Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Before I get into the meat of this article, I need to declare some things. One, I love Disney and PIXAR to the point of obsession. Two, I am a woman who many would call a feminist and I do enjoy deconstructing films for their female interpretations. Three, I love Disney films but I do maintain they don’t know how to create a female character that’s well-rounded. This leads me into my deconstruction of Disney/PIXAR’s latest film Brave. Brave has a lot of expectation leading into because of last summer’s stumbling block known as Cars 2 and because this is the first PIXAR film to possess a female leading lady. Yes, over ten years of movies and this is the first time a woman is the star that alone should say a lot. So is Brave the feminist film women are looking for….kind of. Note this is a spoiler-heavy analysis so you’ve been warned.
Brave tells the story of Scottish Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) who doesn’t want to get married. She desires to “change her fate” and hopes her traditional mother Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson) can understand that. Merida goes to a witch and has her cast a spell to make Elinor change her mind on the marriage but this has dire consequences leading Merida and her mother to work together to set things right.
To start, this is not mean to be a traditional review of Brave. I’ll be attempting to look at the film from a feminist perspective and highlight what the film gets right and wrong in that regard. If you want my take on the film as a whole I liked it but the story is muddled in that it doesn’t know whether to focus on Elinor or Merida. The marriage subplot is dropped hastily and the film’s “change your fate” plotline doesn’t feel earned. It’s good, but it’s not nearly as good as the Toy Story films or Up. It’s a mid-level PIXAR film on par with A Bug’s Life.
In regards to the females of the film you have Merida and Elinor, two women who are so two-dimensional it’s all based on their appearance. Merida has wild, fiery red hair, and her dresses are built for riding and shooting arrows as evidenced by the trailer sequences of her shooting the arrows and ripping her corseted dress. Elinor has drab brown hair with a streak of gray to show her age, her dresses are the color of the Earth (dark green) and built around grace and elegance. Where Merida’s hair is wild, Elinor’s is gathered. This is important when, in the final scenes, Elinor’s hair is down but held by a simple headband showing her embracing the new traditions set down by her daughter and the old. Where the two are the same is in their beliefs in magic (specifically the will-o’-wisps) and their mutual stubbornness.
What’s strange about Brave is that the film is truly Elinor’s story, showcasing how Elinor comes to understand why her daughter doesn’t want to get married and changing her views on the definition of a princess. Yet this is not highlighted in the trailers or posters, in fact many of the trailers show Elinor as Merida’s adversary, continuing to perpetuate the idea that mothers and daughters are in constant competition to prove their points and are forever at odds. An argument could be made that because Elinor is older, and not as “pretty” as Merida, she’s not worthy of putting on equal footing as the promotional materials. Just look at the animation between the two characters. Merida has the typical Disney features of big eyes and head and a tiny body whereas Elinor is animated rather proportionally and is emphasized to be older.
Before the curse happens Elinor is seen as a strong women surrounded by emasculated men. She can stop the various male clans from fighting simply by walking into the fray, yet she grips the three heads of the clans by their ears; chastising them like spoiled children. The various men in this film are either unable to understand Elinor’s problem (her husband who is a male personification of Merida), or seen as weak in general (the various male suitors vying for Merida’s hand). The males are strong purely based on the strength and the rights of primogeniture (first born males inherit the throne). In fact when Elinor tells Merida a legend about what will happen if Merida does not get married; she uses a legend about competing princes. How one prince wanted power and brought down the entire legacy. The story pushes the idea of non-conformity as leading to chaos and anarchy specifically through the vein of marriage. If Merida refuses to follow tradition she’ll be the one to blame for the kingdom dissolving to rubble. Desires and love are not where power lies and to think so is dangerous. Elinor doesn’t even use a princess in this instance, relying on princes who were not required to get married! Princes used marriages as means of getting land or possessions with the princess being the form of currency for the competing kingdom.
Elinor is supposed to be a strong Queen but we never see her exert any type of influence over anyone. Her attempts to use her diplomatic skills on Merida are seen as stifling and at a particular moment we see the Queen drop all pretense of grace and fall back on her uncontrollable “feminine” emotions and burns Merida’s bow as her only means to control her. This scene in particular was upsetting as the Queen does purely in a moment of emotions. It is not a diplomatic move; it is a moment of frustration and anger against her uncontrollable child causing her daughter to despise her. Elinor immediately plucks the bow out of the fire and tries to salvage the situation but Merida is gone relying on the overused cliché of a character trying to fix the situation not in front of the one they’ve hurt.
Once Merida tricks her mother into taking the witches potion, turning Elinor into a bear, the movie turns into a mother/daughter adventure tale where in order for the curse to be reversed…the two have to mend their bond. The marriage storyline is removed in favor of a mother/daughter story. This is both to the movies advantage and detriment. We’ve come to understand there’s a communication issue between Merida and Elinor. We see this when they’re both venting their frustration out in separate scenes so having Elinor’s speech literally be stifled doesn’t allow us to see or feel what Elinor is going through. It’s another instance of removing Elinor’s power completely and rendering her a speechless character. The film then follows the two women as they hide out in the forest. Elinor is forced to live life not just as a bear, but as a woman lacking privilege. She’s forced to rely on Merida to teach her how to hunt for food and she comes to understand that she’s raised a self-sufficient child. Removing the trappings of luxury is nothing new in these movies, and I would have been interested in Elinor coming to the realization, as a human, that while her daughter doesn’t want marriage she’s able to take care of herself. Instead the movie focuses on Merida changing Elinor back and at the end we don’t know if Elinor has learned how to fend for herself. She goes right back to her marriage and we’re left to assume she’s learned more than letting her daughter follow her heart.
The most egregious and non-feminist friendly moment comes towards the climax of the film. Merida is attempting to prevent her father from killing Elinor (still in bear form) when the true villain, a bear named Mor’du, arrives and tries to kill Merida. In this instance Merida is powerless to defend herself leaving her mother to fight and kill Mor’du. Elinor is literally the mama bear defending her cub. Gone is the idea of feminine strength but instead the idea that the “natural instincts” of a mother will take over and cause her to defeat whatever is threatening her children. Elinor is reduced to a lone mother and Merida is powerless. Brave wants to present a strong, confident set of women, but when a true threat arrives they become a helpless child and a mama bear respectively. Merida is apparently meant to learn she can’t defeat a true threat, removing those self-sufficiency skills we were supposed to praise in earlier scenes, and Elinor gains the respect of her daughter (and by default the rest of the men but that’s never truly fleshed out).
Brave is a good movie but from a feminist standpoint it reinforces tropes that end up lessening the strength of the females including creating a group of emasculated men, and reducing the Queen to a mother led by emotions and innate maternal sensibilities. Merida is practically a marginalized character with little depth other than freedom and not wanting to be married. The two women learn to appreciate each other but only because they’ve both caved to the others demands (Elinor doesn’t forced Merida to marry, Merida realizes she’s selfish). Considering that PIXAR has not attempted to create a female heroine till now is sad as they rely on the typical princess role, obviously taking a cue from their Disney owners. It also doesn’t help that the company took flack for removing the original female director although Brenda Chapman did direct this (marking the first time a female has directed a PIXAR film). It’s not the great leap forward I wanted but it’s better than some of Disney’s more recent female characters.
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.