BRAVE: A Mother and her Daughter Weigh In

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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:

too fat

Lena Dunham

also too fat

Gabourey Sidibe

also too fat

Jessica Simpson

too skinny

Keira Knightley

also too skinny

Thandie Newton

once too skinny…

Mischa Barton

but now too fat

Still Mischa Barton

too twee

Zooey Deschanel

too old

Joan Rivers

too young

3-year-old Paisley Dickey, profiled on TODDLERS & TIARAS, imitates an actual hooker

too trashy

Kim Kardashian’s ass

too stuck up

Gwyneth Paltrow

too sexy

Sofia Vergara

too black

The Real Housewives of Atlanta

too ambitious

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

too simple

Rebecca Black

too complex

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

Robin Givens

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:

The Positive

*SO PRETTY!

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?

The Negative 

*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.”

Whew.

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?
Yes
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?
The bear?
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?
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?
UH UH!
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.
Like what?
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.
Why?
[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?
Not really.
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.
Me too.
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?

14 thoughts on “BRAVE: A Mother and her Daughter Weigh In

    Kelli Marshall said:
    July 9, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Awwww, lovely and entertaining as usual. 🙂 Has M seen THE INCREDIBLES yet? Yes, it reinforces marriage, children, etc., but it’s much more female-centric than (I think) people give it credit for.

    princesscowboy responded:
    July 9, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Thanks Kelli! Maisy did see THE INCREDIBLES 2 summers ago. But I don’t think it made much of an impression because (surprise surprise) it is not a “princess” movie. Someone on Twitter asked if she had seen MULAN yet and I think we’ll rent that one soon (I’ve never seen it either!) so I can ask her if Mulan is as “brave” as Merida.

      Kelli Marshall said:
      July 9, 2012 at 2:14 pm

      Oh yeaaaaaaah, princesses… I’ve not seen MULAN either. Perhaps we should all watch and report back. 😉

        princesscowboy responded:
        July 9, 2012 at 2:15 pm

        MULAN Roundtable: you, me, and the 6yo.

      missmelisser said:
      July 9, 2012 at 3:15 pm

      Mulan is okay, but still completely focused on completing the hetero-marriage requirement.

      Pris said:
      July 9, 2012 at 4:00 pm

      Mulan *is* as brave as Merida, but she takes a boatload of shit for it in the film, and the film isn’t titled BRAVE, so I don’t know if it would come across to a six-year-old. It would be interesting to find out. Mulan is, though, possibly my favorite Disney movie.

    Anna Froula (@frozola) said:
    July 9, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    I love this post and Miss M’s blog debut. Kudos to you both (and to M for knowing “chromosomes”). This is something I’m thinking through in my work on women soldiers. And I love this: “Nothing is a boy thing or a girl thing!”

      princesscowboy responded:
      July 9, 2012 at 2:19 pm

      When she said that I started to freak out “I completely agree with you Maisy! Good job!” All these years of telling her that it is OK for a boy to wear a dress (she is very interested in drag queens) have paid off!

    Noel Kirkpatrick said:
    July 9, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    I hope you don’t mind that I’m chiming in despite not having kids, but after seeing the movie twice over the course of the week (it was see Brave again or see The Amazing Spider-Man again, so it was an easy decision), and after reading this post, I had some thoughts I want to chip in.

    The big thing, and related to overall theme of your post about not only compulsory heterosexuality (though there are against the grain readings that rest on stereotypes) but on how, when Merida decides to play by the rules of patriarchy, she gets punished.

    I didn’t pick up on it the first time through (realized it on the second viewing), but she has every right to shoot for her own hand because she is the first born. The traditions and rules didn’t specify first born son, so, really, she’s perfectly within her rights to do what she does. And that, for me, was the more revolutionary aspect of the movie (along with it being, at its core, an animated maternal melodrama, something I don’t even get to point all that often in anime), that it was showcasing this enforced double standard of behavior.

    So when Merida says it isn’t fair, she’s not being “bratty,” as Turan accuses her of being; she’s actually pointing out a major societal problem that she, and the clans as a whole, are experiencing.

    I do like that Elinor’s role in this arrangement is complicated a bit as well. I think it’s safe to say that she’s the running the kingdom (she’s seen with papers a couple of times), but she’s also complicit in furthering the status quo by pushing gender norms on Merida that are outdated, at least in the castle that they live in.

    And I think all of that is really great to see play out in the movie, and one that I think, like your interview with your daughter proves, that there’s a real take-away to be had about it that parents should be discussing with their kids, boys and girls alike. 🙂

    Do let me know what your daughter thinks about Mulan in comparison to Brave when you two get around to watching it. Like I mentioned on Twitter, I think there could be an interesting discussion there as well about gender roles (and gender bending) and notions of bravery and action as gender neutral traits.

      princesscowboy responded:
      July 9, 2012 at 2:32 pm

      Hi Noel
      I’m glad you’re in this conversation and thanks for the link to the piece on gender performance and sexuality in the film, which I will read soon!

      I don’t think Merida was being “bratty” either. She has a right to be annoyed with her situation and, after she completely screws up, she acts the way any teenage girl would act: guilty and defensive.

      Although the marketing of this film was intended to widen its market, in the long run, I think it’s going to really hurt the film. I was going in expecting an ass-kicking action film. Instead I got, as you point out, a “maternal melodrama.” I happen to LOVE maternal melodramas, so that was fine for me. But there are going to be a lot of disappointed moviegoers out there–which is a shame, because this is a good movie.

      And yes, Elinor is a great character. I love that she claims all of these traditional gender roles for herself but in practice she is breaking them all of the time! Where else would Merida have learned such behaviors?

    princesscowboy responded:
    July 10, 2012 at 11:44 am

    This conversation reminded me of something that I forgot to add to this post. In the past, when I have asked my daughter why she likes a certain female film or TV character she would often use a physical characteristic as an explanation. She likes Aurora because she’s “beautiful” and Tiana because “she has a pretty dress.” This was one of the first times I remember her saying that she liked a female character for a character trait–namely bravery. That makes me happy.

    […] the show has reminded me of Amanda Ann Klein’s great post where she interviews her daughter after seeing Pixar’s Brave, as it offers some tremendous insight into how a film often framed as progressive in its approach […]

    jaqbuncad said:
    July 21, 2012 at 4:43 am

    I’ve taken my children to see it twice – and while they definitely like it, they’re two and three, so getting them to talk to me about it mostly results in “It has bears!!” (They are, however, disappointed that the Merida action figure is sold out at our local place – we got the triplets-who-turn-into-bears, but we’re still waiting on a Merida!)

    I did want to say, though – because I missed it the first time around – is that it’s Elinor who defeats Mor-du. It was a bit of a sneaky surprise, because of course I’d expected that Merida would defeat the big bad, but it’s actually Merida’s mother whose combination of wits and strength saves the day.

    Dunno if you’ve read Just Another Princess Movie yet, but it’s hands-down THE BEST meta I’ve read so far about the film, pointing out all the ways in which Brave is, well, brave for telling the stories it’s telling.

    kbryna said:
    July 22, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    Interesting – I especially like the way you begin your post, with all the ways women are perceived as Doing It Wrong. I was disappointed in *Brave,* because I love the smart-assery of Pixar, and as a historically-and-geographically-bound narrative, Brave couldn’t do the kinds of play that other Pixar films can. One of the criticisms a friend of mine made – though on the whole we all liked the film – is that she wished Merida had to reject suitors who weren’t so clearly unsuitable. There’s the arrogant one, then there’s the one who can’t be understood by anyone, and the third who is portrayed as possibly mentally disabled? Or at least dumb and out of it? These latter two boys do appear really socially deficient at least, in some important ways, and the arrogant “Pict” boy just seems like a jerk. Who wouldn’t rebel against those “options”? We would have liked to see Merida meet three average boys, none of whom are rude caricatures, but none of whom are so awesome they overpower her love of archery and doing her own thing. To be confronted with fools and jerks and say “no thanks” is easy; to be confronted with potentially appealing boys but still not be interested in the hetero plot? THAT would have been awesome.
    I *did* like that the boys were very quick to agree at the end, though, when Merida says “let us make our own choices.” It’s a nice moment that shows how this oppressive tradition isn’t good for *anyone*.

    Mulan’s got some problems, but it does include – as a really key plot point – some drag queening. There’s super-interesting gender stuff going on in that movie – the lyrics to the “make a man out of you” song are just mindbogglingly weird.

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