Disney/Pixar’s newest offering, Brave, was one of the most highly-anticipated, non-sequel, childrens’ films I can remember. While the avalanche of pre-release buzz may merely be the current status quo of web-based marketing (witness: The Hunger Games, Prometheus, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, etc.), the anticipation hinged largely on this film being Pixar’s first release with a female protagonist AND a Disney Princess™ film that features a strong female lead. Many film critics, along with parents like myself who would prefer our daughters not sit around crocheting doilies, practicing etiquette, and learning subservience until a suitable husband comes along, had hopes that this would finally be the movie that broke away from the narrowly envisioned, patriarchy-reinforcing, and traditionalism of past Disney princesses.
So, does Brave‘s portrayal of Princess Merida really stand as a revolutionary, groundbreaking moment for Disney that will usher in a new era of strong female characters and empowering stories? Not really.
First off, it isn’t my intent to rip on this film. It has a fun, if derivative and sometimes muddled, storyline and great visuals (Pixar rarely disappoints in this department). Further, my four year-old daughter, who insists she is “almost five,” liked it a lot. When prompted, she said she thought Princess Merida was a lot cooler and “more fun” than Cinderella and the other princesses in movies (notably, she made an exception for Nausicaa, who is her favorite). This is a win in my book. What I do want to criticize is any attempt to turn the film and character into an exemplar of a strong female role model (and any backpatting of Disney/Pixar for finally doing something like this) . . . because it isn’t that simple.
I’ll begin with the appearance of the film’s protagonist, Merida (on a side note, will someone clue Disney into how close an anagram her name is to a certain Spanish word for excrement?). She is “drawn” in a way that definitely sets her apart from the likes of Belle, Jasmine, Cinderella, and company. She has a round face with full cheeks, an athletic build, and is not ridiculously tall. While she’s certainly no great deviation from body type norms, Merida comes across as what a teenage girl might actually look like rather than a statuesque, rail thin, tiny-waisted, perky-breasted absurdity in the vein of these ladies:
Then there’s Merida’s unruly, unkempt red hair, which is a not-so-subtle metaphor for her fiery, untamed personality. On first seeing her everyone knows that this girl isn’t a regular, old-fashioned princess who follows the rules and waits around for a prince to carry her off. We like her for that. However, her overtly rebellious appearance is, to my mind, the studio trying too hard to appear like a break with traditional princesses and merely falling back on another, albeit different, stereotype: the rebellious, angsty teen who needs to assert her individuality through looking different.
It is this teen rebellion theme captured in Merida’s appearance that figures most prominently in the film’s plot. Merida’s bravery begins as defiance of the admonitions of her mother, Queen Elinor, as to how a princess should behave (Merida is fond of male-gendered pursuits like archery from horseback and reckless rock climbing). Later, the central arc of the story begins when she defies both her mother and her buffoonish and tired-Scottish-stereotype of a father, King Fergus. Certainly, she has good reason to defy them: they are intent, especially mom, on following tradition and marrying her off to some noble’s eldest son, which is obviously against her wishes.
This forced marriage set-up and the young lady’s defiance is something we’ve seen again and again. Merida’s refusal to wed, which risks war, can certainly be seen as a strong statement against traditional marriage-as-peace-treaty and women-as-chattel in the story’s world (and in history). And, along with the effects of ensuing events, her defiance is powerful enough to change that tradition to one of princesses (and princes) having the privilege to choose their own mate (presumably of the opposite sex and same class status, of course). However, it is also only a personal act of rebellion on her part. Merida is the rebellious, egotistical teenager; she is in no way out to radically alter the gender roles of her fuedal society. While Merida is indeed “brave” in defending herself and her family at various points in the film, there’s nothing radical or truly liberating (“brave” in the world-changing sense) about her actions. She’s a typical teenager, which is fine so long as one doesn’t try to make more of her actions than they really are.
In fact, Merida’s short-sighted teen rebellion leads to disastrous events that, while obviously resolving in a happy ending, allow the film to close out with very traditional messages. Not the least of these is that teenage rebellion causes huge problems and should be avoided via talking things out . . . because parents will always understand, eventually. This traditionalism is not, however, entirely based the portrayals of Merida and Elinor; it hinges on the father, King Fergus. The disagreement between mother and daughter nearly brings the family to tragedy; both are shown to have been hard-headed about it, and they collaborate to solve the problem and defeat the “bad guys” while dad is at best absent (and at times an antagonist). Yay for girl power, but what about the relationship with dad?
Well, for the most part, the flat, comic character of King Fergus does his brutish warlord thing, drinking and fighting and hunting bears. He is outside the main dialogue as the two ladies figure out that moms and daughters need to listen to one another and have understanding lady chats. Through this the sphere of where a woman’s place is remains intact even if a new understanding of how women in a household should interact with each other evolves.
None of this mother-daughter resolution has to do with the relationship with the father or, ultimately, the patriarchal system. Certainly, Queen Elinor shows how inept her husband is at times, but he remains the head of state and household. In the close of the film’s action, King Fergus is shown embracing his beloved wife and daughter as the patriarch whose role has not really changed throughout the film’s crises. There is little new understanding between father and daughter or husband and wife because Fergus is a mere caricature. Because of the way the story’s world is set up, and the lack of development of Fergus, very little of importance can change due to Merida’s rebellion, recklessness, and bravery. While she may indeed be a strong female lead character, her story ends as a lesson in traditional values.