17 June 2012

Brave

No spoilers till marked point.

Brave has many great points.  It's fun, funny, has a wonderful main character who is vivid and alive, and some personal growth going on.  It's also beautiful to look at, lovely music, and quite touching in its conclusion.  It's not without some problematic worldbuilding/issues with its use of women, so it falls down a little when you start to pick at it, but I recommend letting yourself have fun with it, enjoy the story...and pick it apart later. ;)

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Okay, so about those problems. 

Brave, as everyone's sure to know by now, is the first Pixar movie featuring a female main character, and it even revolves around the character's relationship with her mother.  Merida, boistrous ball of fiery curls, loves nothing more than archery and racing about having fun and being daring.  Her issues with her mother revolve around her mother wanting her to behave in ways Merida finds boring ('like a princess').  The breaking point of the relationship is a 'tradition' where the sons of the various lords get to compete for the princess's hand in marriage - something which they've neglected to tell Merida about till the last moment.

Merida wins the competition for her own hand, leaves all the lords upset and at each other's throats, has a fight with her mother, slashes a family tapestry her mother has just completed, and races off into the forest, where will-o-wisps lead her to a witch (amusingly pretending to be a woodcarver, because the witching never works out).  Buying a spell "to change her fate by changing her mother", Merida returns with a cake, which she offers to her mother.  Her mother eats it, turns into a bear, and Merida has to race to find a way to undo the spell before either the clans descend to war, or her mother is killed in bear form.

There are some positive sides to bear form, however.  Taking away her mother's ability to speak, and forcing her out into the forest which is Merida's playground, leads to some quality mother-daughter bonding time, and the risk to her mother certainly reminds Merida that she loves her mother.

However - in this female-led story, we have the following women:

- Merida - fantastic at what she does, full of action and adventure, brave and true.

- Merida's mother - loves her family, but completely focused on her idea of how Merida should be as a princess, blinded by some thought of keeping up tradition.

- The Witch - amusing (and not evil) but not exactly a major player (and, of course, incompetently selling spells of the 'careful what you wish for' variety).

- A maid/cook whose only dialogue is to shriek "BEAR!" and is what I think of as a "chicken woman": clucks about, always getting in or out of the way, comedically frightened (and further comedy in her enormous decolletage).

Merida has no female friends - nor any female rivals or enemies.  The three clans which come to vie for Merida's hand bring no women with them.  No women are shown in the feasting hall except for Merida and her mother.  There are 'background women' in the halls - servants primarily - and some women visible in passing at the outside events, but they don't speak and have no impact on the story.  So what we have is an exceptional woman and her Mum story.

The worldbuilding fail is made clear toward the end of the story, when Merida is stepping up into her mother's diplomat/princess role, and stopping the fighting between the clans by reminding them how their kingdom was formed.  And suddenly that whole tradition issue which is a foundation of the plot falls over, because the kingdom was formed a couple of decades ago by Merida's father as one of four clan leaders, who saved each other's lives fighting off a common enemy.  They decided Merida's Dad would make a good king and united to form a kingdom.

So where the hell did this 'tradition' that the clan leaders' sons compete to marry the princess come from?

[Note: an alternate explanation is that Merida's mother was the only child of the previous ruler, and that the decision was not to form a kingdom, but to allow Merida's father to marry Merida's mother.  In either case, the only person seen to care about the tradition is Merida's mother, who actively invites the clan leaders to come compete.]

And, oh look, none of the sons of the clan leaders want the tradition either!  And the clansleaders are big softies who will agree to dumping the 'tradition' after a rousing speech.  This non-tradition must have been something which Merida's father agreed to with his clan leader buddies when his first child was a daughter, not a son.  Merida's father doesn't even seem keen to tell her about it - he's never the bad guy in this ever, never anything but indulgent, while Merida's mother gets to be the disciplinarian.

And there we come to the problem in this story - the only 'bad guy' is Merida's mother.

The only pressure we ever see for Merida to behave "like a princess" is from her mother.  Her father doesn't seem to want to enforce any kind of princessish behaviour on her.  None of the servants/clanspeople show any sign of being distressed or offended or outraged that she races around with arrows.  They're boisterous clanspeople!  One wouldn't be surprised if they cheered at her skills at archery and her ability to ride madcap through the forest!  Even the witch isn't a bad person.  The only person who acts negatively in the entire story (besides a bear) is Merida's mother.

One could argue that Merida also acts negatively - she basically poisons her mother and shows an incredible lack of concern while her mother appears to be poisoned - but Merida's negative actions are entirely a response to her mother's restrictive behaviour.

This is a misnamed movie, really.  Merida - everyone except chicken-woman really - is shown to already be brave, and we don't see Merida overcoming fear in this story, we see her remembering she loves her mother - that there was a time when her mother was much nicer to her, before she got all tight-assed about princessy behaviour.  A more descriptive title for the movie would be: Mum Needs to Lighten Up.  Because that's the big progression - Merida's mother lightens up, corrects her restrictive behaviour, and all is well again.

It wouldn't take much to fix this movie.  Show the father as insisting on the 'tradition' instead of always the good guy.  Show her mother under pressure from the expectations of people about her daughter's bad behaviour.  Make the story not just about the restrictions on Merida, but on other girls.  Give Merida a bunch of little rapscallion girlfriends to race through the forest with - make her a Peter Pan with her own set of Lost Girls.  Show the kingdom is broken because of restrictions not just on Merida, a princess, but on expectations placed on all girls, so that Merida is truly 'brave' going her own way instead of falling in with those expectations.

Instead, this is just a story about an exceptional girl whose Mum finally lightened up.

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