If there’s one thing I’ve confirmed while watching Pixar’s Brave, it’s that I’m way more forgiving of things I consider to be good stories told in a flawed manner (see: Robotech) than I am of stories that I see as flawed but are told well. Brave feels like the latter, and while I was already predisposed to disliking it–partly because of hype backlash (I am not as enamored of Pixar as a lot of people are); partly because of its use of the “corsets are oppressive” trope, which suggested the writers and I would not exactly see eye to eye; and partly because of the fears raised in this thread seemed terribly justified–I was surprised to see how much I actually disliked it, in the end.
I mean, the movie is capital-G Gorgeous. Pixar does what Nintendo has been wanting to do with Zelda since Ocarina of Time, bringing a world with tons of personality. Watching the movie, I half-wanted Merida to enter a temple in search of a Triforce piece. Alas…
It has been noted by everyone and their mothers that Brave is the first Pixar film to star a woman. Given Pixar’s output and its usual popularity, there was the sort of expectation that this would be the movie that would convince Hollywood that a) there had always been a space for stories about brave girls, and that b) boys could enjoy those too. And watching the film, I got the impression that Pixar really wanted to make Merida an awesome hero and Strong Female Character who triumphed over sexism, and would garner them lots of feminism cookies.
I just don’t think they had any idea how to go about it.
My first and main problem with the film, I would say, is that none of its characters (of which there were only three—the others were a collection of not terribly funny quirks and stereotype) felt likable, which made the movie a chore.
Let’s start with our hero Merida. I can sympathize with the idea that she’d rather go out and shoot things than to be a princess or getting married, and she doesn’t like traditionally feminine things. Fair enough.* She’s angry at a culture that stops her from being what she wants to be. Awesome. However, once you start believing that your wants override everybody else’s, or that they justify trying to brainwash people, that’s when I stop feeling sympathy for you—especially when the apparent solution to her problems lay in a single well-timed speech, which suggests that brainwashing was a solution of first resort more than something that she’d tried once everything else had failed.
I get that she’s meant to be flawed. I don’t mind flaws. However, I got the impression that the writers expect me to believe that she’s a good person in spite of those, and I just don’t think she is. She’s likeable, but that’s not the same thing. What’s more, while we are expected to believe that Merida has come at the other end of her adventure as a better person, I wasn’t convinced that one of the lessons she learned was “brainwashing people is wrong”–I got the impression that she just feels that it went badly in this one instance, or that the outcome justified the offense, which no. Or maybe I just think that cause I’m already biased against her.
Brave makes it clear that Merida hates the idea of growing up to be like her mother, Elinor. The implication is that she’d rather be like her father Fergus, who uncomfortably reminded me of George W. Bush: in short, he’s a boisterous and friendly person who would probably make an excellent drinking partner, but who should also be kept far away from any position of authority. Unfortunately he’s a father and a husband and a king, positions he apparently doesn’t care about filling. I am convinced that somewhere inside the castle lives Brave‘s version of Ponder Stibbons–someone who takes on every job others don’t want to take (which is most of them) because otherwise the place wouldn’t run. Zie has to exist, or else there’s no way the kingdom wouldn’t have drowned in blood and piss and vomit long ago.
The closest thing we get to seeing that character is Elinor, who, besides apparently being the only person who understand that running a kingdom is hard work, diplomacy, and compromise, serves as our protagonist’s foil and nemesis, insisting that Merida learn “perfection”–i.e. focusing and excelling exclusively on traditionally feminine things—which clashes squarely with Merida’s interests, which are focused exclusively on traditionally masculine things. This, Elinor argues, is being done to prepare Merida so that she can do alright by her kingdom when the time comes (which given Fergus, is a valid concern).
Now, for as much as the film wants to suggest that Elinor is a no-fun stick-in-the mud who delights in nothing more than making her daughter miserable and who really needs to let down her hair and loosen up, I actually like her quite a bit, if only because the film expects me not to, playing her particular plight for laughs rather than horror for far longer than I cared for. Her insistence that Merida achieve “perfection”, while wrong, is understandable: they do, after all, live in a world that punishes those who don’t comform to the kyriarchy’s arbitrary and impossible standards; suppressing her will may not make her happy, but it will keep her alive or safe, to a degree.
…or at least, it should be.
It’s frankly, baffling, the way Brave presents its culture. We’re told that society is sexist enough to have marriages of political convenience—agency not required. However, this by necessity implies other forms of oppression, which are weirdly absent here. For example, we know that Merida is allowed relative freedom and privacy—she can go out on her own sans bodyguard or supervision, for example, which is a freedom that princesses have historically been denied. What’s more, the fact that Merida is a tomboy doesn’t appear to be a source of social shame—it’s only Elinor who appears to have a problem with it, and once she stops thinking that way by the end of the movie, everything is hunky dory. This is deeply problematic, if you’re trying to make a statement about society at large.
Yes, women who oppress women form part of the kyriarchy. However, suggesting that it is only women who do so is not only inaccurate, it places the burden of change on them, leaving the men—who overwhelmingly control the institutions that do the most oppressing—blameless. The movie, in general, seems happy to portray men as well-meaning oafs who fall victim to their baser instincts, with the right look or the right words, they’ll choose right. So who then, first decided that political marriages were acceptable? Impossible to know.
In any case, we end up having a hero whose only ambition appears to be “to stay single, and let [her] hair flow in the wind as [she] rides through the glen, firing arrows into the sunset”–even in the face of responsibilities that she has no interest in dealing with. Sure, she didn’t choose these responsibilities, and she has every right to be pissed at having them thrust upon her, but she has them, and ignoring them isn’t a solution. We have a mom who’s set up as a stick in the mud despite the fact that she’s arguably been turned into one by circumstance? And I’m supposed to root for the first one? No thank you. During the scenes after Elinor is first turned into a bear, I was horrified for her, and aghast at what I saw as Merida’s total lack of empathy. That was when the movie lost me completely.
On another note, I disliked how the movie drove a barrier between “masculine stuff” and “feminine stuff”: Merida likes bows and swords and slouching, mom likes music and geography and etiquette, and the implication is that liking one type means you can’t like the other. This is, of course, crap—crap that a lot of people believe, but nevertheless crap. And it is especially crappy to imply that one is inherently superior to the other, as the movie does here (I don’t think the scene at the end where the two women work on a new tapestry really mitigates the rest of the movie). Yes, it’s great seeing a film that argues that women can be good at “masculine” pursuits; that doesn’t mean you need to put down “feminine” pursuits in the process.
Some people online have mentioned that they identified with the film’s depiction of a mother/daughter relationship, and while I can’t particularly do that, I kinda hope the movie had been even more focused on that aspect, since that is where its heart lies. However, there’s too much additional stuff that takes away from it. Take away the royal trappings and all the extraneous and stereotypical characters–everyone except Merida and Elinor (and the witch—I liked her, and she’s kind of necessary to the plot)–then you could have had something special. As is, it’s merely decent.
* Although at some point I start wondering if she dislikes them because she dislikes them, or if she dislikes them because they’re considered feminine.