Pixar’s Brave received a lot of attention for being the studio’s first vehicle for a female heroine (they’ve forgotten or just disregarded Toy Story‘s Jesse, Finding Nemo‘s Dora and the Incredible Mom, Helen, etc).
It’s also Pixar’s take on the Disney Princess genre, if you will, though that’s one genre with its own set of problems (see here for a discussion of Disney Princess movies versus Hayao Miyazaki’s work).
It’d be too easy to praise Pixar for either of these “landmarks.” And it’s most certainly a misstep to praise Brave for its mother-daughter or family-oriented narrative. These qualities have none to support them. These are empty attributes, placeholders meant to make an audience consider the existence of a thing without its real presence.
Brave begins by defining gender roles by activity and duties (that is to say, women have duties and men enjoy activities). Women (“ladies” or “princesses”) are required to follow established tasks proper to their sex while the men (father Fergus, clanmen and the three amusing brats) enjoy the freedom to do as they please.
As such, Brave defines male and female in conflict with each other, male and female against each other (I find the depiction of each gender offensive to say the least, short-sighted and absurd, if you ask me in person). With all of this crock, it’s not surprising how Merida rejects her mother and all the neatly-boxed femininity her mother represents.
Instead of becoming like her mother, Merida wants to “change her fate,” which eventually becomes, as the mother says in the end, “follow[ing] your heart.”
I’ll pause here for a moment. Changing fate, destiny, following your heart, etc. all become a hackneyed exercise in what we might nicely associate with the most well-intentioned (perhaps, there are box office expectations afterall) emotional masturbatory practices (must please all customers).
Shallow and insincere, Brave doesn’t belong to the class of fairy tales, especially those written in recent centuries by George Macdonald, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper or J.R.R. Tolkien (someone else can have Lewis and his Narnia business, I want none of it – And Tolkien only gets better the further removed from swirling slow-motion Peter Jackson).
Newer fairy tales like Brave no longer depict protagonists pursuing or living according to values like Honor, Perseverance, Honesty, Dignity, Peace and all that Arthurian period jazz (of Bravery, here there is none). Merida doesn’t want anything of the sort and Pixar doesn’t encourage the audience to want any of it either.
Fairy tales have lost their balance of piquancy and tenderness, their humor too (recent fairy tale movies like Mirror, Mirror or, gag me, Snow White and the Huntsmen are too messy to take seriously). These new fairy tales are invested in pursuits of exonerating the fancies of the foolish, justifying the toddler wants of the self-seeking and other-ignorant.
Narrative implausibilities aside, Mirror Mirror is all humor (most of it very poor) and capricious to the point of no point at all. Snow White is all bite, overwhelming audience with never-ceasing teasers of a fantasy, satisfied only by fondling the Imagination without the courage to make something lovely.
Though too many fairy tales employ Propp’s “Quest” motif almost exclusively (and always boringly), these new fairy tale heroes (male or female) haven’t quested for anything worthwhile to any kingdom larger than their own hearts.
Instead, Merida pursues (oh God, she’s about to say it again) “the change of her fate.” Let’s be honest here: she’s not interested in changing her fate or destiny. She merely desires the liberty to shape fate as she likes – to do as she pleases without fate/destiny & their accompanying responsibilities.
In this respect, Brave could’ve done with a plump lumping of the value system present in HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, a show as anchored in its medieval realism as it is stunning with its truly Fantastical imagination (two other attributes missing in Brave though I have complaints about the HBO show unrelated to the present topic).
Shoot, a Martin dosage might’ve even helped eliminate those vapid mother-daughter montages set to Irished pop songs (tribute to Gaelic culture or targeting those desperate sorts without any culture at all?).
It’s all for the Feel-Good ethic carrying the film’s narrative and character development, though it only has an Irish pinchful of the latter. The film applauds Merida’s desire to shape her own freedom so that when Merida deal-makes with the witch, it’s not a Faustian decision or even something remotely resembling an error.
Afterall, the witch isn’t evil. The witch, as she’s introduced with her price tagged wood carvings & later with an automated cauldron menu, is simply a prescient retailer at first.
And when Merida and her mother face potential (!) consequences of the purchased spell, there is no responsibility required of Merida. As she repeatedly declares, fist in hand, the witch tricked her and forgot to mention (really) the spell’s consequences. Nothing wrong with picking up a spell or “innocently” intending to trick her mother in defiance, you know.
Merida’s solution to the spell is only as serious as the sin incurring it: she sews a tapestry back together (seriously?). Yes, she sews, thus performing a task previously associated with the “feminine.” But there was no wrong-doing on Merida’s part and therefore no self-actualization either. (We will ignore Merida’s prosaic spirit-rousing-speech much like the one delivered a few weeks ago by Kristen Stewart’s Snow White).
There is no flaw to be overcome or wrongs to be righted (only the empty acknowledgment of some as in the story of the Four Brothers and the Bear Brother). There are no flaws present at all in the world of Brave, except that Merida change her fate, which really means “change her gender.”
Merida rejects her mother and represented femininity. What does she want instead? She wants to be a Man instead. They have freedom to do as they please. Merida’s character development proceeds thusly: Gimme penis, bow and needle.
Most definitely a model feminine heroine, Pixar. Props.