Brave‘s Merida is one of the few Disney princesses—along with Mulan—who gets to be physically active, and really the only one with a physique to match her love of riding horses, shooting things, and her ability to stand up to a bear. But Disney, as it’s done to other women in the official Disney Princess pantheon, decided that to mark her inclusion, Merida needed a new dress that was off-the-shoulder, and a belt instead of a quiver for her arrows. Unlike the other Disney Princesses, it also decided that she needed to get a lot skinnier for the occasion.
The website Disney debuted as a portal for Merida merchandise seems to be sticking with the original design for Merida, kinky red hair, forest-green dress, and bow ready to fire, a move that some advocates are claiming as a victory. But the products themselves seem to be a mix of Merida ready for action—at least holding on to her bow, as in this nightshirt—and Merida in party-wear, as on this mug. Change.org petitions may feel good, but it’s hard to get a big corporation like Disney to junk an entire product line on a moment’s notice.
But hopefully, as Disney considers the reaction to the Merida art that circulated, and as they consider how to make even more money out of the Brave universe, Disney could consider that dresses and princess crowns aren’t the only things that you could sell to little girls through their parents. Get into the archery sets game. Get into weaving kits, even. If “princess” is a title you can give Native American advocates, Chinese warriors, and Scottish tomboys, then the things princesses can do don’t have to be limited to going to parties.
Via The Mary Sue comes the news that Buffy the Vampire Slayer (as well as Mad Men and Glee) veteran Marti Noxon has been hired by Pixar:
Joss Whedon isn’t the only Buffy alum with big things going on. Writer Marti Noxon, who’s worked on Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy, Glee, and last year’s underrated Fright Night remake since leaving Sunnydale behind, has just been hired by Pixar to work on one of their upcoming films.
It’s unclear exactly what Noxon will be working on; Pixar currently has several films in pre-production, including a Dia de los Muertos-inspired flick and the latest from director Pete Docter (Up, Monsters, Inc.), listed on IMDB as “The Untitled Pixar Movie That Takes You Inside the Mind.” (I’m envisioning Monsters, Inc. meets Inception—I can hope, can’t I?)
Many of Pixar’s best movies have been about adult men who are unmoored from the sources of their identities, or have them challenged. In The Incredibles, Bob Parr’s been stripped of his right to work as a superhero. In Finding Nemo, Marlin feels that he’s failed to protect his family when his son Nemo is scooped up in a net, and as he journeys to find him, has to explore what and who he is without Nemo around to occupy all his attention and interest. Much of what made the introduction to Up so shattering was its demonstration of how much Carl Fredricksen built his sense of self around his wife Ellie, and how that idea deepened through disappointments like the failure of their travel plans or their inability to get pregnant, an event that would have expanded Carl’s understanding of his role. Wall-E’s encounter with Eve puts his work processing trash in a new context and gives him new things to yearn for.
The company’s made strides with young female characters, both in Brave, which did a lovely job of exploring the complicated relationship between a teenaged girl and her mother, and in the Pete Doctor movie mentioned in the article I quoted, the brain the film explores is supposed to be a girl’s. But it’s notable that both of those projects are about girls rather than adult women, who have never been so fully realized and sympathetic in a Pixar movie since we saw Elastigirl reckon with her husband’s secret-keeping and temper, and then kick into superheroine high gear to protect her family. I’ve always thought that the sixth season of Buffy, which Noxon executive produced, never quite got enough credit for its depiction of women who were in similar senses of crises about their identities. Whether Buffy was reckoning with her lack of job credentials in “Doublemeat Palace,” her lack of prestige relative to her ex-boyfriend Riley in “As You Were,” exploring a new kind of sexual relationship with Spike, or dealing with a dramatic realignment of her sense of her friendships and her sister Dawn after she was forcibly recalled from heaven, Noxon helped craft a portrait of what it means to be reconsidering every element of your identity in your twenties.
If she can identify these kinds of crises and find stories that make them universal (rather than aimed just at ladies) in the same way Pixar’s done for men who are widowed, separated from their children, or fired from their jobs, she’ll bring something special and important to the company—and to our standards for popular, high-quality entertainment. And if she can’t, that’s still something Pixar should pursue as a goal. If the company can sell audiences on the identity anxieties of a middle-aged man gone to fat, a cranky retiree, a voiceless robot, or a fish, it ought to be able to turn them out for stories about a woman.
Scott Mendelson, writing at Women and Hollywood, spots an entirely fascinating trend: the tendency of movies to treat the death of characters’ fathers as much, much more significant than the death of movie mothers, even if both of a character’s parents are dead:
When Mufasa falls off a cliff at the halfway point of The Lion King, it’s a devastating moment for both Simba and the audience, since Mufasa is a full-blown supporting character who is basically the second-lead for the first third of the picture. Yet the countless dead mothers in prior and future Disney animated films (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Finding Nemo, etc.) merit at best a cameo in the prologue before being bumped off before the title card comes up (Bambi is the rare exception, where the doomed mother sticks around long enough to be mourned). Even The Princess and the Frog, another rare animated feature to spotlight a dead father and a living mother, makes a point to keep the deceased dad in the audience’s minds throughout the narrative, including a climactic flashback that concludes Tiana’s character arc.
The recently deceased mother of Super 8 merits a photo and a name, while the dad in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is played by a major star (Tom Hanks) who has a supporting role throughout the drama despite dying on 9/11 in the opening moments. Bruce Wayne loses both of his parents in Batman Begins, yet it is only his father (Linus Roache) who gets a real character to play and more than one or two lines. It is his father whom Bruce Wayne holds as a role model and his father who Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) constantly refer to when discussing Bruce’s actions and his moral worldview. Martha Wayne is played by Sara Stewart, but that’s all I could tell you about her.
I think that’s one of the reasons Brave feels so striking, something Lili Loofbourow lays out in a terrific essay about Brave and the need for a Disney princess who thoroughly vanquishes the ghosts and tropes of her predecessors:
I wonder, though, whether any of the foregoing critics who’ve tolerantly yawned at Pixar’s latest effort could name a Disney princess besides Mulan whose mother is alive, let alone named. And yet, in Brave, there is a live mother, named and all. And then a remarkably boring thing happens: this interloping mother who has no place in this ordinary, predictable princess story suddenly becomes central to it. She gets turned into something that keeps on getting misread as a monster, something her loving and well-meaning husband has dedicated his life to tracking down and killing for the sake of his own story, which is built around victory and revenge…for our hero, Merida, courage doesn’t achieve the victories we expect fictional bravery to produce. She doesn’t slay Mor-du. She’s no Mulan; her archery, despite her skill, is unhelpful. All this, in a story featuring a warrior princess, should make the mind boggle: Why would a studio create such a character in order to make her real crisis be her relationship with her mother?
The corollary to Disney’s—and animated movies more generally—dead mothers are the fathers and father figures who fill in for them. Rather than female mentors, or aunts, or grandmothers, or older cousins, women with dead mothers in animated movies often are often coached in strength and femininity by men. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s father fills the place of her absent mother as best he can, and when he is unable to protect her, her allies and companions in the Beast’s castle include a male clock, candlestick and teacup, matched by a motherly teacup and a feminine wardrobe who doesn’t speak. Cinderella treats male mice tenderly, and they are more personified, even if female mice help make her ballgown. In Anastasia, after Ana loses her family and her memory, it’s men who teach her how to be both an elite woman in general and a specific woman in particular. Animated orphans don’t lack for surrogate parents, but there’s a strain running through them that suggests men can teach women both how to be strong, and do just as good a job handling femininity as their absent mothers. Learning courage and the skills to implement it are hard, the kind of things that can only be imparted by a male master. But learning to dress well, be confident, present yourself like a lady, these are all apparently things that men can pick up on the side and pass along to a woman.
It’s one of the reasons I love Mulan so much—it’s one of the only movies where a heroine, after learning from a bunch of men in her military camp, gets to teach them something in return. Specifically, she gets to teach them that femininity, subtlety, and social blending, feminine values that are placed in contrast to brute force and direct confrontation, are enormously valuable, something Mulan has been able to repurpose from her training in how to be an acceptable bride, and something the men around her wouldn’t have just picked up intuitively thanks to their smart maleness:
It’s awesome to see women get molded into action stars and superheroes and unconventional Disney princesses. But once we’ve got a cadre trained up, once we’re used to the sight of action princesses, once Chloe Grace Moretz and Saoirse Ronan and Hailee Steinfeld are all grown up and acknowledged both as beautiful women and hugely credentialed action stars, can’t we let some of them live to pass their wisdom down to their daughters—and to their sons?
Jaclyn Friedman has a fascinating column in the Guardian about the fact that even empowered princesses don’t do as much for girls as ordinary-boys-turned-heroes do for boys:
The studio whose most iconic heroes include a toy cowboy, a rat, a fish, a boy scout, and a lonely trash compactor (all male-identified, of course), couldn’t figure out how to tell a story about a human girl without making her a princess. That’s the problem in a nutshell: if the sparkling minds at Pixar can’t imagine their way out of the princess paradigm, how can we expect girls to?
The past decade may have seen a welcome increase in on-screen female action heroes, but we’re still far from gender parity in the genre, and even when they’re not princesses, they’re nearly all trained assassins or Chosen Ones. Joseph Campbell wrote indelibly about the power of The Hero with a Thousand Faces – an ur-hero who’s living a mundane life when he’s faced with a challenge through which he can discover his greatness. It’s easy to see why this matters: everyman hero stories teach every boy that he can make himself great through his own actions, regardless of how dull or difficult the lot in life he’s been handed.
Princess stories – even Action Princess stories – inherently fail the Conrad test.
I do think there’s something really important about teaching girls that the gender norms laid out for them are add-ons, rather than restrictions. Leaching the meaning out of a word like “princess” is a task that has value. But if we’re ascribing strength to states that girls in the audience think don’t apply to them, if the lesson and Brave and other movies is that if your father hasn’t hooked you up with weaponry and training as a child that adventure is still out of site, then we’re winning one battle at the expense of another. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case—the little girls in the audience at the screening I attended didn’t seem to have trouble identifying with Merida. But there’s nothing wrong with empowering girls who aren’t princesses, in making the journey to heroism a little longer, but proving it can still be traveled no matter where in the process you start.
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.
Pixar movies are, in so many ways, what I hope for movies to become: visually stunning, narratively inventive, and often about issues like aging, masculinity, fatherhood, and responsibility, but with a confidence that the audience will derive those themes from an excellent original story, rather than needing them clearly articulated. Marlin’s search for Nemo is about the recovery of his own bravery and sense of adventure, a chance to overcome the worry-wart tendencies that have plagued him since his wife’s death, as much as it is the recovery of his son. Carl Frederickson’s adventures in Up are about rectifying what he sees as his two failures as a husband, his diminished dreams of adventure and his inability to become a father. Wall-E is about the power of love, from a young robot’s perspective rather than a young man’s. These men’s emotional experiences are specific to them and influenced by their gender, but their adventures are not particularly male or female experiences: there is nothing gendered about surfing with sea turtles, hanging out with talking dogs, or running around a space ship. And so it does feel like Pixar’s denied us something in giving its first female protagonist a uniquely gendered catalyst for her adventure—in other words, by making her a fairy tale princess—by not making her the subject of a more truly universal story, and in doing so asserted that the default in such settings need not always be male.
But it would be a shame to dismiss Brave on those grounds. Pixar isn’t the only standard for greatness. Brave plants a flag in much-derided territory and makes something visually gorgeous and emotionally rich out of the familiar rhythms of fairy tales. And while the wars between mothers and daughters and fathers and sons may be fought on different ground, Brave should stand as a reminder that those battles can be equally lacerating, and equally resonant, no matter the gender of the participants.
Brave begins with a tiny, flame-haired Scottish princess at peace with both of her parents, Elinor (Emma Thompson), the mother who plays hide and seek with her, and Fergus (Billy Connolly), the father who gives her a bow of her own for her birthday and patiently teaches her how to shoot. Their peace is shattered when a bear breaks up their family gathering, scattering Merida (Kelly Macdonald) and Elinor, and costing Fergus his leg.
As Merida gets older, the tensions between her and her mother grow, too. Elinor (Emma Thompson) isn’t a bad mother, but the tension between them is inevitable. Some of the training Elinor gives Merida hints at a greater role for her—”A princess must be knowledgeable about her kingdom”—and some of it carries tinges of the kind of innate cruelty of mothering. “Hungry, are you?” Elinor asks Merida when she brings a plate of desserts to the dinner table. “You’ll get dreadful collywobbles.” Some of the power of Brave is the way it gives depth and power to those ordinary motherly slights. Elinor’s comments come after Merida’s spent a day ranging through the woods with her horse Angus in one of the more powerful sequences I’ve seen of a girl enjoying her body’s capacities and the pleasure of being very, very good at something. Elinor’s words undermine Merida’s pleasure in her strength and exercise, aimed at making her physically and emotionally fit the corset she’s stuffed into for the Highland Games. Read more
Harry Potter is the most popular character of the last 15 years, but is he really unique?
Erik Kain flaggedthis post from Otaku Kun on Brave, Pixar’s upcoming movie that will be its first with a female protagonist. While I don’t agree with his analysis of Disney’s offerings—yes, the company has a strong princess franchise, but Pixar in particular has become acclaimed in part for its sensitive, creative stories about men—I think it’s worth unpacking what lies behind this sentiment: “I’d just like to see a movie from Disney/Pixar for once where the main character is a young boy, who follows his heart and defies his own society and culture, and achieves something more than just mere personal happiness, but actually makes a difference.”
I have nothing against stories where boys get to grow, and be empowered, and slay the dragon, and get the girl. But I don’t exactly think we’re lacking in those kinds of narratives. Across generations and countries, the most popular literary and cinematic phenomenon of the last decade and a half is a nice kid named Harry Potter who achieves both personal happiness and major societal change. Christopher Paolini got to live out that narrative both in real life and on the page when he went from self-publishing homeschooler to best-selling author with his Inheritance series before he was 20. The most kid-friendly superhero in movies and cartoons is Spider-Man.
But I am generally sympathetic to the idea that just as we need more expansive roles for women in pop culture, we need more flexible roles for boys and men that allow for a broader range of emotions. And so I asked Tamora Pierce last year about whether we needed different kinds of boys to act as heroes and role models for male and female readers alike (she is one of the authors I think does best creating fully-realized boys and men). “The majority of boys have male heroes. Even if the characters are animals, they’re male. Girl heroes are by far the minority in children’s literature, which is absolutely infuriating to me, because this was the status quo when I started, and the numbers have not changed that much,” she said, explaining why, though she’s working on her first series with a male main character, she’s more concerned about providing innovative stories about women. “It’s not that I have anything against boys. I just see a need for girl heroes.”
And I wonder if the rise of authors like Pierce, and of a vigorous conversation about roles for women and girls more generally, even if it hasn’t gotten us to character parity or all the depictions we’d like, is something that guys would like a male equivalent of. There’s no question that there are clear archetypes of male characters, from Bad Boys to Nice Guys, and forums for discussion of them ranging from the Good Men Project to lots of good feminist writers. But are there authors or filmmakers who folks think are doing a uniquely good job of building particularly innovative male characters? Clearly there’s some unfulfilled hunger out there for something new. And I’d be curious as to what the men in the audience are feeling most engaged by.
The first couple of minutes of footage from Brave are out, and not only are they awesome, they contain the best riff on bodice-ripping ever:
We were talking about female action stars and the need to think more creatively about action choreography for women, and Brave and The Hunger Games both seem to me like they might provide an answer for how to design action setpieces that acknowledge that women may be less physically powerful than male foes. Sharp-shooting, something at which both Brave heroine Merida and The Hunger Games’ heroine Katniss Everdeen excel, distances a woman from her target, and eliminates the physical disparities between them and their opponents, be those opponents large bears wandering the Scottish Highlands or tributes from other districts who intend to murder you on live television.
If you want to get into hand-to-hand combat, traditional weapons or contrasting martial arts styles could also make for action scenes that are more interesting and that allow women to fight plausibly against men who are larger or stronger than they are. One of the things that was fun about the core fight scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the way the two fighters moved from weapon to weapon so you could see the advantage of a heavier staff that could do more damage against a lighter, quicker one. It’d be fun to see a woman use muay thai, for example, against a heavy who has no particular style but relies on bigness and brute strength for advantage. It’s no mistake that probably the best action sequence of the last five years, the parkour-inflected chase between James Bond and the terrorist at the beginning of Casino Royale, put styles in witty conversation and said a great deal almost without a word of dialogue.
I am obviously favorably disposed towards Brave, since it’s beyond time Pixar had a female main character, but I’m extra-pleased that it seems like Merida is going to be a bit like Arya Stark, minus the horrible brutality and plus a giant bear:
That said, I’ve got a few concerns. The flashing-someone-via-kilt and people running into things gags have a bit of an unfortunate Dreamworks vibe rather than Pixar’s emotional sophistication. And hopefully we won’t get too much goofy and historically dubious riffs on the Scottish. But I’m encouraged by the idea of a price to be paid, of something mysterious in the woods beyond just a bear. It’s going to be years before we find out what happens to Arya, but in the meantime, I’m excited to see what kind of life Merida can build for herself outside of the structures of noble womanhood.