Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Movie Review: Is "Brave" a feminist movie?

Firstly, I have to say that I was SO excited when I saw previews for this film.  While I’m personally not a huge fan of computer animation, I love Pixar’s creatively quirky stories that contain Disney’s whimsical charm.  Plus it’s a film set in Scotland about a princess who fights her own battles. What wasn’t to be excited about?  Consequently, I knew I had to go see Brave when it came out this past weekend (and drag Brent along with me).

Warning: spoilers contained from this point on.  If you haven’t seen the movie and hate spoilers, you should skip reading this blog post until you’ve seen the movie for yourself!

Before going to see the movie, I noticed few newspapers featuring reviews of Brave while I was at work and decided to read a couple of them online.  Most of the reviews say more or less the same thing – Brave is a beautifully animated movie, but the storyline is a bit dull and lacks Pixar’s previous ingenuity, making the film merely good instead of excellent.
Focusing on a particular review in the Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern calls the film “enjoyable, consistently beautiful, fairly conventional, occasionally surprising and ultimately disappointing”.   Why does he believe the film falls short of expectations?  Mainly, he blames the plot’s change from “a feminist fable of a young warrior” to a story about “the bonds of daughter and mother in magical circumstances.”

Morgenstern is right to point out that the film does start of as a teen rebellion story, addressing how the princess “does indeed struggle against constraints that threaten her freedom: tight dresses, boobish suitors, arbitrary dictates of etiquette and, worst of all, a strict mother who insists that a princess should always strive for perfection.”  The movie does make a point in the beginning to show just how obnoxiously authoritarian Queen Elinor is toward her daughter and Merida is a bit rebellious in that she doesn’t fit inside the role of the perfectly polished princess, and I do agree with Morgenstern in that the previews did make it seem as though this was going to be the main focus of the movie.

However, when the plot shifts to becoming a story about the bonds between mother and daughter, Morgenstern states that it is “at odds with what precedes it” and is altogether too “safe” compared to what Pixar has produced before. 

First, I’m not entirely sure how a mother-daughter story is at odds with a rebellion tale.  In fact, I think they go quite hand-in-hand.  What mother- daughter relationship isn’t without hardships and the tension between obedience and rebellion?  Similarly, the fight between Elinor and Merida is that is completely relatable and made both parties feel more complex and human.  Honestly, their argument seems like one I would have with my own mother (if she were trying to marry me off against my will, that is).  Also, why shouldn’t a mother and daughter want to repair their relationship after a loaded fight?  Yes, Merida (and almost any adolescent, really) wants to be free to act how she sees fit outside of what her mother expects her to be, but I would argue that many adolescents don’t want to give up their relationship with their parents entirely.

In fact, an article published by Family Education explains that daughters tend to push both parents away during adolescence as they become more autonomous.  While fathers tend to distance themselves from their daughters during this time, mothers tend to give more attention to their daughters in an attempt to keep their relationship as close as it was during childhood.  These two ways of interacting with an adolescent daughter are both problematic, as teenage girls tend to feel as though their fathers don't care about them as much as they used to while feeling as though their mothers are trying to control them too much (the latter leading to numerous heated fights).  However, the article also says that when teenage girls feel the need to have an emotional connection with someone, they will generally turn to their mothers for comfort instead of their fathers.  These aspects of the mother-daughter relationship can definitely be seen with Elinor and Merida throughout the film, specific moments including:
  • ·        when Elinor discusses with her husband, Fergus, how to compromise with their daughter regarding her duty to marry
  • ·        when Elinor almost gets up the courage to talk with Merida about how she felt before her own betrothal after she has helped Merida dress for the suitors’ arrival
  • ·        when the two argue about Merida competing in the archery tournament for her own hand (in which Merida cuts her mother’s tapestry with a sword and her mother throws her prized bow into a fire, both acts done in complete anger)
  • ·        when Elinor hugs onto Merida when she returns from running away after the fight, relieved that her daughter is safe
  • ·        when Merida has a dream about her childhood when her mother sang her a lullaby one night during a storm
  • ·        when Merida hugs onto Elinor, crying and telling her mother that she loves her when she believes the curse has permanently turned Elinor into a bear

The relationship between these two characters is complex and powerful for anyone who has been on either end of this sort of relationship, and I’m glad that Pixar decided to make this a focus of the film.  There really aren’t that many popular children’s movies that focus on a mother-daughter relationship and most of the Disney princess movies have either no mother present, feature an evil step-mother/caretaker, or portray the mother as more of a small presence than a character (I can do a blog posting on this if people would like me to).  So…how is this theme “tried-and-true”?  I think it’s adventurous on the part of Disney and Pixar, and shows not only a more realistic relationship between mother and daughter but also a more realistic picture of growing up.

Second, while I agree that perhaps the plot in general wasn’t as “out there” as other Pixar movies such as UP!, Toy Story, or Finding Nemo, it was an definitely just as engaging and whimsical as previous movies.  Honestly, it has probably become one of my favorite films within the Disney/Pixar canon due to its attention to a more realistic mother-daughter relationship and its spunky heroine, not to mention the various interesting twists within the movie. 

Watching the movie, I honestly appreciated all the feminist elements within the film.  For one, there’s the heavy female emphasis within the film, as the plot largely centers on Elinor and Merida’s relationship.  For another, the story focuses on Merida and follows her growth throughout the film.  She is not someone’s sidekick or someone’s love interest.  She is the focus.  Similarly, she doesn’t fall in love during the movie, which while that in and of itself isn’t necessarily a big deal, it’s refreshing to have a princess movie that doesn’t make any claim about the importance of romantic love by showing us the process of falling in love.  Instead, there is only a brief quip in the latter half of the film in which Merida gives a speech about how young men and women should be allowed to choose who they fall in love with when they feel the time is right for them.  Sure this isn’t the most romantic scene in the world, but I think it’s much more empowering than watching two characters go through love themselves.  Since Merida doesn’t fall in love at all during the movie, she also doesn’t have a hero sidekick stealing the spotlight or saving her to distract from the main storyline.  (That being said, it’s OK to have a love story within a movie or have a sidekick or have the man save the woman….from time to time.  Having these elements in every single princess movie, however, IS a problem since it reinforces various stereotypes in children who regularly watch these films.)  Might I also point out that this movie passes the Bechdel Test, something which most popular movies seem to have trouble with?

My one complaint about the movie in respect to gender, I think, is regarding the witch's role in the film.  While she is essential to the plot (giving Merida the magic tart that transforms her mother into a bear), she doesn't have any significant role as a character or even get a name.  I think it would have been interesting if she were more incorporated into the movie, though that might have been difficult with everything else going on in the film.

Merida definitely does not follow the conventions of any other Disney princess, and I’m very happy that she is being inducted as an official canon princess alongside the others.  I think she gives a wonderful role model for girls to follow since she is independent, clever, daring, and yet unafraid to admit when she has made a mistake and fix it.  I like her much better than Rapunzel from Tangled, for sure (a discussion for another time).

For those of you who have seen Brave, what did you think of the movie?  Is it a feminist film?  Does Merida provide a good role model for young girls?  What do you think of the movie having a strong mother-daughter theme?

Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

(P.S.  The speculations asserted by Entertainment Weekly's Adam Markovitz that Merida is gay simply because she has no interest in getting married and enjoys "unprincess-like hobbies" is probably one of the most offensive things I have read.  Perhaps you'll agree?)

EDIT: I don't think that it's offensive for the author of the article linked above to suggest Merida is gay, but I think it's offensive to suggest that she's gay solely because she is a tomboy since any woman can be a tomboy regardless of sexual orientation (similarly, any woman can all be girly or somewhere else on the spectrum regardless of sexual orientation).  I just find linking being gay with acting completely outside of one's expected gender norms is a little insensitive.  Similarly, the person who made the assertions also cited Merida's unwillingness to marry as a reason she might possibly be gay, which I think is also offensive.  After all, she's a 15-year-old girl, so I don't think her being unwilling to marry for duty's sake says anything about her sexual orientation.  Suggesting someone is gay is not offensive, but I think the reasons he gives for her possibly being gay are a little hurtful.  In the author's defense, however, he does make a note that Merida "isn't an overtly lesbian character" since there is no hint whatsoever within the film to suggest this - he is only speculating that it is possible that Merida is gay (which, honestly, any number of characters could be gay, though Disney/Pixar would never reveal such information and it's somewhat pointless to guess without any textual evidence).

Other Reviews of Brave
"Review: Brave is About an Action Princess. Deal With It." by Zoe Chevat for The Mary Sue
"'Brave' boldly embraces girl power" by Claudia Puig for USA Today
"Early Hypable reader review: 'Brave' - a feminist triumph" by eiVega
"Brave is Not One of Pixar's Greatest Hits: Review" by Alynda Wheat for People Magazine
"A New Redhead for Us to Love - Merida!"

Women's Roles in Disney and/or Pixar Movies
"Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses" by Dawn England and Lara Descartes
"Disney Princes and Princesses Still Slaves to Some Stereotypes" by Jennifer Welsh
"Pixar's Issue with Sex/Gender" by Talia Koren


  1. If anyone is interested, this interview discusses how "Brave" might possibly be an anti-feminist film (so, the opposite of what my post is stating): http://www.thetakeaway.org/2012/jun/21/brave-anti-feminist/

  2. Your s/o linked here from reddit! I'd like to hear your thoughts on Tangled that you mentioned in this article. Perhaps a follow up comparison between the two?

    1. I saw that! Honestly, he never told me he was going to do that, so it was definitely a surprise this morning! I can definitely do a follow up comparison between "Tangled" and "Brave" in the near future, and I might also do a post at some point simply looking at Disney princess movies as a whole (though I realize this has already been done numerous times). Thanks for your comment, and I hope you keep reading! :)

  3. Brave is a beautiful, funny, exhilarating, and inspiring film. Who the hell CARES if it's a "feminist film"? Does every goddamned thing have to be political?

    1. "Brave" is a wonderful movie and I'm glad you enjoyed it as much as I did! If you don't care about the political aspects of film, that's completely fine and I totally respect that! However, this is a Women's and Gender Studies blog, so most of my posts will be related to feminism in some way or another.

      Films, including children's movies such as "Brave", tend to have social and political nuances. Since media does impact our society in terms of the way we think and feel, it's important to look at these aspects of a movie and analyze them as sort of a litmus test of our culture. There are many ways to look at Brave, and a feminist perspective is the lens that I chose to analyze the movie through.

      That being said, you can definitely just enjoy a movie for itself - it can be just a form of entertainment if that's what you want it to be! Others (like me) like to analyze the political and social aspects of films. Both are completely legitimate ways to enjoy movies!

  4. Brave was a great movie, and as a feminist it greatly exceeded my expectations. It was really refreshing to see such an honest and realistic portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship. There is so much out there for Father-son. I'm really glad this was the focus of the movie rather than the "feminist" thing about how "women can be fighters too". We KNOW that. There are LOTS of movies where women become fighters and prove they can "be like a man". But that isn't the only thing feminist want. In fact, that is a very narrow view of feminism and I'm tried of it. This movie was amazing in that it did something different. Merida didn't need to prove she was "manly". If that was the focus, she wouldn't have changed as a person at all. She would have been the same person from beginning to end. As it was, it was touching, moving, and inspiring. I really liked how both mother and daughter changed; Merida's mother learning that some traditions are limiting and harmful for her daughter, and Merida learning that her mother was only looking out for her and that a lot of what she was taught and is learning from her mother is empowering as well (public speaking, leadership, manners, etc). Not everything "traditionally female" is bad, and I'm glad this movie didn't end with "Merida is better of being like a man". It ended up "Merida and her mother are better off being their own people, and choosing their own fate" which suggests that there is not "right" way to be female or male for that matter. This movie was awesome.

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