Sunday, November 4, 2012

Brave Enough to Say No

I’ve been a huge fan of Disney and Pixar movies in the past, even the princess movies that rankle many. Yes, as a feminist I understand the many problems inherent in these movies with their troubling portrayals of women, but I grew up on them and they hold nostalgic memories for me. I am not pining away, waiting for my prince to come and make my happily ever after come true, but I still enjoy the music, animation, and cinematography of these movies.

So when Disney/Pixar started advertising its latest princess offering, Brave, there was a good chance I was going to check it out. And then when I read this article detailing the co-director’s inspiration for the movie and describing how this film with a strong female lead came into being, I was hooked. Last month I finally got the chance to sit down and watch this movie – while I was on a plane and this was luckily one of the choices. (It might be worth noting that I wasn’t the only childless adult watching this movie; I even noticed a couple of adult men picking this movie out of the many options available. So much for Disney’s concerns that only young girls will view princess movies.)

Brave tells the story of Merida, a Scottish princess who loves archery and horseback riding but is often forced indoors by her mother to practice the etiquette of being royalty. Merida dislikes this but does as she told – until one day her parents tell her it is time to be wed and three princes arrive to contest each other for her hand. Merida rebels and runs off into the woods, where she stumbles upon a witch who concocts a potion that will help Merida change her mother. Well, change her it does – right from a human being into a giant grizzly bear. Now Merida has even bigger problems on her hands than just convincing her mother not to marry her off – will she be able to hide her mother from her bear-hunting father long enough to reverse the spell?

There were a lot of things to like about Brave. Of course, as we’ve come to expect from Disney and Pixar, the animation is top-notch. As in many other Disney/Pixar movies, the movie includes a few sweet songs as sung by Merida, which are quite nice and I’d probably listen to just as regular songs without the context of a movie. Personally, hearing the Scottish accent of all the characters was a fun change of pace from the non-accent of most Hollywood casts, even when the movie is supposedly set outside of the California hills. The movie is also good at putting forth some moral lessons without being overly didactic.

Furthermore, this is a very female-centric movie, which sadly cannot actually be said about all princess movies. There is the strong mother-daughter relationship, unlike in many fairy tale-based movies where the mother is absent and/or the mother figure is evil. In fact, what we have here is rare in many Disney/Pixar movies – an entire intact family of mother, father, daughter, and two sons. (This may be a bit ironic – or something – that Disney finally releases a movie with a traditional family of two parents and 2.5 children when the traditional family is morphing into something else altogether.) One thing I really enjoyed about the movie focusing not just on Merida but also on her mother was that it gave the opportunity to show two kinds of female strength. Merida is portrayed as strong and brave in part because she is something of a tomboy, who prefers archery and traditional male hobbies. But – and this is more subtle – her mother is also portrayed as strong in a more traditional female role. She is able to subdue a room full of rowdy men with her stately and elegant appearance combined with a calming speech.

And, I really appreciate that the movie is actually an anti-romance – given the movie’s target audience of young children, I think that is quite appropriate for a change. Merida does not give up on the idea of marriage entirely or denigrate it at all, but she simply refuses to get married at a time in which she is not ready to a person who is not of her own choosing. Spoiler alert!: The film does not end with her falling for one of the three princes or meeting a fourth prince who sweeps her off her feet, but it is open-ended enough that the viewer can believe Merida will eventually fall in love and marry or that she will remain single and happy that way. I had been concerned that the movie would go the route of Aladdin where Princess Jasmine refuses all her potential suitors but then changes her mind eventually when Aladdin arrives on the scene. That’s a fine storyline also as it introduces the idea of choosing one’s own path rather than having it chosen by others, but I’m glad that this movie took it one step further to suggest that Merida might still live happily ever after even without a husband on the horizon.

Like with many other Disney/Pixar films, there is a lot of humor is the movie. I’m sure kids in particular will find the many slapstick moments hysterical, especially the antics of Merida’s two younger brothers who can’t seem to keep themselves out of trouble. But a lot of the humor comes at the expense of the male characters, and this is the only real fault I find with the movie. For the most part, the male characters are seen as little more than barbarians – they are none of them particularly intelligent, and it takes little to have them all begin fighting with one another. If they are not fighting one another, then they are all mindlessly chasing down a bear that only one character has sensed or trying to show off their physical prowess is some other way. Albeit, the king does have some better moments, and it is clear that he is loving husband and doting father. But for the most part, this movie doesn’t give the best impression of men as a whole, especially when a lot of them are put together in the same room. As a feminist, I rankle at this portrayal also – it’s a misconception that feminism believes or seeks to make women superior to men; most feminists simply wish us women to be on the same playing field as men and to stand there being treated equally and fairly, not judged to be either inferior or superior based solely on the existence of a second X chromosome. It’s harmful to everyone – but probably most especially children – to portray one sex as somehow inferior to another in any aspect.

Still, all and all, I enjoyed this movie and appreciated this twist on the traditional princess movie. For that reason, I highly recommend it for all of us who grew up on princess movies because I think we would most appreciate its subversion of the genre. Of course, I’d also recommend it for its target audience of young children but with the caveat that parents co-view with their kids and point out some of the harmful representations of male characters in addition to pointing out the helpful representations of female characters.

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