Pixar kicks off the summer with its first ever female protagonist. May she be the first of many to come.
I have a reputation for being quick to criticize media images of women that claim to be feminist but really aren’t. If I have to choose between a movie that bungles its portrayals of women and a movie that avoids the issue altogether with a strictly male cast, I prefer the latter. The more buzz I hear about a movie being a landmark achievement for women’s awesomeness, the more likely I am to be disappointed by it.
But I gotta say, “Brave” lives up to the hype.
Pixar’s new blockbuster is its first feature film with a female protagonist, and from the debut trailer, she’s portrayed as a deviation from the Disney Princess norm. With unruly hair and a penchant for unladylike pursuits like archery and horseback rides through spooky woods, Merida stands out from a crowd of vacuous googly-eyed Snow Whites and Sleeping Beauties. She’d rather climb dangerous cliffs and hone her weaponry skills than sit through lessons on royal etiquette, which brings her into constant conflict with her demanding mother Elinor. Their clash of priorities reaches a fever pitch when Elinor arranges a political marriage for her daughter, and Merida, like a good independent woman who has better things to do than marry idiots, refuses.
The first thing I—and everyone who watched a teaser trailer—noticed about Merida is her unconventional appearance. Media images of women often set an unrealistic and unreasonable standard of beauty, driving women to everything from relaxers to anorexia in order to fit the norm. Merida is beautiful, certainly, but in a more natural way that many women may find relatable. She has frazzled and kinky hair, a crease on her brow when she frowns, and a hard time fitting into the corsets and dainty dresses her mother foists upon her. The significance isn’t lost on the animators; every time Merida lets her hair fly loose or rips a tight dress at the seams to free her arms to shoot her bow, we see a fresh definition of beauty bursting from the confines of unrealistic norms.
Some of Merida’s convention-bucking actions are typical fare for a modern audience: rejecting an arranged marriage, fighting to make her family understand her need for independence, running away from home to find her own destiny. But we’re used to daughters pleading with their fathers to be spared from an undesirable marriage, a la Juliet and Lord Capulet; in the words of Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof,” “marriages should be arranged by the papa.” Mothers in these families often just back the father’s decision or try to convince their daughters that crappy marriages aren’t so bad after all.
Elinor is no such mother: she is the quiet master of her household, and she arranges Merida’s betrothal. In fact, the conflict between Merida and Elinor drives the entire movie, independent of any masculine perspective. Many of the movie’s most powerful scenes feature only Merida and Elinor, and while male characters are not completely laughed off the screen, they play supporting and often comical roles. Merida and Elinor’s struggle to convince, circumvent, compromise, and ultimately understand each other forms the backbone of the plot, and they respectively represent the film’s clashing thematic ideals: freedom vs. duty, energy vs. calm, courage vs. safety.
Note how all of those opposing ideals are good? No matter how much Merida and Elinor fight, neither is ever villainized and mutual respect is the only key to solving their conflict. It makes me proud to advocate a movie where the dispute is not between good and evil, but between the many complex interpretations of what is good. “Brave” discusses the merits and hazards of two valuable perspectives on what makes us strong and right, and it embodies them both in women.
It’s a shame that female protagonists continue to be so rare, when movies like “Brave” prove that themes common to all humanity can be played out with a female cast. Women are consistently asked to identify with male characters and male-centered themes simply because there are so few women to relate to. I hope that men and women alike can see themselves in Merida and Elinor, and I hope that Hollywood takes notice.