I was dithering around on the internet this morning, trying to break the cycle of refreshing all of my emails to see if any news of the MA had come through, when I came across a post on a feminist LJ community. A lot of the LJ comms have been watching out for news about Disney/Pixar’s latest animation, Brave. And the trailer’s now out, which is exciting.
I’ve been tentatively excited about this film because, woo, main female character attached to the title Brave. That’s exciting.
Disney make no secret of the fact that they’re all about the princesses. It’s probably what makes them the most money, after all, and it’s easy to market to little girls because princess-culture makes little girls feel special, but in a way that seems easy to obtain because princesses are either born or made by magic/their own goodness. So put on a sparkly dress and feel princessy, because that’s how the magic works.
The thing that gets feminists cross about princess-culture is that Disney’s ladies are encouraged, beyond anything else, to secure their Prince. They might secure him by being pure of heart, beautiful, having a suitably female-coded talent (like singing), or just being so good that birds make cakes for them, and those characteristics in and of themselves are not inherently bad. Everyone wants a bird bakery. The problem is with the limited scope of female ambition that Disney presents to us. It’s the exact antithesis of what I was praising Matilda the Musical for in this post – whilst Minchin proclaims the necessity of writing whatever story you damn well want for yourself, Disney continues to reinforce that the only story worth writing is the one where she’s good, he’s charming, and they live happily ever after.
So far, Brave seems to be doing okay in this respect because, even though Merida seems to have some sort of high-born privilege that would qualify her as the princess, there is absolutely no love interest in sight. Merida’s ambitions are her’s alone, are for her own achievement, not geared towards the securing of Scottish Prince Charming. And I really really hope this holds true for the actual film (although the pessimist in me doubts it), because it truly would be brave to tell a story about a girl that doesn’t revolve around romance.
But the synopsis for Brave troubles me.
“Brave” follows the heroic journey of Merida, a skilled archer and headstrong daughter of King Fergus (voice of Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (voice of Emma Thompson). Determined to carve her own path in life, Merida defies an age-old custom sacred to the unruly and uproarious lords of the land: massive Lord MacGuffin (voice of Kevin McKidd), surly Lord Macintosh (voice of Craig Ferguson) and cantankerous Lord Dingwall (voice of Robbie Coltrane). Merida’s actions inadvertently unleash chaos and fury in the kingdom, and when she turns to an eccentric Witch for help, she is granted an ill-fated wish. The ensuing peril forces Merida to harness all of her skills and resources – including her clever and mischievous triplet brothers – to undo a beastly curse before it’s too late, discovering the meaning of true bravery. Source
Every single plot point described above, every trial that Merida has to face, is brought about by the defiance of her arbitrary gender role. Disney can claim it’s to do with ignoring an ‘age-old custom’, but the trailer makes it quite clear that certain things are expected of Merida because she is a girl, and certain things are expected of the men in her village (even when they are shown to be unsuited to it) because they are men. And I am all for telling stories about deliberately defying those expectations. But I really dislike the stories wherein a gender role is broken and a person is punished for it.
‘But that’s just the story! You can’t have the hero face no adversity in the plot! That wouldn’t be a plot at all!’
Obviously, my point here is not ‘women should never have to face any adversity in fiction because that would be so sexist omg‘. But you know what? If you’re telling a story about a female warrior, and that is what Merida seems to be, then there are other adversities to face, even in pseudo-historical pieces like this. Male warriors never have to put up with this ‘chaos caused by their gender’ shit, because they are too busy being warriors. In the male version of this story, Boy-Merida would have shown himself to be a badass archer and gone off on exciting adventures. And Girl-Merida could have that story too, easily! Xena faced a shit-ton of adversity in her long and illustrious pseudo-historical TV career, and you know what she never got punished for? Being the ‘wrong’ gender. And if anyone tried to tell her she wasn’t as good as them because she was a woman, she kicked them apart.
I think it’s really important to tell stories about people explicitly breaking the gender binary, because reinforcing the idea that ‘men do this and women do that’ hurts everyone. It makes everyone feel insecure about how well they’re performing.
But if breaking the binary is immediately followed by chaos, curses and punishment – if the story that’s being told is actually a story about restoration of a balance after a person has disrupted it - then that’s not really a brave story to tell at all.
Disney, Pixar, I’m pleased you’re giving us another warrior princess to add to the canon of ‘women who are good at man stuff’. Maybe next time aim for a story wherein the woman is good at man stuff and that is okay. Because that really would be brave.