[SPOILERS, spoilers everywhere!]
I went with my family today and saw the new Disney Pixar film, Brave. A synposis:
A strong-willed lass, Merida exasperates her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), with her pronounced lack of interest in daintiness, needlework, gentleman callers, and all other forms of stereotypical feminine activity. She charms her burly, good, but somewhat galumphy father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly, who else?), for the same reason. (She’s also a role model for her tiny triplet brothers, spunky mischief-makers with their own heads of matching ginger squiggles.) Merida’s passion is for the archery at which she excels — she loves loves loves the thrill of it. Still, as Mama continues to push her daughter toward betrothal to a suitable lord for the good of the kingdom, Merida pushes back, hard, until in her rebellion she finds a witch (Julie Walters) who can cast a spell to change her woeful female fate.
This movie is not perfect.
- Very smart critics have pointed to how Merida’s princess status is problematic and how not far from the Disney princess culture she veers (one of those critics is Jaclyn Friedman at The Guardian).
- The movie does make fun of Scottish accents and culture by playing on stereotypes (this post by Melissa McEwan is a MUST READ about this).
- It’s a VERY white movie.
- It’s plays up the fiery redhead trope.
- And there is this take down, with a follow-up.
- Zerlina Maxwell at Feministing argues that Brave “has a gender problem.”
- Finally, there was a point right in the middle where I even found myself, dare I say it, bored.
But overall, this was a such an amazing story for a variety of reasons. I have 6.
1) Merida, the protagonist, is a girl. That alone is nice.
2) Merida’s main problem is with her mother, who is NOT an evil, terrible villain in any way. There is a very scary bear, some suitors whom Merida wishes would go away, and a witch who casts spells without explaining them completely.
But the main tension in the film is Merida finding her own identity as her mother, a woman who has sacrificed to be the best queen possible because that is what queens do, tries to groom her into the next queen. They quarrel over everything, as Merida takes up the bow (which she is extremely proficient in) and chafes at wearing dresses.
In a well-conceived scene early in the movie, Merida and her mother both complain (one to their horse, the other to their spouse) that the other never listens.
In the end, Merida and her mother face trials and near-death experiences together in a narrative that leaves them closer and more understanding of each other than ever before. Both recognize how poor they were at listening to the other, Merida’s mother, in particular, finally acknowledges and validates her daughter’s desires.
As the movie ends, we are offered a Happy Ever After but it is not Merida paired up with a prince. Instead, it is her and her mother enjoying time together.
The moral of this movie, a movie whose title – Brave – invokes masculine ideas of honor and glory, is that we should be brave enough to be and love ourselves and to love the people around us for who they are.
In the end, Brave is a love story between a parent and child, between a mother and daughter, between a girl and herself.
But could Merida be gay? Absolutely. She bristles at the traditional gender roles that she’s expected to play: the demure daughter, the obedient fiancée. Her love of unprincess-like hobbies, including archery and rock-climbing, is sure to strike a chord with gay viewers who felt similarly “not like the other kids” growing up. And she hates the prospect of marriage — at least, to any of the three oafish clansmen that compete for her hand — enough to run away from home and put her own mother’s life at risk. She’s certainly not a swooning, boy-crazy Disney princess like The Little Mermaid’s Ariel or Snow White. In fact, Merida may be the first in that group to be completely romantically disinclined (even cross-dressing Mulan had a soft spot for Li Shang).
Markovitz concludes with:
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Merida could be interpreted as gay. What’s most exciting is that she brings a new free-thinking attitude to the slightly staid club of Disney princesses, one that’s sure to appeal not just to gays, but to anyone who ever challenged an identity that was pre-assigned to them.
And I think this is the point about Brave: it’s not about her sexuality, with which Markovitz begins his interrogation. Instead, it is about the fluidity of gender identity, which is how he ends it.
Merida is a hero not just for heterosexual girls but for all girls (for all children, really) because her sexuality isn’t what is important here – instead it is about honoring herself, no matter how she identifies. Some thoughts from people on Twitter, where I had a discussion about this exact topic today:
Because Merida does not want to marry the three suitors in the film or because she doesn’t like dresses or loves bows and arrows, none of that points to her sexuality (perhaps she simply doesn’t want to get married…to anyone…ever and that is a kick-ass thing for Disney to even imply). In comparison to her rather stereotypically female mother, Merida’s non-conformity to her gender (in fact, her outright dismissal of it in many ways) is blatant and so, incredibly powerful.
The movie takes a strong stand against the idea that the best way for girls to be good daughters, or to perform girlhood correctly, is to become sexually available when they’re expected to. The prize to be won isn’t a prince. It’s autonomy and self-knowledge. Merida’s primary relationship during the events of Brave is with her family, and in the schema of the movie, that’s perfectly fine: it doesn’t portray her as behind or a failure.
And I really wish that anyone, anywhere, would stop reading a girl’s desire for physical activity or pleasure in the abilities her own body gives her as a sign of potential incipient gayness. Girls who like playing sports are just as likely to grow up loving other women as the girls who cheer them from the sidelines, or the girls who are off in an art studio or a college newspaper office. Sexuality and gender performance are not the same thing. And if a girl is defying the gendered norms laid out for her, that should be a sign that we question the adequacy of the norms in capturing the diversity of girls’ experiences, rather than the girl herself.
Neda Ulaby did a story for NPR about Merida being a princess and the marketing of Disney princesses. Linda Holmes, in response to this piece, tweeted:
And I see what she’s saying here. But part of why Brave is so great is that Disney is challenging itself. Disney, more than any other group, can be blamed for little girls’ deep love of princesses and all the terrible stereotypes that go along with them.
But here we have Disney saying nearly the exact opposite of the other many princess stories that they have created. No, Merida does not need a Prince Charming. Yes, Merida can be happy by herself. No, Merida does not need to worry about her clothing. Yes, Merida can stand up to her parents and assert her will and desires.
Forever and always, whenever Disney wants to talk about their princesses, they will now have to include Merida, the girl who turns on its head most of Disney’s ideas about princesses. I love that.
6) Which leads to my ultimate point: Merida actively fighting against these gender norms and poo-pooing marriage is just straight up anti-kyriarchy in important ways. IN A DISNEY FILM. Where she is the protagonist. And she loves her mom. Who accepts Merida for who she is.
That – ALL OF THIS – is why Brave is wonderful.