‘Brave’ has a gender problem

Image Via Brave Wiki

*If you haven’t yet seen Brave and want to avoid any spoilers at all, avoid this post.  If you don’t mind minor spoilers for plot points (but not outcome) continue reading*

I avoided any reviews or spoilers before seeing the new Pixar movie Brave yesterday.  I wanted to go into the movie about a young heroine archer Merida unbiased by group think.

While I enjoyed the film, I was underwhelmed. Perhaps, I was in need of a plot, centered around this medieval Scottish princess with firey red curls, that packed more of an emotional punch.  After I got home I went to read my favorite culture blogger Alyssa Rosenberg over at ThinkProgress who highlighted one of the more problematic themes in the reviews of Brave.

Alyssa cites EW.com’s review which includes this nugget about Merida’s propensity for outdoorsy activities like horseback riding and archery:

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).

I agree with Alyssa that, “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.”

It’s particularly problematic that Merida can only be viewed through a sexual lens even when the entire theme of the movie in many ways is her rejecting this frame and instead opting for more independence and free will.  Her desire to postpone an arranged marriage until later was not because she has a preference for women versus men, it’s that she simply was not ready for either in a romantic context.  The idea that because Merida enjoyed outdoor activities she must be gay lacks creativity and is downright offensive.

In addition, it was extremely disappointing for Pixar to have so much hype surrounding Brave and it’s expert arrow shooting heroine in a year when The Hunger Games smashed records. And to have an overbearing mother as the central plot point and subtext of Merida’s struggles.  Sure having a controlling mother might be relateable to the masses, but it’s also a particularly stale and uninspiring challenge for a breakthrough character to overcome.

Apparently, EW.com isn’t the only place creatively challenged.


Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/lisslalissar/ Lissla Lissar

    Interesting, though I’d point out that it’s pretty unlikely that Brave ripped the archery subplot off of Hunger Games. They likely started production at around the same time. Brave in fact may have been in pre-production for longer due to a delay from the studio as they changed directors.

    • http://feministing.com/members/north/ elizabeth

      One note: Hunger Games was, of course, originally a book, published in 2009 and likely finished a year or so before that.

      • http://feministing.com/members/north/ elizabeth

        sorry, 2008!

  • http://feministing.com/members/kensuke/ Boris

    “Brave” was created by a mother (Brenda Chapman has a daughter). And this is the whole point of the movie – communication between a mother and a daughter. A very real problem, not just in America.

    My personal understanding of “Brave” is based on casting. Everyone is Scottish, but Thompson is English. And her character doesn’t have any relatives in the country. Therefore, we can assume that Elinor is foreign, a girl from a different world, much more refined than Scottish lords. So, she is very lonely, and she tries to make her daughter into her companion. But Merida takes after her father, and this is a huge blow to Elinor. So, it’s not just about “feminine behavior”. It is all about “be like me, be with me, follow me code of honor”. Of course, this rubs Merida the wrong way, because she feels constrained by the things her mother loves.

    Yet, when Merida tries to change her mother, Elinor turns into a monster and slowly loses her mind. Because she is who she is, she can’t turn on a dime and abandon herself as an English princess. So, they both have to come to the middle. Merida learns how to be regal (her speech is an excellent political ploy), Elinor tries some “rough living”. And they fiercely protect each other against the bear and the hunters. Therefore proving to each other, that their love is above their differences. Which is not always obvious, when you have a heated conflict.

    I think that this is a pretty perfect feminist story. It’s all about accepting differences and awesomeness. Yes, it’s not “WALL-E” in terms of scale, but who needs to save the world in every movie? “Finding Nemo” is a much better companion movie. But while in “Nemo” both main heroes are pretty weak (and they have to rely on strangers for help), in “Brave” both heroines can fight (Merida as herself, Elinor as a bear).

  • http://feministing.com/members/ljcitino/ Laura

    ” And to have an overbearing mother as the central plot point and subtext of Merida’s struggles. Sure having a controlling mother might be relateable to the masses, but it’s also a particularly stale and uninspiring challenge for a breakthrough character to overcome.”

    I had some issues with this in the movie at well — but I think I reconciled it in my head, and here’s why: I don’t think the movie aimed to have Merida’s main challenge be overcoming her mother, but rather, the whole cycle/system of expectations and responsibilities that mothers tend to hand down to their daughters. I’m thinking of how Merida’s mother kept going back to her own girlhood/betrothal for comforting examples ( “when I was a girl…”), which is even more relateable than the idea of having a controlling mother. That is an entirely different beast to deal with, and making the “system” the bad guy, instead of the mother or Merida respectively, really enriched the whole movie for me. I was especially interested in how both of them actually worked together to give the final proclamation (that the young people could choose who they wanted to marry) that upended all those years of tradition. Besides, I actually found the mother very well-rounded and engaging as her own character, as she was given moments of vulnerability with moments of strength (like when she walked through the crowd of wild fighting men, for example) that made the back-and-forth between her and Merida particularly well-balanced, in my eyes.

  • http://feministing.com/members/genie3288/ Genie Leslie

    I didn’t feel like the story was about an overbearing mother whom the daughter has to overcome. I felt like it was a very real mother-daughter story in which both had to relax their ideals and accept the mother/daughter they have while not giving up on what they deem most important for themselves and their lives. By the end, Merida uses some of her skills she’s learned from her mother, her “princess” skills if you will, in order to be diplomatic and solve a problem; but this doesn’t mean that she’s ready for her mother to hand her over in marriage or that she’s giving up the fiery independent spirit that is so central to her character. She grows up a little, she compromises when needed, but she’s still the same person. And her mother does the same–she finally sees how some of Merida’s outdoor activities have real benefits. They are still the same characters in the end, but they’ve grown and come to respect their personality differences.

    Plus I think the mother was a great way to emphasize the gender problems of her time: her mother is, after all, trying to prepare her for a world in which men rule and women are property. Her struggle was not just against her mother, but against her place in the world as a woman.

  • http://feministing.com/members/selkie/ selkie

    Even though I agree that the existence of a movie for young girls in which romance is completely absent is a good and rare thing itself. I’m not really okay with all the hand-wringing over how it’s problematic to interpret this Merrida as a lesbian. It seems particularly obnoxious to tag a post “queer” when the only mention of queerness is to condemn any queer reading of the character as “particularly problematic” and “offensive”.

  • http://feministing.com/members/mighty-ponygirl/ Mighty Ponygirl

    Here’s the thing that bothered me:

    Merida: I don’t want to get married. I want to belong to myself.
    Mom: Whatever lunk of a boy happens to perform an arbitrary task best you shall be handed over to as wife (obviously, it’s a Disney movie, so the whole “and he’ll rape you and you’ll have to birth and raise his children etc etc” is glossed over)

    But don’t worry, kids, there’s going to be a beautiful “compromise” between the mom and the daughter that will be arrived at after much trial and pain so it has to be good. Are you ready for it?

    COMPROMISE: She’ll still have to marry one of the three boys, but she’ll let them try to “romance” her so there’s a fighting chance she might like one of them! Isn’t that so much better? Actual autonomy, not being forced into a politically advantageous marriage, well, that wouldn’t be in the spirit of “compromise.”

    Oh! And the mom is like, totally a mama grizzly! Get it? She’ll fight to the death for her daughter but she’ll still hand her over like property to some other dude. Sarah Palin probably wet herself with smug glee watching the scene where mama bear gets to defend her daughter and then nod sagely at the wisdom of packing her off to be some other man’s property.

    The point of Merida going to get the spell was never “My mom and I don’t see eye to eye.” It wasn’t about the table manners or the bow. The entire point of the spell was “Holy crap I don’t want to be forced into marriage” to the point where even when Merida should have been worried about “oh shit did I just poison my mom she’s not doing so well” all she could hammer at was the forced marriage, not the fact that she didn’t like embroidering tapestries.

    The “compromise” at the end of the movie was awful. Merida will still have to spend the rest of her life in a prison she doesn’t want, but now she’s been given the CHOICE! of cell A, B, or C, based on which one makes her the least miserable.

    See also: in order to break the spell, Merida had to mend the tapestry she sliced in her anger at her mother. Her mother didn’t have to so much as restring Merida’s bow that she threw in the fire.


    • http://feministing.com/members/kensuke/ Boris

      “I would not do that right now” easily turns into “I would not do this ever”. At least, in politics. Especially in Medieval times. Things change. A lot. Maybe in some years Merida will just kill all those guys and go for the Catherine II thing with male favorites. Or maybe she will marry for love. Ala Eleanor of Aquitaine (second time, not the first time).

      On the other hand, saying “Just NO” would be big trouble. That’s Politics 101. “Talk nice and carry a big bow”. And the story is not over. It’s just the beginning for Merida. I hope.

      Also, Merida poisoned her mom. Mending the tapestry was the least possible punishment (karma wise). Making someone follow the rules of the land and poisoning someone are not equal offences. Well, if those laws are not about genocide.

      • http://feministing.com/members/mighty-ponygirl/ Mighty Ponygirl

        You realize this was a kids’ movie, right? And not Game of Thrones or some other more detailed and nuanced script?

        She didn’t poison her mom. It looked like poison at first, but it was a spell, and if she had any idea that the spell would do anything more than change her mother’s mind, she wouldn’t have given her the pastry.

    • http://feministing.com/members/lydia/ Lydia

      I thought the clans agreed to let their children marry whomever they wanted whenever they wanted. I may have missed something, but I interpreted that scene as everyone agreeing to let the children decide for themselves.

      I also figured the reason her mother didn’t have to fix the bow was because she was a bear and couldn’t (no thumbs!) and because the spell was against her. She still learned something and probably would have repaired the bow if she wasn’t turned into a bear (she did pull it out of the fire and seemed very sorry that she had acted in such anger).

      Just my thoughts!

  • http://feministing.com/members/fiercebadrabbit/ Siobhan

    Ahem. she doesn’t postpone arranged marriages. She abolishes them. The agreement is very explicitly that all the younger generation will be free to choose whoever they fall in love with, prince/princess or not. In fact, all the princes seem really excited about the opportunity to marry for love, whether they marry Merida or not.