I’m “biast” (pro): love Pixar; desperate for good movies about girls and women; wish I had hair like Merida’s
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
I love Pixar’s movies, for the most part, but when even their gender-free inanimate-object-come-to-life characters — toys; cars; robots — get fashioned as “male” nine times out of ten, this is a problem. So it’s worth cheering when — finally! — Pixar gives us a fully fledged, well-rounded, beautifully developed female protagonist, with a complex, provocative personal journey that is hers alone. A film of her own! There isn’t even any need to qualify the triumph of Brave, to give it a pass merely because its central character of Merida is so rare a cinematic thing. Because everything about Merida’s story is new and unique and undeniably female. She is not a girl slotted into a boy’s story. Not that that cannot work or has not worked in the past… and not that there isn’t a lot of overlap in the needs and worries and desires of boys and girls, women and men. But what our cultural storytelling desperately needs is a more widespread and readily accepted appreciation for the realities of the lives of girls and women, and we have not been getting that from movies, not in a very long time.
I’d like to think that Brave is the teensiest hint of a beginning of a change in this regard. For while there is fantasy and silliness galore here, there is also emotional authenticity. Merida (the voice of Kelly Macdonald: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, No Country for Old Men) may live in a magical approximation of medieval Scotland — the landscapes and fantasyscapes are gorgeously, lushly animated — but what she wants and how she feels about what’s expected of her will feel very familiar to plenty of 21st-century girls and women. Even something as simple as the clothing that any sane person would consider a torture device but is typically taken for granted when it comes to how women are “supposed” to dress is here brought to the fore. To subdue a woman’s spirit, subdue her body… but Merida is having none of it. In one delightfully subversive scene that is, alas, unlike what we usually see onscreen, Merida balks at being stuffed into a corset she cannot breath in, then further confined by a dress so tight she can barely move — even her fabulously unruly curls get imprisoned in a skullcap. You would never ever guess from most examples of pop culture just how damn uncomfortable the most “feminine” clothing is, just how much it limits women. Usually we get crap like, say, spiked heels being treated as a sign of sophisticated sexiness, and one that every woman should and does embrace, even though they actually damage women’s bodies and make women more physically vulnerable. (For one recent example, see Lola Versus, in which Lola’s adoption of heels she literally cannot walk in are highlighted as a sign of her growing up. See also: Sex and the City.)
But it gets better! Just as the clothing her mother, Lady Elinor (the voice of Emma Thompson: Men in Black III, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang), wants Merida to wear in order to be “ladylike” chafes, physically and spiritually, breaking literally free of it comes just as Merida breaks free of the expectations she has been burdened with, as a girl. As the daughter of a clan chieftain (the voice of Billy Connolly: Gulliver’s Travels, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day), she is expected to marry a son of one of their allied chieftains, and which one will be awarded her hand in marriage is to be decided via an archery competition. How awful for Merida, sold into marriage for the price of political tranquility… except she’s a fantastic archer herself, and she decides that she will compete for her own hand. Scandalous! And the marvelous metaphor is only enhanced when Merida has to rip that restricting gown in order to draw her bow…
When Brave had reached this turning point barely 20 minutes or so into its runtime, I wondered where it could go from there. Where it does go further turns the Disney-princess paradigm upside down and inside out. (It’s hard to imagine that screenwriters Mark Andrews (John Carter), Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman (Chicken Run), and Irene Mecchi (The Lion King) — all of whom except Mecchi are also credited as directors — didn’t specifically create Merida as a princess precisely in order to deliver a smack to the Disney-princess paradigm.) This is most emphatically not a love story, and there is no prince for Merida at the end. That’s not a spoiler: none of the doofusy princes is ever presented as a legitimate prospective partner for Merida. And it’s important to note that yes, it is possible to tell a story about a female protagonist that is not about finding romance. I cannot overexaggerate what a refreshing relief it was to see Merida ride off on her own at the end of Brave — this girl who had been so desperate for her “freedom” had won it. Merida is off to create her own “happily ever after.” This is groundbreaking.
I promise: that is not a spoiler. For the big chunk of movie in the middle — which is spoilable, not that I’ll do that here — is groundbreaking, too, in that it revolves around a key relationship in a girl’s life that is almost universally ignored on film: that with her mother. (Another smack at Disney, whose princesses are almost always mother-orphans.) Brave gets at the love/hate push-and-pull that many girls experience with their mothers, and does it in a way that is by turns funny, scary, mysterious, fantastical, thrilling, and suspenseful. (Disney gets another tweak here, via a witch who is not evil.) It also gives us a Merida who is at times selfish and cruel — who has, then, some growing and changing to do. You know, just like real protagonists get to do!
The most important lessons from Brave, however, may well be the ones that some portions of the audience need to learn. From the cries, from some quarters, that Brave is bad for boys because it offers them no boys as role models to the male critics I overheard after a London press screening of the film moaning that they just couldn’t empathize with Merida, it’s clear that boys and men need to start learning to do what girls and women have been doing our whole lives. We are bombarded with boycentric stories, and in order to enjoy them, we’ve figured out how to empathize with male protagonists. It’s not that hard, actually: we’re all people and we all have a lot more in common than we don’t. You’d think these guys would be embarrassed to admit that, basically, they’re better able to identify with plastic toys — because everybody loves Toy Story, right? — than they are with a fellow human being who happens to be of the opposite gender.
The first step in getting better, gentlemen, is admitting that you have a problem.