It’s Hard Out Here for a Girl
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
too stuck up
Didn’t complain enough about being physically assaulted by her boyfriend
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.
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:
*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.
*Brave isn’t as good as Toy Story or other Pixar films:
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.”
*Too much teen angst, not enough action:
*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.”
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?