On the tail of my last post about the female-centric relationship at the heart of Disney-Pixar's Brave, I wanted to expand and discuss a few of the things I liked about the film... and a few of the things I found lacking. I decided to start with one of my favorite elements of the film and again affirm that I enjoyed it as a whole, because too often criticism of a piece of media is seen as disapproval or dislike of that media. And that's not true. Some of my very favorite books and films feature problematic elements, and I know that. Even so, that doesn't mean the film is BAD or that I think NO ONE SHOULD WATCH IT. In fact, it means that despite its flaws, I STILL REALLY LIKED IT. But I am an analytical reader and viewer. It's part of my reading/viewing style to mentally break down a film and examine its implications and themes.
Also, there will be a few minor spoilers in this post, but nothing that will spoil any major plot elements for you.
To briefly rehash Monday's post, one of my favorite parts about Brave is the relationship between the main character (Merida) and her mother (Elinor). It's a familiar struggle between what the mother views as an admirable life and what the daughter wants to do differently. I think it's telling that I immediately latched on to this relationship because of the fact that it is SO UNBELIEVABLY RARE to see a major blockbuster film release with a primary focus on a female-centric relationship. The portrayal isn't perfect -- as I mentioned, it's a very familiar trope -- but even so, it's a stirring story of a mother and daughter learning to appreciate one another and grow in their relationship. And I can't help but love that. Family stuff punches me right in the gut, what can I say.
Likewise, I enjoyed the warmth and humor of the film, as well as the gorgeous animation. And the music omggggg. Sucker for anything Celtic.
All of that said, I wasn't as blown away as I wanted to be. Some of the themes felt surprisingly one-note. @phirephoenix sent me a link to this blog post, which hits on a number of the struggles I was having very well. I won't rewrite that post, but suffice to say I was also bothered by what felt like a pretty small-scale scope of "girl does some pretty neat stuff and then ends up back in almost exactly the same role she had before she left." I mean, compare to something like How To Train Your Dragon, where the hero starts the story on the bottom rung of the ladder and finishes not only a seasoned hero, but also changes the entire structure of his society (not Pixar, but still comparable).
While I truly enjoyed Merida and Elinor's interactions, I couldn't help but notice that despite this female-centric storyline, there really weren't many other female characters of note. There's the witch, who's portrayed as either silly/bumbling or intentionally deceptive based on how you choose to read the character, and the servant/nurse character, Maudie, who barely speaks throughout the film apart from some unintelligible gibbering. There are a few unnamed female servants who drift about, but outside this, the cast is almost entirely male.
And let's talk about the male cast, shall we? Very stereotypically male, including large prides and the constant need to physically fight and one-up each other. Most, if not all, are portrayed as mischievous fools who can't speak articulately or control their tempers. They seem constantly on the verge of declaring war on one another until Elinor or Merida come along to calm their shit down. One might view this as a "feminist" (har har) portrayal of silly men who need women to come clean up their mess, but in reality, it's damaging to both sexes. Elinor has hints of overpowering shrew who emasculated her husband ("yes dear!"), and men are once again portrayed as brainless apes who can't help their silly man ways. And this may seem solely belittling to men (which, I mean, it is), but it also encourages the belief of "boys will be boys," as though men don't know better or can't help behaving boorishly or wanting to drink and fight and bone all the time. It excuses them of responsibility. It's just in their nature!
Merida is a somewhat stereotypical tomboy, which is another trope we see often -- she likes to shoot arrows and let her messy mane flow in the wind! She hates all of her mother's "lady lessons!" She doesn't want to think about marriage and boys, ugh! And look, I don't really have a problem with this trope in general. I've been known to use this trope. I've also been known to use the trope of a girl butting against the more archaically gendered role her mother set for her. However, I think it's important to be careful not to belittle the feminine when we examine a trope like this. If we're not careful, it's really easy to imply that anything "ladies" do is pointless. No, it's not right for a mother to force her daughter to go against her nature or marry without consent. But likewise, it's not really okay for the daughter to bash her mother's role as a more traditional homemaker unchecked. Most of the mothers in storylines such as these are doing the best they can with the lot they were dealt in life. I do feel that Brave at least attempted to let the women come to an understanding and see one another's point of view. We don't really see Merida admitting that her mother's form of femininity can be a good thing, but it's somewhat implied.
As mentioned in the blog post I linked earlier, there were issues with the lack of additional themes and the fact that nothing *really* changes in Merida's life except that she perhaps has a better bond with her mother and a little more freedom in her choices. For all the talk of "changing your fate," there's not much in the way of actual fate-changing. Despite this, I do continue to admire the mother-daughter relationship that comprises the heart of the film.
Additionally, I appreciated that during the final showdown of the film's climax, both ladies got their chance to shine and save the day. I also really liked Merida's relationship with her father, King Fergus. I wish he hadn't locked her up "for her own good" at one point, but overall, I thought their relationship was very sweet and supportive. He doesn't try to force her to act a certain way. He appreciates her adventurer's spirit and gifts her with her first bow. He jokes with her about her supposed suitors and the silliness of the ritual. And all the while, I never got the impression that he was treating her "like a boy" or that he wished she were a son. I liked that Merida's decision about the betrothal ritual was supported by the male suitors. All good things.
At the end of the day, I did really enjoy Brave, though I do wish the filmmakers had reached still further in creating a more layered story. I eagerly await the day when there are more than a scant handful of meaningful female characters who have relationships with one another outside of the context of men. I look forward to seeing portrayals of femininity as strong and interesting in its own right. I do think there's a seed of something great in the center of Brave, I only wish it had been cultivated a little more. While I liked this film a whole lot, I think my go-to animated film with a heartfelt female relationship remains Lilo & Stitch.
Have you seen Brave yet? What did you think?