‘Brave’s Merida, and Why We Need to Stop Equating Gender Performance and Sexual Orientation

When I like to look for gay subtext in cultural artifacts, I tend to look for actual sexualized interactions between characters, rather than equating whether or not someone conforms to gender stereotypes with their potential sexual orientation as EW does with this piece on Brave:

But could Merida be gay? Absolutely. She bristles at the traditional gender roles that she’s expected to play: the demure daughter, the obedient fiancée. Her love of unprincess-like hobbies, including archery and rock-climbing, is sure to strike a chord with gay viewers who felt similarly “not like the other kids” growing up. And she hates the prospect of marriage — at least, to any of the three oafish clansmen that compete for her hand — enough to run away from home and put her own mother’s life at risk. She’s certainly not a swooning, boy-crazy Disney princess like The Little Mermaid’s Ariel or Snow White. In fact, Merida may be the first in that group to be completely romantically disinclined (even cross-dressing Mulan had a soft spot for Li Shang).

One of the things that’s brilliant about Brave is that it puts off the question of Merida’s sexual maturity, and her need to do her duty to her family by marrying, until a more appropriate age. The movie decouples Merida’s mother’s desire that she act the princess and fulfill that role by marrying from what Merida herself actually wants and feels, and Merida’s triumph in the movie is delaying the question of who she’ll marry until she is ready to answer it on her own terms, and in accordance with desires she actually feels. The movie takes a strong stand against the idea that the best way for girls to be good daughters, or to perform girlhood correctly, is to become sexually available when they’re expected to. The prize to be won isn’t a prince. It’s autonomy and self-knowledge. Merida’s primary relationship during the events of Brave is with her family, and in the schema of the movie, that’s perfectly fine: it doesn’t portray her as behind or a failure.

And I really wish that anyone, anywhere, would stop reading a girl’s desire for physical activity or pleasure in the abilities her own body gives her as a sign of potential incipient gayness. Girls who like playing sports are just as likely to grow up loving other women as the girls who cheer them from the sidelines, or the girls who are off in an art studio or a college newspaper office. Sexuality and gender performance are not the same thing. And if a girl is defying the gendered norms laid out for her, that should be a sign that we question the adequacy of the norms in capturing the diversity of girls’ experiences, rather than the girl herself.