I suppose most girls remember when they became aware of themselves as specifically female viewers. Growing up in the eighties, I watched movies about boys and girls with equal relish, empathizing with the protagonists and getting totally absorbed in story without my parts getting consciously in the way. When I realized the boys in my classes didn’t do the same thing — they refused to see themselves in female protagonists and found the prospect humiliating to contemplate — I felt I had overstepped my bounds. Feeling simultaneously embarrassed at being so profligate with my sympathy and spiteful towards those who weren’t, I started watching movies the way I was supposed to: as a girl, specifically.
Boy, was it bleak.
If you don’t get to be Indiana Jones and have to think about how he is with girls, if you have to wonder, while watching Treasure Island, whether any of the characters you loved would even talk to you, movies become kind of painful. You do find ways around it. For one thing, you start actively seeking out stories where people don’t rule you out quite so much. You look for “girl movies.” Barring some truly wonderful exceptions, you get used to eating the same three meals over and over, forever. Without thinking about it too hard I’ll approximate them as spunkiness, pathos, and transformation. Working Girl, He’s Just Not That Into You, Grease. Again, some of these are great. Most are derivative.
Given the sameness of the flavors on offer, you become a sort of expert at spotting slight variations. You watch not so much for the arc (that’s almost always disappointing) but for certain arresting moments. When you find these, you treasure them. You dissect their context away and relish them — sometimes for themselves, sometimes for the endings they didn’t have.
I don’t claim this is universal, but many female viewers I’ve had conversations with over the years have expressed similar, if not identical, practices. We have watered-down expectations when it comes to women in film. Most movies, even the great ones, we watch for their perfect middles. Sometimes we edit the films post post-production and pretend the end never happened at all.
Faced with a princess story, the reaction has been a sort of kind disappointment. We’ve heard all that! the reviewers say, and it’s a bit, well, boring. “What’s happening to Pixar, it seems, is what’s happened to everything the Mouse Factory has bought, from beloved children’s books to funky Times Square: It’s being Disneyfied,” says Stephen Whitty of the Star-Ledger. “This one finds Pixar poaching on traditional territory of Disney, its corporate partner,” says Rober Ebert. “We get a spunky princess; her mum, the queen; her dad, the gruff king, an old witch who lives in the woods, and so on.”
And so on.
A stranger to our film industry might reasonably suppose, reading those sentences, that the American cinemascape is littered with “spunky princess movies” that center around the main character and her mother.
“Brave,” writes Christopher Orr, “is a rather conventional tale, with echoes of Mulan, The Little Mermaid, How to Train Your Dragon, and countless others. Like the flight of an arrow, its arc is swift but not hard to anticipate.” It’s a well-worn genre, the Spunky-Princess-Who-Doesn’t-Get-Married-(Or-Experience-Any-Attraction-To-Anyone)-And-Her-Mother story.
I wonder, though, whether any of the foregoing critics who’ve tolerantly yawned at Pixar’s latest effort could name a Disney princess besides Mulan whose mother is alive, let alone named.
And yet, in Brave, there is a live mother, named and all. And then a remarkably boring thing happens: this interloping mother who has no place in this ordinary, predictable princess story suddenly becomes central to it. She gets turned into something that keeps on getting misread as a monster, something her loving and well-meaning husband has dedicated his life to tracking down and killing for the sake of his own story, which is built around victory and revenge.
It’s a bit as if, having heard the word “princess,” the reviewers all stopped listening and missed Brave’s real project, which is to quietly but determinedly recuperate the “princess story” from some of the qualities for which it’s been so universally condemned.
Movies featuring women protagonists tend to have messages. Brave has one too: there’s a voiceover at the beginning and the end that goes on about changing your fate and your destiny living within you and whatnot. And that’s fine, and it’s true in complicated ways, but it’s also a classic case of misdirection. By supplying an apparently easy message you barely listen to, the film actually gives the more complex one room to breathe. You might leave unconvinced by the explicit sermon on fate, but quite converted to the quiet redefinition of bravery, barely aware that you’ve been worked on.
Virtually everyone in the film (except poor screaming Maudie) is Princess Story brave. Everyone jumps eagerly into a fight and reacts courageously to physical danger. In fact, its very ubiquity seems to dilute its fictional value: If everyone is brave, why are we making a big deal of it?
Its sheer abundance makes us stumble over our own expectations of what bravery is supposed to do. Bravery is good! is our default position. We need more of that for our girls! But too much bravery sucks, it turns out: it costs people legs. It turns political summits for nascent kingdoms into childish free-for-alls. And for our hero, Merida, courage doesn’t achieve the victories we expect fictional bravery to produce. She doesn’t slay Mor-du. She's no Mulan; her archery, despite her skill, is unhelpful. All this, in a story featuring a warrior princess, should make the mind boggle: Why would a studio create such a character in order to make her real crisis be her relationship with her mother?
If fairytale princesses are motherless, warrior princesses are even more so. They’re motherless because it’s difficult—still, in 2012—to imagine a woman warrior who enjoys a relationship of mutual love and respect with her family generally and her mother specifically. “I don’t know any women like that,” Maxine Hong Kingston writes in The Woman Warrior, “or men either. Unless I see her life branching into mine, she gives me no ancestral help.” Kingston is referring to a suicide in that particular passage, but the point holds: Brave gives us a woman like that. The film is about revolution, innovation and compromise, but it’s just as much about parents (who become ancestors), children (who become powerful) and their good and bad decisions, the weights of which increase exponentially as they recede into history. Brave, in other words, is about seeing a family’s story as a heroic journey. “We are a young kingdom,” says Merida, as much about her family as about the Scottish alliance, “and we are still writing our own legends.”
That moment, incidentally, is Merida and Elinor’s breakthrough, politically as well as personally. Faced with four enraged clans and the imminent collapse of the kingdom, Merida steps into Elinor’s shoes and becomes the politician and diplomat her mother has always been—which is precisely what she thought she’d never do. After badly misreading each other for so long (“I wish you would LISTEN!” they both say to each other’s respective stand-ins), Merida does, and Elinor has. Elinor mimes anxiously to Merida, who seems to be about to capitulate to the clans and to the fate she’s been fighting. Merida reads, understands, and translates her mother’s charades into her own words.
It’s a remarkable scene. If it had been “dictated” by Elinor, it wouldn’t have worked — Merida would have effectively been a ventriloquist’s dummy (which is in one sense what Elinor has been trying to make her). If Merida had broken tradition without the benefit of mother’s political experience and diplomacy, the kingdom would have collapsed into war. It took the combination of their two best selves to compromise with each other and to simultaneously convert a bellicose crowd. The message they jointly write is gorgeously consensual, and it’s all the more moving since it comes about through a game of charades, calling to mind the joy Elinor and Merida took in each other at the film’s opening, during their game of hide-and-go-seek.
The other noteworthy thing about that scene is that we see Merida willing to lay down her life for her kingdom. She’s about to announce her willingness to marry one of the suitors when her mother interrupts (waving her arms in a room full of maniacal bear hunters) and rescues her.
If these actions are brave, it’s certainly not the kind of bravery we were expecting.
If it weren’t already obvious, this isn’t a film that fetishizes courage in its ordinary sense. Fergus’ bravery when he attacks Mor-du the bear at the beginning is admirable but ineffective. He was already the Bear King, but after that encounter it’s all too much: he falls prey to an overdetermined belief in his own story. The loss of his leg turns him into a cheery Ahab who — whenever he’s reminded of his Story — bores all rehearsing the tale of the revenge to come. His throne room is littered with trophies celebrating his eventual victory.
It’s risky to tell a woman’s story, which is why Pixar hasn’t done it until now. Riskier still to tell a princess’s story, which, as reviewers note, has been done and redone and parodied and remixed from every conceivable angle. Why, many moan, did the first girl Pixar movie have to be a princess movie?
The answer, it seems to me, is obvious. Of course it had to be a princess story.
Rightly praised for creating beautiful, poignant and original stories, Pixar understood that its first effort featuring a female protagonist had to sidestep both the traditional romance plot and the shallow triumphalism often seen in films with plucky “role models”. Pixar knows its film conventions. It has heard of the Bechdel test.
1. It has to have at least two women in it, who
2. talk to each other, about
3. something besides a man
From the creators’ point of view, Merida’s biggest battle — the fight she really has to win in this film — is against her predecessors. She has to cover the same ground and give it new depth. She has to wallow in princess tropes before she can change a fate that feels massively overdetermined.
Maybe the creative team named the movie after themselves. They were brave; reckless, even, ostentatiously fording a swamp of crocodilian movie tropes, any of which could swallow the story whole. Merida, remember, isn’t just a princess. She’s a redhead and a teenage rebel who loves to explore and finds her role as princess constraining and dull. The Little Mermaid’s Ariel has been conjured and is waiting in the wings, spoiling for a fight. (“Echoes of The Little Mermaid,” certain critics wrote, as if this were an oversight, or an accident.)
Like Ariel, Merida avoids her duties as royal daughter. Like Ariel, Merida chases an impulsive wish which is granted at too high a price. No one who imprinted on The Little Mermaid as a child could miss the echoes of Ursula the Sea-Witch while the wood-carving witch mixes up the potion.
As genealogies go, Ariel is Merida’s main ancestor with Shrek’s Fiona following close behind. But there are others, of course: Merida has Mulan’s physical ability and Pocahontas’ know-how and love of nature. To these she adds Beauty’s essential insight that natural “monsters” are actually man-made.
None of this was accidental, of course, though I didn’t know it at the time. I fell into exactly the same trap as the aforementioned reviewers and watched, nursing pangs of disappointment, as it seemed the film would take a princess amalgam and stage as its crisis that old chestnut: arranged marriage. Merida must marry! Whom will she choose? Or rather, who shall be chosen for her?
There was a time when such a story was brave, back when arranged marriages were the norm. These days, it’s about as polemical as suggesting that polygamy has problems. Most people will agree, but it’s kind of a weird point to build your crisis around.
So I watched the way anyone familiar with The Merchant of Venice, its antecedents, or its thousand heirs might watch: a little tiredly, but hopeful that this particular version of the story would take some interesting detours en route to its fated end. The perfect man would of course suddenly appear. Something would be wrong with him. He might be low-class (Aladdin, Robin Hood), he might be a gruff and unpleasant bachelor consumed with self-hatred (Jane Eyre, Beauty and the Beast), or he might seem at first too proud, too stiff, too unwilling to accommodate the heroine’s spontaneity and wit (Pride and Prejudice). But he was coming. Everyone in the audience feels it. Even as the camera stops on each of the three clan leaders and their unappealing sons, we were all trying to spot the real hero. Once he showed up, he’d take over most of the story.
Then came the twist: Merida, bound (literally) by the accoutrements of official princesshood, broke out of her constraining dress and represented herself in the contest for her hand! On the grounds that she is a first-born, and therefore eligible to compete, she shames her suitors by beating them handily! The crowd goes wild.
That last part’s a lie — there is a crowd in that scene, all gasping ecstatically as each silly prince takes his shot, but that crowd does not go wild when Merida wins. This proves not to be the triumphant moment of female empowerment Hollywood likes to deliver when it remembers that women are watching.
The crowd instead does something much more likely: it goes weird.
Things get awkward.
This was the point at which I began to suspect that Pixar was outsmarting me. Brave was retelling many familiar stories (the splitting-the-winner’s-arrow business rips off Robin Hood, Disney’s other archer, also a redhead), but it was stripping them of their attendant auras of victory. Like the legend of the four brothers (one of many stories that “ring with truth,” a point Brave dwells on at some length), the legends that last tend not to contain happily-ever-afters. There’s darkness even (and especially) in fairy tales — the “real” Little Mermaid killed herself — and Brave is reviving that tradition. Brenda Chapman, the director and story writer, said Brave was meant to be a fairy tale “in the style of Hans Christen Andersen or the Brothers Grimm.” That clarification tells; among other things, Chapman tacitly refutes our contemporary understanding of the fairy tale as a charming morality play more or less stripped of ambiguity.
It’s bold to frame your story as a forced marriage plot (there’s one convention), to then destabilize the convention with a hackneyed plot twist in which the heroine rescues herself (there’s another convention, almost as tired), and then to dwell on that plot twist’s failure to launch.
Given the extent to which Brave has been read as having capitulated to the fate it expressly avoided, it’s fitting that Brave’s beginning is obsessed with Fate — the pre-existing ending that you can somehow change.
This, by the way, this idea of changing your fate, is the “message” I mentioned earlier, the Disneyish sermon that lets us listen for other things. But I want to take it more seriously than I did a few paragraphs earlier. It’s not a great line, it could have been done better, but the quixotic notion of altering an inevitable outcome is what Pixar itself set out to do. Jaclyn Friedman laments in The Guardian that Pixar capitulated and made yet another princess story. “If Pixar can’t imagine itself out of the princess paradigm,” she writes, “how can we expect girls to?” But that’s in some sense exactly what Pixar does: it takes a phenomenon so tired we’ve named it, and imagines its way out of it.
Fate, in the Greek sense, is fixed: you can fight it, but any such step will lead back to that which has already been predestined. By these lights, a changeable fate is no fate at all; we might as well call it probability or free will. But Brave builds an entire movie around the notion that fate can be changed, and it’s worth asking why. What’s to be gained from this insistence that things would have gone one way inevitably if enormous effort (and bravery) hadn’t derailed a set course and produced a different outcome?
Taken on its own terms, it’s a message we need these days. Politically, American fatalism is at an all-time high. Sure, there’s rancor, yes, there’s acrimony, bitterness, disagreement, even fighting, but there’s also a desperate sense of inertia, a feeling that we’re on a set course. It’s true for the environment, it’s true for economics, it’s even true for elections. The Occupy movement and the Tea Party are both manifestations of a Brave-like determination to change outcomes that seem unchangeable — what if the country wants neither of its suitors? What if it wants to marry no one? Is that possible? Would our refusal spell political disaster or a liberating break with tradition?
Brave isn’t charting a new course for American politics, but (and this is one more way it isn’t Just Another Princess Story) it is tracking the formation of a powerful but youngish state torn apart by internal dissent. Any parallels to America end there, however; the idea that young people’s futures should be sacrificed (or at least mortgaged) to patch up an untenable system is obviously outmoded.
In any case, the main conflict — a mother-daughter fight — is a function of the fact that Merida’s fate is unfairly but by definition neither hers nor her mother’s; it’s bound up with the fate of a new state.
There again, Brave is charting new territory in an area everyone thought was over-mapped. Amanda Marcotte points out the real radicalism it took to expose the political underpinnings of a mother-daughter fight. Too often consigned to a feminine sphere that is considered “private,” “domestic,” and, ahem, “predictable,” Brave stages the conflict and its stakes for society at large without making the mother a caricature of villainous domestication:
Many patriarchal societies leave the stressful job of forcing girls to comply with degrading social norms to women, especially mothers. Unlike other movies such as Real Women Have Curves, where sexism-enforcing mothers are painted as villains, Merida’s mother, Elinor, pushes her daughter to perform femininity out of love. As with mothers throughout history who have done everything from put young girls on diets to hold them down to have their clitorises removed at puberty, they are acting not out of hatred but out of a love that leads them to protect their daughters from the price of rebellion. In real life, that price is often exile; in this movie, it’s war. With stakes this high, it’s hard not to feel for a mother in such a bind.
There’s no way out of this, of course. That’s the point. As Marcotte argues in that piece, Brave, like Wall-E, doesn’t exactly offer any solutions to the problem of Merida’s marriage or non-marriage. What it does do, however, is say (rather like the Occupy movement) Not This. Not the prince, not the forced marriage for the sake of political stability, not even the turn in the story where — in an amazing coincidence — she turns out to actually like one of the princes, so no difficult choice must be made.
It also says Not That, and points to Mor-du. If the film rejects total submission, that is, sacrificing the individual for the sake of the group, it also exposes the perils of a radical and self-serving individualism. Mor-du is a monster not because he’s a bear, but because he has the strength of ten men and is acting in the interests of one.
I’m belaboring the political aspect because one of the criticisms leveled against Brave was that it lacked the “deeper metaphors” that inform other Pixar films. This is nonsense, perhaps born out of the average male viewer’s lack of practice when it comes to reading female-centric narratives for geopolitical content. Still, however potent, Brave’s public and political metaphors are ultimately less moving than its private and archetypal ones. It’s in its exploration of the relationship between mother and daughter that the film really shines.
The paradoxical “changeable fate” is probably a familiar fantasy to most parents. That it stumped me for as long as it did I attribute partly my lack of imagination and partly to the fact that I haven’t had to think about the archetypal patterns parenthood introduces. It’s a parent’s destiny to nurture a child at considerable expense and personal sacrifice until that child becomes an adolescent and despises him or her (hopefully briefly). Every parent hopes they can change that charted course. Very few parents succeed.
Brave’s first beginning, so to speak, tells a beautifully-shot story of familial harmony. Parents and child are entirely united. Even when conflict comes, it comes from the outside, in the shape of a monster bear.
The second opening is both less idyllic and less mythic. Fergus is as cheerful as ever in his throne room full of dead bears. Queen Elinor has aged almost imperceptibly and given birth to triplet sons. As for Merida, she is a little too perfect, in the way Princess Story heroines tend to be. She’s an incredible shot,a fearless rock-climber,a masterful equestrian. She’s a tomboy whose unladylike tendencies are tempered by the ultra-feminine tresses which she refuses to discipline. She isn’t a devastating beauty in quite the way other Disney princesses are — her cheekbones aren’t as sharp, her eyes as hypnotically eye-lashed, her figure as persistently Barbified—but her hair is a distracting wonder. (Pixar was obviously in a game of one-upmanship on hair-animation with the makers of Tangled.) And she is being shoe-horned into a very specific type of femininity by her exacting and intolerant mother.
The stage is set: we have the slightly henpecked but hypermasculine husband who understands his daughter’s plight. The misguided mother whose unwelcome instruction marks her as unpleasant and wrong, if not evil. Domesticity is (as ever) oppressive, unrewarding, and reactionary. Still, the kingdom is in need of a marriage alliance. There’s a quiverfull of unsatisfactory suitors. As for our protagonist, she wants nothing to do with any of it. In her father’s words, she just wants to wear her hair wild and be free! Bears are everywhere in this universe, but they’re dead and stuffed, and the only dangerous one is outside.
If the story was an arrow and we shot it now, we’d know where to find it when it landed. “I’ve been doing comedy for 25 years,” says Louis CK in Episode 2 of Season 3 of Louie. “I know every joke. Even if I haven’t heard it, you start telling me a joke, I know how it’s going to work.” It’s sort of like that.
But if you heard Pixar was doing a fairy tale about a family consisting of a mother, a rebellious teenager, and a Bear King, and it turns out one of them turns into a bear, how much money would you have put on it being the mother? In Season 3 of Arrested Development, Lucille Bluth says something unexpectedly profound: “First they turn you into a monster, and then they call you one.” Queen Elinor is the civilizing force in the kingdom. She is the disciplinarian. She is the educator. She is the one busily engaged in turning the family’s stories into historical documents — into tapestries. If history and politics are going to make it to the next generation, it’s because she’s taking the trouble to ensure their transmission.
This is not the stuff of feminized domestication, though the fact that two women are engaged in the foregoing activities makes it astonishingly easy to read it that way. Elinor is training a Renaissance prince. Taken as a whole, Merida’s education (if we include Fergus’ share in it, which we should) is straight out of the Mirrors for Princes.
Elinor is wise and dedicated to furthering the cause of her kingdom and family, but she’s also overzealous and insensitive to her daughter’s needs as a person (as opposed to a prince-in-the-making). There’s a hint that she sees this when Merida is corseted up and looking pathetically at her mother, but she lets the moment go. All their former playfulness is gone; where once they played hide-and-go-seek, they’ve become humorless and impatient with each other. In fact, mother and daughter are engaged in a process familiar to many people who have been adolescents or had one: they’re turning each other into monsters. The transformation is complete when Merida slices through her mother’s tapestry and Elinor burns her bow. Elinor realizes it instantly. Her question — “what I have I done?” — is one she asks many more times in her incarnation as a bear, when her humanity starts slipping away with increasing frequency.
And so Merida turns her mother into a monster. There’s much one could say about the transformation itself, but Dana Stevens sums it up :
The transformation brought about by the witch’s spell isn’t a Freaky Friday-style body switch, but it unseats both Merida’s and her mother’s identities just as completely, forcing the two of them to leave the castle and take refuge together in the woods, where they must hunt and forage for their meals. At once, all of the issues they were battling over—power, femininity, finding the right balance between the realization of one’s own desires and conformation to social values—are made literal, sometimes to comic effect.
The question that strikes any mother and teenage daughter who have gone through this together — this shocking moment when you see yourself turned into something you could never have imagined becoming — is this: what happens next?
And this is where Brave’s message about a changeable fate makes sense. There really are two fates for mothers and daughters. If Elinor doesn’t learn to depend on her daughter, if she doesn’t value Merida for her “unprincessy” skills and accept her help, she’ll remain a bear. If Merida doesn’t learn to see her mother not merely as an imperious authority but as a complex but loving person trying to prepare her daughter for a flawed and patriarchal world — a woman who, far from being invulnerable, is affected and even transformed by her daughter’s actions, she’ll be stuck.
That’s Fate #1. Plenty of mothers and daughters have gotten stuck here. As fairytale fates go, this one is uncomfortably real.
If Merida and Elinor succeed, Fate #1 will be demoted to a phase.
What Brave describes, then, is the black box a parent-child relationship becomes in adolescence. Like Queen Elinor’s legends, it rings with truth: a daughter acquires the power to turn her mother into a monster and accidentally does so. Their futures depend on their mutual rescue: how they work with each other to negotiate their new and unfamiliar roles will determine whether or not they remain monstrous to each other for the rest of their lives.
In the language of fate, of omens and prognostications, it’s fitting that Merida’s first time shooting leads her away from her family and into the woods. Her taking up arms in one sense endangers her family: mother and daughter exit pursued by a bear while her father stays to fight and loses his leg. It’s equally fitting that, immediately after hearing a growl in the woods, she finds will o’ the wisps. But instead of leading her away from her family and into trouble, as every will o’ the wisp should, these take her back to her family. This is Merida’s paradox: the very qualities that make her an appealing target to Mor-du — who seems to sense in her another spirit capable of being corrupted into breaking with family and kingdom for the sake of personal gain — emerged organically from her own family. Her skill as an archer isn’t simply a manifestation of teenage rebellion. Quite the contrary: she’s the product of her upbringing. She’s a master archer because her father taught her to be.
Neither her archery nor her father can save her. Upsetting yet another fate that seemed fixed, it turns out to be Elinor, not Fergus, who defeats Mor-du. And this shows what we’ve always suspected: Mor-du isn’t the wild creature of the woods Fergus thought he was hunting. He’s human ambition and untrammeled self-interest. He’s what the new state could easily become without education, without history, without storytelling, and without love.
By the end it’s clear that one form of bravery the film celebrates is affective: It’s the bravery to see and name our mistakes, to apologize, and to help each other unbecome the monsters we’ve created, and to do all of this without submitting to an unreasonable or unjust authority.
This is important.
Far be it from me to say that the film is perfect, or that there aren’t real critiques to be made of it. The pacing is sometimes off and there are stretches that are less compelling than others. But there are three things Brave absolutely isn’t, and there’s something pernicious about the fact that reviews repeatedly refer to it as precisely those three things. Whatever Brave is, it’s not predictable, it’s not Just Another Princess Movie, and it’s not — my God! — lacking for deeper layers.
I said earlier that a certain kind of female viewer learns to watch movies without paying too much attention to their endings for fear of discovering herself outside them. The nicest thing I can say about Brave’s open-ended ending, in which mother and daughter ride companionably into the sunset with the big questions still before them, is that I missed their new hairdos the first time round. When I watched the second time, no longer fearing the false happily-ever-aftering, there was a reward.