Academic Writing

Thursday, July 05, 2012


Disney has made a name for itself being in the business of princesses.  Specifically, in girly, frilly, boy-obsessed and dainty princesses.  I loved these princesses and wanted to be all of them, have their pretty palaces and most importantly their cute (often royal and always adorable) boyfriends.   In Disney’s Pixar’s new computer animated film, Brave, the princess is the Scottish tomboy Merida (voiced by Boardwalk Empire’s Kelly Macdonald), who’s strained relationship with her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) and her disinterest in being married off to one of the lame suitors she’s offered leads her to escape to the Scottish highlands where she encounters a witch’s cottage.  Inside, the witch offers her a spell to “change her mother” and when Merida accepts, she doesn’t expect it to literally change her into a bear.   Having to escape the castle with her newly transformed mother the feuding pair must learn to respect each other’s personalities, perspectives and talents in order to break the spell.  Instead of this princess overcoming her own predicament to find love with her prince, Merida’s challenge is to learn to respect her mother’s perspective and role while in turn Elinor must learn that her daughter’s independence does not mean disrespect of her or of her tradition.

While visually arresting, as the rolling Scottish hills are delightfully presented, Brave doesn’t have the same nods to adults as other Pixar films traditionally have had.  It’s much more a throwback to the more traditional princess films – vaguely medieval times, royal families, mysterious and possibly evil witches and, of course, the independent and impulsive princess (with trademark hair, of course).  Yet the biggest difference is that there is no central love story.  Rather than making the character development and story predicated on her relationship vis a vis a guy she’s lusting after, it’s based off of her refusal to do just that. 

Further, the mother/daughter relationship has rarely been explored in these Disney princess movies as most princesses don’t generally have their mothers.  If you think about it in almost every Disney princess film (save for Sleeping Beauty) the princess only has one living parent.  Merida has both, alive and well throughout the whole film.  Her mother undergoes a physical transformation, but the emotional connection remains strong and it is the development of that relationship and the strengthening of it is what the focus of the film is on.  It is also the particularly closer relationship she has with her mother and her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) that highlights the differences with her mother even further.  From external features like having inherited his bright red and unruly hair to her impulsive and carefree manner and her love of an adventure, she is directly aligned with her father and his very male characteristics (not to mention her triplet brothers also have those same personalities).  It seems like her mother is the odd one out in the family and she is desperately trying to get Merida on her side despite Merida’s constant refusals.

When Elinor tells Merida that the time has come for her to choose a husband, suitors which come from the far corners of her father’s kingdom to prove their worth to her.  They arrive and are most definitely all losers.  Arrogant, stupid, ugly, incomprehensible, useless, etc, none of them come close to being able a worthy partner for her.  These are the best her kingdom has to offer?  She understandably resents this process and refuses all of the men (boys, really) who have come to vie for her hand.  The movie’s message would have been strengthened if some she had marriage offers from Prince Eric lookalikes.  It’s not so hard to defy the advances of doofuses as a statement of female independence, but the film’s impact would have been even stronger if she had a great guy at her hands but said she had more living to do before she resigned herself to a life of needlepoint and public appearances.  In reality the tides are changing, women are getting married older after gaining success independently so it’s no wonder Disney is making the statement that this is an ok option.  It would just be nice to do so without disparaging the male counterparts.  In fact, all of them men in Brave are kind of doofusy.  Fergus is lovable and a great dad, but he’s kind of all over the place.  Merida’s brothers are little boys, but they’re huge trouble makers and the suitors, their fathers and their landsmen are all war-mongers with a penchants for violence.  Why must one gender gain independence and respect at the expense of another?  Unfortunately as media is showing stronger more liberated women, men are being disparaged and infantilized and that doesn’t isn’t really helpful either for maintaining a strong society.

Moreover, as I was watching this, I kept thinking to myself, how come the only way a girl can be independent and different is if she’s painted as a tom-boy, or more specifically, a boy?  The manner in which she is depicted as an atypical girl is doing things boys would do – archery, horseback riding (bareback, I might add), rock climbing, and going on scary adventures.  It seems to delineate gender roles even more strikingly than breaking down the barrier – if women can only break out of their proscribed roles by doing manly things (and assuming its vice versa) then it’s really just reinforcing what men’s roles are.

Also, total side note – as has become Pixar tradition, an animated short precedes the film.  This one is La Luna, the Oscar-nominated short that in only a few minutes provides visually arresting images and so much heart as three generations learn from one another in a magical setting.  If you go see Brave make sure to get there early so you can catch this short gem.

I enjoyed Brave, Merida is a strong (albeit sometimes stubborn) female role model that today’s generation of young girls can truly look up to.  She doesn’t allow herself to get pushed around or bullied by social norms (and by that I mean her mother).  At the same time she is open to learning about others and respecting their traditions while also forging her own path, and that’s a lesson everyone can learn from.

No comments: