I know I am a bit late to the game on this film. Brave came out June 2012, but thanks to grad school, I didn’t really make it a priority to see. A lot of my friends did, though, and they all seemed to love it. I thought I would like it, too — strong female character, the previews didn’t say much about a love interest, she was a little rounder than your average princess, with messier hair and a penchant for running wild.
I have one friend, though, who had a problem with Brave, the plot, and how the writers chose to handle Merida’s story. She didn’t give me specifics, which was great because it allowed me to look at it with an open mind. Unfortunately, once I saw the movie, I had to agree with her. Brave was not the fun feminist kids’ film I thought it was going to be.
Before we get into the bullshit, let’s talk about the good. For one thing, I loved how Fergus encouraged Merida’s interest in archery, even when she was a young adult princess (“Princess or not, learning to fight is essential!”), much to Elinor’s chagrin. Also, I loved how wild her hair was, and how she looked like a kid, rather than a 25 year old. I mean, Pocahontas was supposed to be 10-13, and she was not only involved in a relationship with a much older man, she looked like an adult. Another good thing was that most of the women were portrayed as quite stocky and round — with the exception of the royalty, of course. I have a problem with that, since it forces on us the whole idea that desirable people are thin.
I think the best thing about the film was when Merida competed for her “own hand” in archery and beat the pants off her suitors; that was a clever little trick. I suppose I liked that in the end (SPOILERS) Merida doesn’t have to get married, but the way that conclusion came about was filled with so much patriarchal bullshit that I can’t even be happy about it. Oh, and it was cool that Merida and Elinor-As-Bear ended demon bear Mor’du, instead of the menfolk.
Now for the bullshit. Before I get into the nitty gritty, let’s talk about the superficial issues. For one — this whole “the princess must get married!” story line? Gag me. Can’t we have a single story about a princess that doesn’t revolve around her getting married? A few minor details could be changed to make this a girl-power story all about Merida saving her mom. Picture this: evil witch curses Elinor to be a bear, Merida follows the wisps to try to save her. Her father tries to lock her away because a bear is on the loose and calls upon his kingdom to help him search for the bear, but in the end it is Merida who takes down the true evil bear and saves her mother. It’s a little rusty (come on, I just thought of that), but with some more thought, this could have easily been a fun plot free of marriage. Pixar has a bunch of films with male protagonists who go on fantastic adventures without a love story being the main thread of the movie.
Elinor’s disdain for Merida’s archery hobby was pretty shitty, too, and her throwing Merida’s bow in the fire was beyond the pale. She WAS remorseful, I’ll give her that, but it should have never gotten to that point. She should have allowed her daughter to be who she wanted to be without having to be turned into a fucking bear. Also, the fuck was with Elinor giving Merida shit for how much food was on her plate at dinner? Not cool at all, and that so did not need to be in the script. I was really disappointed by that. Merida appears to be a healthy young woman — never mind that weight and health aren’t causally linked. That’s just pushing a completely untrue fatphobic agenda that you have to be thin to be perfect, thin to get a man, thin to be a real lady. Fuck all of that noise, right in the ear.
I hated that the brothers are allowed to do whatever they want, but they are just children compared to Merida’s sixteen years. I wish she wasn’t in a place to be jealous of her younger siblings — there is a number of fucked up things that go into sibling jealousy and how parents often are the root of it. In this case, it would be the disparate treatment between the genders, and that’s ridiculous and unnecessary to include. This then boils down to the idea that Merida isn’t like “other girls,” girls who want to get married or wear pretty dresses or learn to sew. And that is problematic in itself, because there is no reason to pit girls against each other for liking different things. Liking different things is what makes us diverse and awesome. That should bring us together so we learn from each other, not pull us apart. It’s a dangerous message that Disney is sending with their characterization of older Merida.
Also problematic is how Merida’s mother controls her entire life — “A princess doesn’t chortle… rises early… cleans… strives for perfection…” Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, and BULLSHIT. Those are some fucked up ideals Mama Elinor is shoving on her daughter, and by exposing our children to this movie, we’re putting it on them. If our girls WANT to be a “princess,” then they feel bad because Merida, the heroine, thinks being a typical princess is dumb. If they don’t want to be a “princess,” then they feel bad because their mom probably will never love them unless she gets turned into a bear. That’s some messed up shit.
I have serious, SERIOUS issues with Merida’s mother trying to live vicariously through her daughter. It’s cloaked in the pretty concept of a parent trying to give her daughter the opportunities she wasn’t afforded as a youth, but that’s all crap. Just as Merida fairly pointed out, this isn’t what she had been preparing for in life — “No, this is what YOU’VE been preparing for, and I won’t go through with it!” It hurt me to see the whole scene where Elinor berates Merida for competing for her own hand, because I know too many people who have been told by their mothers that they are a disappointment for not being exactly what they wanted them to be. I know it’s all resolved at the end, but the way it is resolved was not adequate to me, and I don’t feel like it really addressed the problems of parents putting the burden of their hopes and dreams on their children.
I’ve got to say, I chuckled when Merida’s mom was thoroughly ungraceful as a bear. I suppose in her transformation the stick up her ass didn’t make it. I enjoyed seeing her loosen up as a bear, but honestly, it shouldn’t have taken a spell to get her to loosen up and relate to her daughter as she did when Merida was young.
The biggest problem I had with the film was during the scene when Merida was trying to sneak her mother back into the castle. Ultimately, Elinor turning into a bear was a punishment to Merida for not bowing down and giving up her dreams. If Merida had simply gone along with the betrothal process, her mother would have never become a bear, possibly permanently, and the entire kingdom would have been happy! Except Merida. Once again, young girls are told they must swallow their dreams for the greater good, must hold off on their desires to do their womanly duty, must place aside their hopes to please a man and the patriarchal ideals of society. Really? This is what we are teaching our children? If you don’t do exactly what everyone expects of you, you’re going to destroy your mother’s life and probably your entire family? Great. Awesome.
It’s also supremely messed up that Merida’s mother finally gives Merida permission to not get married — because Merida needed her mom’s blessing, natch — after turning into a bear and realizing what was really important. But for goodness sake, woman, it took BEING CURSED BY A WITCH to make you realize your daughter being happy is what matters, not tradition? So now we’ve told our children you can go against their parents, it’ll be really hellacious, but in the end they’ll probably be fine with it. I mean, I guess that’s all right, but we could do without the whole hellacious part, couldn’t we? And just to pick at this a little bit more — Merida’s desires couldn’t be accepted unless they were also vetted by the power of the queen. No, couldn’t just accept them because that’s what she wanted — there had to be some sort of authority backing her decision, deciding it was right. Ugh. So much bullshit. SO MUCH BULLSHIT.
And now, to add insult to injury, let’s talk about how Merida is locked up for her own good while her father runs off to kill Elinor-as-bear. This is the same father who thought it was so important for her to learn how to fight. Meanwhile, the doltish princes who couldn’t shoot an arrow at a single target reliably were allowed to go help in the fight, but Merida was locked away in a tower? Come on.
And then the end, the huge climax where it looks like Elinor may be a perma-bear and Merida has a monologue — WHAT THE HELL. So Elinor being turned into a bear is all Merida’s fault? And Merida believes that shit? Nuh-uh, sweetie, not even true. Merida would never have been forced to that level of desperation had her mother loved her for who she was. Elinor didn’t give two shits about what Merida wanted or Merida’s happiness — she only cared about her own. Yeah, Merida could have handled the situation better — casting a spell on your mom isn’t the greatest way to show your maturity and capability of making good decisions. But it’s not like Elinor was at all interested in listening to reason. I don’t think Merida was right, but I certainly understand why she did it. Merida taking on all the blame herself, saying her mother has “always been there” and had “never given up” on her — that was such a crock, and I am really disturbed by the message. Children should not be held responsible for their parents mistakes and flaws. It was not all Merida’s fault. And her mother never even apologized. Not once.
A lot of people probably think critiques such as this are ridiculous. “They’re just kids! They don’t understand this stuff!” Well, they may not understand it now, but they will in the future. I can think back to many moments in my childhood where I didn’t fully understand the dynamics at play, but now I do, and I can see what effect they had on me. I’m not saying Brave is going to churn out a rash of horrid mother-daughter relationships — I don’t think that at all. But I do think it’s 1) indicative of the problems girls still face growing up in our society, and 2) one of the many things that serve as an influence for how we shape our girls. This won’t be THE thing that fucks up a young woman’s relationship with her mother, but I’ll be damned if it can’t be considered one of the things that potentially normalizes it.