(Mild plot spoilers herein!)
I’ve been looking forward to Brave since the day I heard the news that Pixar was finally going to have a female protagonist–something they’d never, in 20 years of making movies, done before. Parent company Disney, of course, has had plenty of female protagonists, but only a mere handful have been anything other than princesses pining away for love. That Brave’s princess was going to be a bit of an action hero in her own right set my toes a-tingling. Trailers confirmed this, so I was quite stoked when I finally sat down to watch it yesterday.
First off, the stuff Brave got right is plentiful. Merida, while being a bit of a Mary Sue, does have serious action chops, and ones that she obviously trained for. None of the naturally gifted stuff you often see with female characters who are considered unique warriors in their culture. She’s good–better than any of the male warriors brought in to compete for her hand–but it’s skill she clearly earned. Also, Merida has a great relationship with her father, who, while being a bit of a blustering doofus, nonetheless loves his daughter and supports her desire to learn combat skills. Another thing that diverges from standard Disney practice is that Merida doesn’t have a talky-animal sidekick. Her horse, Angus, is the closest thing we see to that.
Therein, however, lies the seeds of the problem: Merida is a strong female character, undoubtedly, but … she’s the only one.
Every other woman in this story is a stereotype of some sort, and only two even get lines. Female friends? Merida has none. No male friends, either. In fact, there don’t even seem to be any other children remotely close to her age in her entire castle. There are hundreds of people on staff there. Do none of them have children? All she has is her triplet little brothers, who are young enough to be pre-verbal, and her horse.
Truly, were it not for the fact that the plot hinges on Merida’s relationship with her mother, this film would fail the Bechdel test. It comes close anyway, considering that so much of Merida’s dialogue with her mother and the local crone (stereotypes galore, there) revolves entirely around her lack of desire to marry. The spirit of the Bechdel test is the idea that women exist and have needs and interests outside of their relationships with men. With little else to the plot but the question of whether Merida is going to be forced to marry, that’s more or less a fail right there.
All of this makes the core emotional arc–Merida’s relationship with her traditionalist mother, and their eventual understanding of each other’s mindsets–more than a little uncomfortable. I have personal reasons for disliking exactly how that plot works itself out, but even outside of that, it bothers me. Merida is supposed to be different than the female protagonists we’ve seen before, and yet her entire story still revolves around a relationship. Not a romantic one, this time, but a relationship nonetheless. Friends? A quest? An adventure away from home? A way for her to establish that she has goals, needs and a purpose of her own? Nah. Just a morality tale about how important it is to love your mother. What the hell?
Ultimately, Merida is just another example to hold up to little girls about how their most important purpose in life is home and family. While I like that Merida isn’t actually forced to marry, and they didn’t come up with some twee contrivance to have her fall in love with some handsome stranger–she actually has no love interest at all, which is great–in a way, she’s still being reined in. Having your adventurous heroine married off/tamed by some guy is awful, but having her tamed by remembering her responsibilities to her family of origin isn’t much better.
Given that this story is relatively groundbreaking in the context of who made it, I’m giving it some slack. It’s a step in the right direction, at least. But there are hundreds of other stories, some told, some yet to be, in which girls and women get to have lives and adventures of their own outside of the structure of home and family. I look forward to the day we see those become blockbuster summer movies.