A Brave New World for Princess Movies
I admit, Brave wasn’t what I expected. The trailers sold it as a film about a spunky warrior girl fighting to avoid an undesirable arranged marriage. And, ok, it’s sort of about that. But it’s more about a girl negotiating the gap between her own desires and her hereditary duties, and about the complicated relationship between a mother and daughter.
Hold on! Safe and conventional? Disneyfied? Brave is almost nothing like the standard princess fare Disney has been feeding us for years. When was the last time you saw a princess movie where the princess doesn’t fall in love? When was the last time you saw a princess movie with a strong, realistic mother-daughter relationship? Hell, forget princess movies. When was the last time you saw a children’s movie with any female protagonist that fit either of those criteria?
Far from being safe and conventional, Brave is a gutsy evolution of the traditional princess film. And, at its heart, it’s a deeply feminist piece.
Before I continue deeper into a discussion about Brave, I want to briefly look at the films that have come before it. It’s true, this is a princess movie (inasmuch as it is about a princess), but it’s markedly different from the Disney princess movies I grew up with.
Who are the Disney princesses? Officially, they are, in order of appearance: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), Jasmine (Aladdin), Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana (The Princess and the Frog), and Rapunzel (Tangled).
I think it’s fair to say that there’s been a definite progression through the princesses. While the earliest films were really primarily about damsels in distress who needed to be rescued by handsome princes, beginning with the arrival of rebellious Ariel on the stage, the later films do become more and more about less helpless and more interesting and independent young women. (Though I’ll have to plead ignorance about The Princess and the Frog and Tangled — I’ve not seen either of these two movies.)
Still, The Little Mermaid winds up being, at least partly, a story about getting the guy at all costs (even if it means changing or giving up some fundamental part of your identity to do it). Beauty and the Beast, though Belle the bookworm became something of an icon for young nerdy girls, teaches us that the love of a good woman can transform a beast into a prince. Jasmine runs away from home to avoid the arranged marriage her father is trying to set up, but her naiveté quickly gets her into trouble, and she is rescued by Aladdin, who is really the star of the movie. Pocahontas is also uncomfortable with the marriage she’s been offered, and winds up playing the noble savage to arrogant John Smith, showing him the error of his ways; later, she nearly starts a war by making out with him, but manages to avert it through the power of love.
Up to this point, love and romance really is the filter through which every single Disney princess’s story is told. (That’s not to say that some of these ladies aren’t interesting and worthwhile characters in their own right — just that they always have to exercise their independence and individuality within the fairly narrow confines of a love story.)
Then comes Mulan. To my count, this is one of only three Disney animated films that feature female protagonists and don’t revolve around a romance plot. (The other two are Alice in Wonderland and Lilo & Stitch; and both of those female leads are really pre-adolescent.) Mulan, once again, is unhappy with the idea of being married off, but she runs away motivated not by this, but by a desire to protect her father. Masquerading as his son, she joins the military in his place, plays an integral role in defeating the invading Hun army, and earns the respect of the emperor of China. There’s still a romance element, as along the way she develops feelings for her commanding officer Li Shang (and he for her), but it’s secondary to the main plot, which is about Mulan’s fight for acceptance and her efforts to protect her country from its enemies. (Sadly, the straight-to-video sequel puts the focus squarely back on marriage.)
Mulan, despite being easily one of the strongest and most interesting female characters ever to come out of Disney’s animation studios, gets the short shrift from their marketing department. She somehow managed to get classified as an official princess (despite have neither been born to or married into royalty), but if you walk into your local Disney store, you’ll be lucky to find any merchandise with her likeness on it. And if you’re hoping for something that celebrates her as a tomboy-type, forget about it. Mulan dolls are typically as ultra-feminine as all of her co-princesses (she’s a “sparkling princess” or a “blossom beauty,” not a bad-ass warrior woman.)
(Side note: If you haven’t already figure it out, I adore Mulan. It absolutely ranks as one of my favorite Disney movies. It’s often overlooked–one of the Brave reviews I read referred to Mulan as “perfectly inoffensive“–but it’s far more interesting and subversive than I think it tends to get credit for. In what other Disney film do you get to watch a straight man struggle to come to terms with the feelings he is developing for someone he believes is another man? This bit of subtext is handled with a light touch, but it is there. Plus, there’s loads of cross-dressing, she saves his life, and the romance is never requited on-screen.)
I think Brave‘s Princess Merida is the natural next step in the evolution of the Disney princess. In some ways, she is Mulan’s spiritual successor, but she really is truly unlike any that have come before her. And it’s the new elements (or, in some cases, the missing elements) that make Brave such a deeply feminist piece.
(WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW!)
One of these new elements is something that it’s frankly a little astonishing we’ve seen so little of in the past: the loving (if sometimes difficult) relationship between mother and daughter.
Snow White and Cinderella had their evil step-mothers. Aurora’s mother sends her away for her protection, and though the girl has motherly fairies watching over her, their relationship with her is more like that of three indulgent grandmothers. Next comes a procession of dead (or absent and presumably dead) mothers: Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and Pocahontas are all parented by single fathers. Mulan’s mother lives, and, like Merida’s mother, wants her daughter to be a proper lady; she plays a minimal role in the film, and is primarily there to show us what Mulan’s options are like if she doesn’t run away. A bit of Google research tells me that Tiana’s mother is also alive, though I don’t know how big a part she plays in the story. Tangled gives us a return to the evil step-mother trope with Mother Gothel, who is actually Rapunzel’s jailer and who manipulates the girl for her own gain.
Disney’s standard narrative about mothers has–with few exceptions–taught us that good mothers die young and are all too often replaced by scary anti-mothers who, instead of protecting and nurturing their young female charges, see them as competition.
Finally, with Merida and her mother Elinor, we get a realistic, complex, and caring mother-daughter relationship! Elinor and Merida simply don’t get each other at the beginning of the film. Elinor knows that her daughter will be queen after her, and she does her best to groom the girl to be able to fill the position with grace and dignity. Merida, though, has a great deal of her raucous father in her, and she refuses to curb her wildness to fit her mother’s feminine ideal. Her mother’s world is too staid and orderly for her; she wants action and adventure. And yet, despite the gulf looming between them (a gulf every mother and adolescent daughter in history have faced to some degree), it is explicitly clear that Elinor and Merida love each other very much. They are very different people, with very different ideas about how the world should work, but they don’t want to be constantly at odds with each other. Elinor wants what is best for her daughter. Merida wants to make her mother understand why she can’t abide Elinor’s restrictions. (See this blog post for a description of several scenes that exemplify this.) They simply don’t know how to bridge the gap.
And it is this conflict that the movie really ends up being about. It’s not a film about changing the world. It’s a film about learning to accept each other’s differences, and about seeing the value in each other.
Is this why Brave is being called safe? Because Merida doesn’t go on an epic quest to free all of Scotland from patriarchal oppression?
I don’t know. What I do know is that Merida does something that, for the genre, is much more radical: She compromises. She cooperates. She wins quietly.
Mulan has to (at least initially) become a man in order to become a hero. And her heroics come in a way that is typically coded as masculine. She becomes a soldier. She fights, physically. She literally wins a war.
We’re led to believe, at first, that Merida will solve her problems in the same way. And perhaps this is why reviewers seem so disappointed with the direction the film ultimately takes. Our red-headed heroine, though she is physically fit and active, does not win the day through strength of arms. She wins it by communicating, a skill closely associated with femininity.
Brave is, for me, an unexpectedly mature film. Despite certain similarities, this isn’t the wish-fulfillment fantasy of Mulan, who ventures out on her own, saves the world, and ends up with the Emperor of China bowing before her. Merida doesn’t save the world. She very nearly doesn’t save her mother. And she doesn’t get to have everything her own way.
Instead, she must continue to work within the confines of the world she lives in to effect change. And she does effect change–a positive change for both herself and all of her would-be suitors. Instead of being at odds with each other, with one defeating the other, the women in this film must learn to work together. Let me say that again, because it’s important: Brave teaches us that women must learn to work cooperatively and to value each other, rather than be constantly in competition with each other. Do you know how rare it is in any movie, let alone a children’s movie, to see women working together rather than against each other?
And it’s not just the women who need to stop competing in Brave. This is a fable very much about cooperation, about valuing others for what they can bring to the table. It’s about the importance of communication and reliance on each other.
Mulan is a very individualistic tale. Yes, she has companions, she has help, but ultimately, it is Mulan herself who saves the day. As noted, it espouses a type of heroism that is traditionally very masculine.
Brave is much more skeptical about that type of combative heroism. The male warriors, motivated by anger and revenge, nearly kill Elinor (who has been magically transformed into a bear). Merida begs them to stop, but they are too much caught up in their bloodlust to listen to reason. The bear Mor’du, who took King Fergus’s leg years before, was once human, but his humanity was lost when he refused to reconcile with his brothers, intent on military conquest. It is Elinor who ultimately defeats Mor’du, but it’s not an act of hatred or anger against the beast–it’s an act of protection towards her daughter.
“There isn’t all that much bravery in Brave,” claims one reviewer. Which is true, I suppose, if you assume that bravery can only refer to martial feats.
The bravery in Brave is quieter. Merida and Elinor must have the bravery to set their pride aside, to step outside their own world-views, and learn to look at things from a different perspective. Personally, I think that’s a pretty valuable lesson, and one that does take bravery to learn.
And this is why I think Brave is such a deeply feminist film. Mulan shows us that a woman can be heroic in the same way a man can. That’s valuable, and as I’ve already said, I love Mulan. But where Mulan does its work within the traditional masculine paradigm of heroism, Brave offers us another, completely different paradigm. A woman can take on “masculine” characteristics and be brave and empowered. But she can also be empowered through more traditionally “feminine” means, like communication and cooperation. In a world that consistently devalues traits associated with femininity, Brave‘s vision of female empowerment really is pretty radical.
Too radical, apparently for some reviewers. One goes so far as to suggest that “having a reluctant Merida being wooed by an equally strong suitor, a la The Taming of the Shrew, or presenting a Moby Dick-like adventure in which she gathers a group of hunters to track down a mythic bear that plagues their kingdom” would have made a better story. Thank goodness Chuck Koplinski isn’t writing for Pixar. We’ve seen strong women being mastered by stronger men. And we’ve seen, more and more lately, women who, like Mulan, take on traditionally masculine leadership roles.
Brave gives us something new. It shows us that combat isn’t always the answer, and often it isn’t the best answer. It reminds us that social change is more often accomplished in slow, small increments, and only when we start working together and start valuing different perspectives. And it does all this through a nuanced, realistic vision of a relationship we rarely see developed in children’s movies.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s kind of a big deal.