is this getting tiresome yet? Good. I find it tiresome too. It’s difficult to locate a female celebrity/film character/TV character who hasn’t been characterized as being too something in some way. There are many reasons for this — the 24 hour news cycle, gender inequality, the tendency to judge women based on their appearances, and the hyppersexualization of women in the media. Most germane to this blog post, however, is the fact that there just are not many films and TV shows created by women and/or addressing the lives of women. For example, with so few TV shows written by and focused on women, it should not be surprising that the new female-focused television programs that premiered in the 2011-2012 season (Girls, 2 Broke Girls, and The New Girl) were subject to so much backlash (in which, I will admit, I also participated). We have so many hopes and expectations for women-centered texts that when they finally do appear, we want them to be everything and to represent everyone. They should also be funny. But realistic. And also provide great role models. But realistic role models. Aw hell, here we go again…
So it should not be surprising that Brave, the first Pixar film to ever feature a female protagonist and the first to be co-directed and co-written by a woman (until she was fired and replaced by a man) has been the subject of high expectations and mixed reviews. As Slate‘s Dana Stevens writes “In order to satisfy expectations at this point, Brave would have to not only revolutionize the depiction of girls and women onscreen, but make its audience laugh as hard as we did in Toy Story and cry as hard as we did in Up. Oh, and could it also reinvent computer animation and rake in three times its budget on opening weekend?” Amen.
Eat your heart out, Katniss!
Below is a summary of Brave‘s strengths and weaknesses, for those keeping score:
Pixar films are gorgeous. Enough said.
* The female characters, Princess Merida and Queen Elinor, are complex and realistic:
Slate‘s Dana Stevens writes: “Elinor is never an evil-queen villain, but nor is she an idealized self-sacrificing mother. Rather, she’s a particular, individual person, devoted but flawed”
*Brave isn’t a movie about women trying to prove that they are as good as men, it’s a movie about one woman asserting her right to choose her path:
New York Magazine‘s David Edelstein writes: “In addition to being fast, funny, and unpretentious, Brave is a happy antidote to all the recent films in which women triumph by besting men at their own macho games, as if the history of male dominance is one of patriarchs suppressing females’ essential warlike nature. Merida wants nothing more than to control her own fate, her rage provoked by the refusal of her mother—for whom duty and subservience are paramount—to see the world through her eyes.”
*There is no love interest for Merida. I repeat: THERE IS NO LOVE INTEREST FOR MERIDA!
The Village Voice’s Melissa Anderson writes: “Where fellow bow-and-arrow expert Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and the titular princess of Snow White and the Huntsman are each one point in love triangles, Merida, resolutely asexual, is nonetheless entangled in the most complicated, all-consuming love- and hate-filled dyad of all: that between a teenage daughter and her mother.”
*Yes, Brave is the rare Disney film in which a mother is both alive and not an evil cannibal:
Time‘s Richard Corliss writes “Disney princesses have a rough time with the women who run their lives. The female authority figure is usually a stepmother — in Disney animated features, the inevitable phrase would be “wicked stepmother” — who offers Snow White a poisoned apple, forces scullery work on Cinderella and, in Tangled, locks Rapunzel in a high tower for her entire childhood and most of her adolescence. The millions of actual stepmoms, among all the postnuclear families in the world, must think of these portrayals as libel. They should bring a class-action suit against the Walt Disney Company and picket its Burbank headquarters.
Enough with the talky-talky, when are you going to KICK SOME ASS?
*Brave isn’t as good as Toy Story or other Pixar films:
Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan says: “Shown on its own, without any logo attached, “Brave” simply doesn’t feel as much like the Pixar movies we’ve come to expect.”
Chicago Tribune‘s Micael Phillips writes: “At this point in Pixar’s history, the studio contends with nearly impossible expectations itself. This is what happens when you turn out some bona fide masterworks. “Brave” isn’t that; it’s simply a bona fide eyeful.”
Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr writes: “Uh-oh: “Brave” is the first Pixar movie that doesn’t feel like a Pixar movie.”
*Too much teen angst, not enough action:
Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr writes: “The first half-hour bumps along with humor and a striking lack of direction.”
Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan says
: ”Making things worse is that the spell’s results initially make Merida even more self-centered, more insistent on being blameless and in the right, than she’s been before. This is one young person who’s allowed to be too bratty for too long to make anyone happy.”
*We’ve seen these characters and plots before:
A.V. Club’s Tasha Robinson writes: “These kinds of lapses don’t seriously harm the movie, but they do enhance the feeling that it’s skating along a series of broad stereotypes—martinet mom, browbeaten but resistant dad, rebellious teenager, bratty kids—without finding the depth in them that, say, The Incredibles did.”
Slant Magazine’s Richard Larson says: “But ultimately the film offers nothing more than a caricature of a well-worn conceit (a princess doesn’t fit into her shiny box, so she just breaks all the rules and does what she wants), neatly repackaged for another generation of young moviegoers who haven’t met Princess Jasmine from Aladdin and don’t realize that they’re eating yesterday’s leftovers.”
I agree with the above praise and the criticism of Brave. But, I can’t help thinking that the criticism is a little too … critical. If you take Brave for what it is (a film about the complicated relationship between a teenage girl and her mother) rather than what it’s trailers and merchandise make it out to be (a film about a Scottish princess who can KICK! ASS!), then the movie is quite satisfying, even moving.
Here is where I cried
For example, about halfway through the film we get a flashback to Merida’s childhood: she is frightened by a thunderstorm and leaps into her mother’s arms. As Merida snuggles into her embrace her mother assures her that she will always be there for her. This flashback so strongly contrasts with the damaged relationship between the two women in the present story that, I will admit, I cried a little bit. As someone who frequently fought with my own mother over my life choices and who now, with a daughter of my own, understands why mothers often act like tyrants, Brave resonated with me. It’s like My So Called Life with bears and kilts. Angela Chase would have killed for some of the sweet plaid outfits being worn in this film.
Angela Chase (Claire Danes) wearing a kilt.
But, more important than what I took away from this film is what my 6-year-old daughter thought of it. After all, as another entry in the canon of Disney princess movies, isn’t Brave really for her? I wanted to understand why she enjoyed the movie and if she understood some of its more nuanced points about compulsory heterosexuality and gender roles, or at least as much as a 6-year-old can understand about those things. So I asked my daughter, who is a Disney princess expert (she has watched and memorized most of the canon), if I could talk to her about the film and then share her thoughts on my blog. She agreed even though I don’t think she quite understands what a blog is. What she does understand is that having mommy videotape her is fun!
My daughter’s former favorite princesses, just chillin.
Below is a transcript of our conversation (and yes there are SPOILERS below. Proceed with caution):
So we went to see Brave yesterday. Did you like it?
Why did you like it?
Because it was like, kind of spooky and scary and there was, like, this really brave princess and that’s why now she’s my favorite princess.
What made Merida “brave”? What did she do?
She actually, ummm, defeated that ummm, Mor’du I think his name is?
Yeah, the bad bear.
And that was a brave thing to do?
Uh huh. Because he, like, ruled for a long, long time and he was, like, the most strongest person…
Bear. He used to be a person.
Can you tell me the story of the movie? What happened in the movie?
Well there was this princess named Merida and she loved archery so one day her mom said she had to get married and she didn’t want to…
Why didn’t Merida want to get married?
Because she wanted to be free and play archery.
So if Merida got married she couldn’t do archery anymore?
Well she wanted to do archery.
[note: the 6 year old has evaded my question about compulsory heterosexuality]
So then she asked this witch to do something, to change her fate, so she could still not marry. But then her mother actually turned into a bear instead.
So Merida thought she was getting a spell to change her fate but the spell turned her mother into a bear?
Yeah. Just like Mor’du.
So why did you like this movie so much better than the other princess movies? Why is Merida your favorite princess?
Because she’s much braver.
So was Ariel [from The Little Mermaid] not brave?
[she shakes her head]
What about Cinderella? Was she brave?
[she shakes her head]
What about Belle [from Beauty and the Beast]?
[getting excited] She was brave but not as brave as Merida! Cause Merida defeated Mor’du.
And that’s why she’s your favorite? Because she’s so brave?
Yeah that’s how brave she was.
My daughter pauses to consider her answers.
Can you tell me why Merida’s mother wanted her to get married?
So she could be a princess.
And Merida didn’t like that?
What was Merida’s mommy like?
She was a queen and, umm ,she wanted her to do everything that she wanted her to do.
Do I ever do that to you? Make you do things that I think you should do that you don’t want to do?
Nope. [pause] Sometimes.
Clean up my toys. Ummm, put me to bed…Oh wait, I don’t want to go to bed! Tell me I can’t watch TV…when I want to.
Do you think I would make you get married?
No. You don’t make me get married unless I want to.
Do girls have to get married?
No. [pause] Well they have to get married at some point.
[fidgets for a long time] Umm, they just do.
Who told you that?
Ummm, one of the kids at Creative Arts [her after school program].
Do you think that’s true?
Making fish faces into the camera.
What happens if you don’t get married?
Ummm. You don’t have anybody to help take care of your kids.
What if you just don’t have any kids?
Oh yeah, you can’t have kids if you don’t have a husband!
Sure you can!
No you can’t. You need the … other chromosome.
Oh, I see what you’re saying. But is it okay not to have any babies?
Only if you get that, that thing [she is referring to a vasectomy].
My daughter is confounded by heteronormativity
[Here the conversation devolves a bit as my daughter has a hard time conceptualizing how anyone might be able to have babies out of wedlock, etc., so I change the subject.]
Tell me what Merida’s daddy was like.
Well he was the one who started her with the bow and arrow. At the beginning he had the bow and arrow and then he gave her her own.
Is it okay for girls to shoot a bow and arrow?
Yes, Silver [her friend] has one.
So it’s not a boy thing?
It’s a boy-girl thing. Nothing is a boy thing or a girl thing! A girl can like Spiderman, a boy can like dollhouses.
[Here I get very excited]
Do you think Brave is a movie for boys and girls?
Yes. Jude [her 2-year-old brother] went! Brian [our friend] went!
Well thanks for talking to me about the movie. Do you want to tell me what your favorite part was?
When she got her mommy back.
Awww. I was sad. I was worried she wasn’t going to get her mommy back.
Do you think the movie was saying that you should always listen to your mommy? Or what?
I think it was saying: be brave.
So what should we take away from this conversation, other than the fact that my 6-year-old knows what a vasectomy is? First, it is significant that she likes Merida better than her previous favorite princesses (Belle, Aurora, and Tiana) because Merida is “brave.” Clearly my daughter has been conditioned to understand the film through its ubiquitous marketing campaign (“Merida is BRAVE!”). But still, I think it is significant that a 6-year-old moviegoer recognizes the value of a young woman defeating a large, scary bear. It is important that a 6-year-old girl understands the value of a woman who is brave. Second, it is significant that my daughter does not view Merida’s bravery as a male character trait being co-opted by a female character, like it’s unnatural. The film is so female-centered (yes, we have the slapstick moments with the four clans, but that is comic relief, not the film’s heart) that female bravery makes sense. Of course Merida stood up to that scary bear — who else was going to save her mother?
So while much of the critique of this film focuses on its bait-and-switch tactics — trailers and posters promise a film about a brave young girl fighting battles but delivers a mother-daughter melodrama, the film promises Pixar but delivers a Lifetime-style tearjerker — I don’t see it as a bait-and-switch. Rebelling against your parents’ repressive visions of your future and being willing to sacrifice your life in order to rectify your mistakes is brave behavior indeed. So while Brave is not a perfect film and Merida is not a perfect character, both are good enough. And I think we can all agree that good enough is sometimes good enough.
So did you take your children to see Brave? Did they like it? Why or why not?