Being “Brave”.

As she haughtily ascends her breakfast throne, my spirited 4 year old red-head announces “I am Merida.”

Brave Merida

She has clearly had her attention grabbed by the admirable qualities of the main character we went to see at the cinema yesterday – Princess Merida, hero of Disney / Pixar’s Brave.

Merida – in unwilling training to be a typical Disney Princess – is focusing at her mother’s insistence on being seen and not heard, developing the lady-like skills of tapestry and not eating too many pies. But at the same time she yearns for a more traditionally ‘princely’ life of warrior’s skills, including archery and horse-riding and adventuring freely in the forest. 

Much has been made of the fact that this is Pixar’s first film with a female protagonist. As Ryan Gilbey points out in his New Stateman review (http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2012/08/brave-review):

After a sports car, a tin box and a rat, I suppose it had to get around to one eventually.

With reviews like this, it’s easy to understand why mainstream film-producers may be wary of strong female leads. Gilbey goes on to dismiss the female action-hero like this

It’s really a pity the girl wasn’t born in China 1,000 years earlier because she and Mulan could have had sleepovers and pillow fights and been total BFFs.

And finally decides that:

Maintaining one’s individuality within the family is a challenge relevant to all children. I just don’t remember older films making such a fuss about it.The Jungle Book was comparatively rudimentary in its animation techniques but at least its songs never urged Mowgli, as Brave does with Merida, to “Chase the wind!” and “Touch the sky!” and all those other things you only hear about in advertisements for energy drinks or tampons. 

Don’t let such mealy-mouthed commentary put you off! A reviewer who understands a female character adopting and revelling in what have been traditionally seen as male traits simply as “maintaining one’s individuality within the family” and “a challenge relevant to all children” doesn’t understand the particular expectations of girls as they grow into women and the way that those expectations are consistently reinforced again and again in a variety of ways including through popular culture. 

Past “heroines” may have recoiled at the pressure to marry an unwanted suitor. Happy ever after endings rely on these women marrying a man of their own choosing. Rarely in the fairy-tale genre do we have a happy ending where the young princess simply does not marry. And rides off into a brave new dawn with…her mum. This makes Brave more – well – brave than any number of more supposedly grown up media offerings where the narrative arc irresistibly leads female characters to matrimony in the end.  

Traditional fairy-tale plots generally concern (unstated) broken and reassembled families; it’s as though the reality of parent and child conflict can only be explained by non-biological links and step-parenting. Within this family the mother and daughter conflict, the father and daughter bond, the parenting disagreements all feel plausible. Idealising ‘whole’ families and demonising ‘step’ and other composite families should be consigned to the past. Intra-familial conflict and disagreement is real (and non-fatal!) for most families. 

Merida’s mother may adopt the more “traditional” role of Queen, but she is no cypher. Her skills at leading, organising and strategising are evident. Of a new generation, Merida’s route will be different, but there’s no overlooking the fact that her steely composure and determination come as much from her mother as from her father. Queen Elinor makes a plausible bear. The differences between the mama-bear and Mor-dhu, the villain bear are probably already covered in countless film studies essays: (http://braveconfessions.tumblr.com/post/24472798131)

There’s a lovely subsidiary story-line about Merida’s three little brothers. Dana Stevens, reviewing for Slate considers the lack of differentiation between them a weakness (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2012/06/pixar_s_brave_reviewed_.html). I disagree. As a one-time adolescent big sister to a basket-full of diddy little brothers myself, this element of the story rings sweetly true to me. To the big sister, from whose point of view this story is told, they would have been virtually indistinguishable from each other. A whirling bundle of pests and accomplices combined. Merida’s ability to command their loyalty and assistance at a crucial plot-point is part of the fun, but it also subtly underlines some well-established ‘motherly’ qualities that co-exist with the other aspects of her personality. 

Of course, a film of this type won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, nor will it transform overnight the saccharine balance of the Disney princesses our daughters are exposed to. But it’s a film with richer layers than a first viewing suggests. I welcome the addition of Merida to the princess canon. 

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