(Content Note: Body Policing)
So yesterday I came across this picture, depicting artist Claire Hummel‘s indignation at a particular scene in the U.S. trailer for Pixar’s new movie Brave. In it, the film’s hero, Mérida, complains as she is laced into a corset. And while I don’t agree with everything Hummel says–or possibly how she’s saying it–my first thought after finding out about this scene was “this again?”
Scenes like this one should be familiar*–women complaining about their corsets have appeared from films as old as 1944’s Meet Me In St. Louis to more recent fare like Pirates of the Caribbean, where it was used as a set-up for one of its more quotable lines. Nowadays, its main use appears to be as shorthand to depict how women were oppressed back then, and the hero’s dislike of them as a sign that she is a Strong Female Character.
I’m a big fan of women in corsets–I’ve found the garment fascinating since my age was in the single digits, and feel that there’s very little they can’t make sexier. Thanks to this fascination/fetish, I’ve gotten to learn about, and interact with, women who have worn them and who have a variety of opinions regarding the garment. Some indeed dislike it and find it uncomfortable. Others find it comfortable, beautiful, even confidence boosting. In essence, they’re no different from mountain climbing or high heels…and yet somehow this never seems to come across in movies.
Now, does western society have a history of hostility female agency? Yuppers–still does, in some very significant ways. Is forcing women to wear clothing they don’t wish to wear oppression? Affirmative. Is it a good thing that movies acknowledge this? What bothers me isn’t the attempt at highlighting oppression, but the way repeated use of the tropes has stripped all nuance out of the issue and turned it from “body policing and forcing people to wear clothing they may not wish to wear is bad ” to “corsets bad, disliking corsets good”. It reminds me of people who insist that coverings like hijabs and burqas are inherently oppressive and would seek to ban them, while ignoring the fact that it’s perfectly possible to wear those while still having and/or demanding agency.
In Brave‘s particular sense, the detail doesn’t appear to even make much sense. Like the drawing states, corsets like the one she wears didn’t exist in the era the film appears to be alluding to. It feels especially lazy here, particularly since it’s not like there’s a shortage of examples of oppression they could have drawn from. Granted, from the previews, the premise of the movie seems to be precisely about a girl who fights gendered cultural expectations oppressive norms, but if that’s the case, why is this particular element required? Mérida is perfectly justified in not liking corsets, but I feel there’s no reason why this should be an issue in this particular movie, other than as an easy way to score feminism points.
Sometimes I think that the reason why this particular trope is used is because corsets are no longer something women must wear, and therefore depicting them serves as a way to highlight oppression without suggesting that it continues to exist. It’s safe in a way that say, highlighting the way society–including, yes, Hollywood– continues to police women’s bodies isn’t.
So what do I want? Basically, I’d like corsets not to be treated as something that would garner a monolithic reaction. I’d like an acknowledgment that just as women who dislike corsets exist, then so do women who enjoy wearing them, and that where one falls on that spectrum isn’t an indicator of their worth as a person. Maybe then scenes like the one in Brave would feel organic, rather than pandering.
* Obligatory TV Trope Link: Of Corset Hurts. Fun fact: The trope picture? Mine.