life in bedlam
I’ve just come from seeing Brave [8 hours ago at this point, life gets in the way of writing!], Pixar’s new animated feature starring its very first female protagonist. I loved it. I just loved it, pure and simple. Spoiler alert and also a hat tip to Silagh White for inspiring the title of this post.
In the same way that The Incredibles emphasized the need for kids and their parents to listen to each other more and try to see the world from the others’ perspective, Brave also revolves around the family dynamic. In this case, we have Merida, a princess in ancient Scotland whose destiny is to marry to keep the country’s clans from from warring. It’s not what she wants, and she resents her mother, Elinor, deeply for her efforts to prepare her for the role of queen. Merida loves her life in the woods, with her bow and arrow. She takes joy in riding fast and hitting targets with her beloved bow, having adventures with her horse, Angus.
Here I must stop and say a word about the animation. It’s just stunning. The linen of the tents, the scratchy wool of Merida’s preferred comfy riding dress, the action of her horse. The salmon in the stream fooled me into thinking for a moment that they had spliced in footage from Nature.
And yes, her hair. As someone who grew up with curly red hair, I wish I’d had Merida as a role model so I didn’t hate it so much! Her crazy corkscrews, complete with frizz and matted bits is its own character in the film.
So, the conflict is set. Daughter rejects expected traditional role. Mother is exasperated by her lack of a sense of duty. Merida throws everything into turmoil by vying for, and winning, her own hand as the first born of her clan. Seeking a way to get her mother to change and see things her way, she makes a dreadful error that nearly tears her family apart forever.
In the end, it is only when Merida gains empathy for her mother, and her mother gains an appreciation for Merida’s skills and bravery, that they are able to literally and figuratively mend the fabric of their relationship.
I’m bummed out that I have to disagree with someone I greatly respect in the area of feminist cultural criticism about this film. Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, recently joined Mary Pols, a film reviewer for Time Magazine, and they wrote of their disappointment in the film:
Merida is strong, capable and courageous. But depressingly, she’s a princess, the most traditional role for female characters in children’s fictions. She’s a rebellious tomboy, but her concerns are still limited to those of a princess, the biggest of which remains, as ever, marriage.
Pixar is full of brilliant, flexible minds, the kind that made credible heroes out of a stuffed Wild West sheriff, an assortment of worker-bee types, including an ant and a robot, and a rat that dreamed of creating haute cuisine. It has been 17 years since the studio released its first movie, Toy Story, an awfully long time to get around to a female lead. I’m glad it finally got there, but I would have preferred that the studio’s groundbreaking moment had involved something actually groundbreaking.
“It’s a failure of imagination,” says writer Peggy Orenstein, author of the best-selling Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. (Full disclosure: Orenstein and I were once in a writing group together, and she also blurbed a book I wrote. I’m grateful, but she’d be the go-to person on the topic of princesses regardless.)
She’s talking about the nature of the character, but it is also true that the movie itself, while nowhere near the low point of last summer’s Cars 2, doesn’t dazzle. The animation is beautiful, but the story is staid.
Perhaps it’s because I’m a folklorist, and yes, a mother of two sons who doesn’t have to deal with Cinderella eating my daughter, that I just don’t have a problem with this story being set in a royal family with a young princess protagonist. As Orenstein and Pols point out, there are multiple sources of stories for girls and boys today. This is one story, yes the first Pixar film to have a girl at its center, but there are hundreds more tales to be found about girls of all sorts today more than ever.
I also recognized right away that the story has deeper ancient roots. It hearkens back to the myth of Atalanta, a variant of which was first brought to my attention on the album Free To Be…You And Me (FTB) in the mid-1970s, and which came to mind immediately when I learned of Brave‘s plot.
We must have listened to FTB and watched the movie a dozen times in my third grade classroom. It was an essential influence on my understanding of what boys, girls, men, women, could make of their lives.
In the ancient story, as in Free To Be, Atalanta, like Merida, tries to outwit her parents’ plans to marry her off. In the version I watched as a kid, Atalanta earns her right to forge her own destiny; the ancient story is a bit more bloody and complex. At any rate, I can’t imagine the writers of Brave were unaware of this story, especially of the variant that so many of us Gen X kids saw. One of the final images we see in Brave even echoes the end of the Atalanta cartoon, as the suitors depart on ships and we know that Merida will happily ride Angus to parts unknown.
At the same time, the movie was also clearly informed by another Gen X Disney classic — Freaky Friday (which was remade in 2003). In Freaky Friday, we have another mother/daughter pair struggling to understand one another. Magic intervenes, and each is forced to walk a mile in the other’s shoes.
What Orenstein sees as a failure of imagination, then, I see as a blending of an ancient folkloric archetype and Gen X cultural references. And yes, we can ask “But why does she have to be a princess?” But the answer to that is as old as time. Because people REALLY like stories about royalty.
Finally, I appreciated that as the future queen, Merida brings peace to the agitated clans through an appeal to reason and equality. She points out that they supported each other in the past, they had each others’ backs in battle. She persuades them that a ritual such as marriage was not necessary to tie the nation’s people together. Pretty modern for a girl from the Dark Ages.
I took my 9 year old son, Eli, to see Brave at his insistence. When he first heard about the movie, he didn’t seem interested. At some point, however, he saw an extended piece about the movie on Disney Channel, and he decided he really wanted to see this film. He’s been counting the days until it opened. We arrived at the theatre early and as each family filed in I was surprised (and pleased) to see boys, boys, and more boys! At our showing, it was an overwhelmingly young male audience. Some were with their moms, and some were with their dads. They all seemed to enjoy the movie. It certainly had its share of crude humor and action to keep any child, boy or girl, happy.
I asked Eli what he liked about the movie. His answers, so far:
As a mom and a daughter (and, let’s face it, a total mushball), I found myself crying at quite a few points in the movie. I wept with joy at Merida’s joyous freedom. I wept with empathy at Elinor’s horror when she destroys her daughter’s most treasured object. I cried with relief in the climactic moment of transformation. It certainly made me think about my actions as a mother and whether I’m supporting my children in their desires and not living out my own unachieved ambitions.
One last item that I can’t stop thinking about — the tapestry. Merida realizes she has to mend the tapestry to mend her relationship with her mother, but she’s no seamstress. Her stitches are ragged and crude (and accomplished atop a galloping steed). The tapestry represents her mother’s skill in the home arts, skills that Merida lacks.
Reams have been written on the devalued nature of women’s art and handcraft, but again, my folklore training gives me a different perspective. First, I have seen this work financially support a family. In addition, I’ve seen women’s embroidery that is subversive, works of protest that are worn on the body. While Elinor’s tapestry is not subversive, it resonated with me because I felt the power of that act that is so female — the creation of something out of nothing. It’s what women do brilliantly time and again. And so, with Merida’s rough sewing at a desperate hour, once again fate really does rest in the hands of a woman.