Tricia Lowther watches the latest Pixar production together with her five-year-old daughter and finds the new animated princess stands out just enough from other children’s films characters
The 13th movie from the world’s most successful animation studio is their first with a female lead. Pixar’s record perfectly illustrates the misogyny inherent in children’s movies and it is also a bit disheartening to realise that the first film with a female lead my five year old will see is one with a princess.
Brave is set in the Highlands of mediaeval Scotland where Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald) is told by her parents that she must marry one of three suitors. There is an archery competition to win her hand in marriage, but Merida insists on the chance to compete for her own hand and it is she who is the best archer of them all. The ensuing row between mother and daughter leads Merida into a magical adventure involving a witch and some scary bears.
Merida is far from being the passive, pretty primped princess beloved of traditionalists. She knows how to wield a bow and arrow, ride a horse and stand up for herself. Her wild red curls may be an obvious symbol of her personality, but unlike the typical Disney Princess, Merida (in the film at least, if not some of the abysmal merchandise connected with it) is not over sexualised. She even manages to pass through the movie without receiving any compliments on her looks. It is a notable moment when she curses her restrictive dress and tears it in order to properly use her bow, no doubt horrifying Barbies everywhere. Another exhilarating early scene sees her fire arrows whilst charging through the forest on her horse. For much of the time, however, Merida feels oppressed. The irony, from a feminist perspective, is that the agent of her oppression is her mother.
Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) constantly harasses her daughter with a list of rules based on how a princess is expected to behave. Understandably, Merida gets on better with her easy-going father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly). Fergus has a huge physical presence -judging by the movie posters my daughter had thought he was a giant- but it is Elinor who rules the household and, by extension, the kingdom.
When the clans gather, the men are shown to be jovial buffoons who enjoy a good fight and booze-up but can be stopped in their tracks by a few stern words from Elinor or reduced to tears by a speech from Merida. This trope of weak incapable males ruled by strong females implies that all problems can be laid at the feet of women, as if we live in a matriarchal society and men have no real power.
It seems that for one gender to be shown as strong and capable, the other must be shown as weak, even if the overall message is about being treated as an individual. The characterisation is thin for the male characters, but even Elinor, despite becoming a literal Mama Bear, lacks real substance. King Fergus is likeable enough, but it may have been more interesting had any of Merida’s suitors been remotely appealing; in light of the choice available, her desire not to get married hardly seems brave.
Making the relationship between mother and daughter central to the film’s plot is an improvement on the norm of absent or evil maternal figures in children’s movies. However, while Merida loves her mother, it is her father she wants to emulate. Why would she want to be boring like Elinor when she could have fun like Fergus?
Society has always been more accepting of girls who want to take up traditionally masculine pursuits than of boys who want to be like their mothers, as evidenced in the way terms like “tomboy” and “sissy” are used to praise and censure, respectively. Critics have described Merida as a stereotypical tomboy and it’s a valid point. Gender roles in movies could even be said to have narrowed if a tomboy must also be a princess.
Another stereotype attracts criticism too – Merida’s main problem revolves around marriage. A film about a princess with a betrothal problem doesn’t sound remotely feminist, but Brave tackles the issues in a positive way, even if it’s immaterial to young children who simply see another film that involves a princess and marriage.
The stereotypical tomboy is almost always a child, but Merida isn’t. This matters because tradition dictates that adolescent girls give up childhood freedom and even tomboys are expected to settle down into the gender roles demanded by patriarchy. Films with girls who are considered unconventional are often resolved by their capitulation to stereotypical femininity and this is what makes Brave special – the fact that Merida doesn’t give anything up for a male character but stays free, happy and single. It may seem odd to take a positive from a negative but the handsome prince is such a strong presence in princess culture that his absence is refreshing. Merida is not just ‘not ready’ for marriage; she goes so far as to say she may never be. Compared to a princess in a Disney movie, this feels revolutionary.
Earlier this year Brave‘s writer and co-director Brenda Chapman responded to a blog post on Indiewire with the comment: “It was absolutely my intention to subvert the princess role. There is no prince in my movie. I wanted to turn the pink princesses on their heads – no pink and no prince.” Chapman, who was meant to be Pixar’s first female director but was replaced part way through filming by Mark Andrews, has also explained that the marriage issue is central because marriage is an important job for a princess rather than being about romance.
It’s only in recent years that little girls have suffered the constant bombardment of sparkly pink princess culture. It’s the inescapability of this that is so objectionable: little girls who reach school age without being immersed in it are soon under pressure to join in. Merida at least gives them a freer role model, while even that most feminist of Disney Princesses, Mulan, gets married. Yes, it would be preferable to have princess-free films, but if the princess must rule films aimed at little girls, surely best that Brave rules the princess films with a princess who delivers a different message from the rest.
Keeping this in mind, it would still be preferable for Brave not to be marketed as a ‘girl’s film’ but as a children’s adventure movie. Merida has already been called the first Pixar princess and if she is added to the Disney Princess list, the potential male audience is likely to fall. The more boys go to see Brave, the better it is for business and the higher the chance of more children’s films with female leads. The expectation, true or not, is that girls will watch films with male leads but boys won’t return the favour.
Brave can be praised for challenging ideas about princesses but other stereotypes remain, such as that of the sensible mother compared to the adventurous father. This means that, alongside positive messages such as being true to yourself and learning to listen, are less positive ones about women’s place in the world, such as men get to have all the fun while women get the responsibility.
Some attempts to challenge stereotypes can result in introducing or reinforcing a negative stereotype in the first place. For example, children watching Brave may have never considered that archery was something girls were not supposed to be good at; they see Merida being a top class archer but also learn that she is seen as defying convention, a convention that tells girls they are not expected to be good at something. In this way a negative message can be entwined with a positive role model.
The plot sometimes feels a little confused. It’s as if the filmmakers don’t quite know how to handle the strong females and have tried too hard to please everyone, but even if it doesn’t always flow there is plenty of excitement and humour. Storyline aside, the film is beautiful to look at and the animation and attention to detail is superb. As would be expected, it also passes the Bechdel test with flying colours.
Brave may not break new ground, but it claws back some old ground that has been well and truly stamped all over with pink sparkly heels in recent cinematic assaults on childhood. It could have been better and Merida could have been braver. However, she is engaging enough and as a stand-alone movie Brave is, in turn, good enough. Any feminist message in the film is jumbled, but the mere fact that the leading character is an active girl with no interest in marriage makes it enough to be essential viewing for families in search of decent movie heroines for children.