Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tradition vs. Freedom in Pixar's "Brave"

I saw Pixar’s “Brave” a few weeks ago. It was well-executed and I liked it, but it was somewhat predictable and I don’t think it was Pixar’s best. Because it was their first full-length animated feature with a female protagonist, I was scrutinizing it quite a bit (I wasn’t specifically trying to, but I knew that I probably would regardless). I’m not posting this as a review, I just wanted to outline the impressions, issues, and questions the movie raised for me. It will discuss some plot-points, so if you haven’t seen it, spoilers are ahead.

“Brave” centers on a young Scottish princess named Merida who loves archery, horse-back riding, and adventure. Her mother disapproves of Merida’s tomboyish nature and wants her to be more lady-like and act in a manner more befitting a princess. Merida and her mother butt heads frequently, but she gets along well with her father. Now that she is fifteen, her mother tells her that tradition dictates that her marriage be arranged. Merida rebels, claiming that she is not ready to get married. They argue bitterly but her mother refuses to budge on the issue, and Merida runs away, angry and distraught. She comes across a witch, and asks the witch to “change her mother” so that she can “change her fate”. The witch gives her an enchanted pastry to feed her mother, and it ends up transforming her mother into a bear. This puts her mother in grave danger, because Merida’s father is obsessed with killing a bear that attacked him years ago and is responsible for the loss of one of his legs. We find out later that that same bear was also once human, and that he’s part of a legend that Merida’s mother has told her repeatedly about a man who ruled Scotland equally with his three brothers, until he used magic to try to become stronger than they (which transformed him into a bear) and thus disrupted the harmony of the kingdom. Merida must find a way to save her mother from becoming a bear for good.

In my eyes, the movie had two main themes: one, the importance of owning up to the consequences of one's actions, and two, the importance of maintaining communal and filial harmony. The latter struck me as rather conservative, in a way. I mean, it’s still great that Pixar finally created a female protagonist, and that she is strong, resourceful, and excels at typically “masculine” activities, and that they focused on the performance of femininity that was expected of Merida and the limits imposed on her freedom as a result. But when Merida refuses to get married, her mother chastises her for breaking tradition, and tells her (for the umpteenth time, apparently) of the legend of the four brothers, which is painted as a cautionary tale about how asserting your individual agency and independence can harm your community. Her mother is likening her fifteen year old daughter’s refusal to get married, which would severely curtail her freedom, to an adult man’s selfish, destructive power grab. Merida's marriage would be a political one; her choice of suitors is limited to the princes from the three neighboring kingdoms (although she only marries a prince from one, so go figure). We are told that peace between the kingdoms hinges on her actions, so her position is tied to the legend in that respect. However, I don’t think we are supposed to support Merida’s arranged marriage (the developers are American, after all), and after her mother is turned into a bear, she eventually decides that Merida doesn’t have to get married yet.

The problem is, there is no explanation given as to why Merida’s mother changes her mind. And in real-life situations like this, where people are convinced of the rightness and necessity of tradition and a woman’s proper place within it, they usually don’t abruptly change their mind like that. What option would be left for a woman who rebels, in that scenario? The movie couldn’t imagine a situation where her mother didn’t change her mind about the marriage, but before the whole magic bear business, that was the main conflict of the story, and it seemed pretty intractable. It’s wrapped up rather quickly in order to shift focus to the new magic bear conflict.

The movie casts Merida’s desire to change her mother as deeply wrong;  a severing of their bond that endangers her family and the broader community. But the only reason she wants to change her mother in the first place is because she doesn't want to get married, so the film seems dangerously close to condemning Merida's resistance to marriage itself. At the end of the film, Merida is in tears, contrite for changing her mother and for not owning up to it. It’s easy for her to forget the importance of why she did it in the first place, now that her mother has changed her mind about the proposal. I’m not sure that the movie differentiated enough from the cause of Merida’s unhappiness and the method she used to solve it; it’s insistent that Merida got it wrong and needs to be remorseful, but it doesn’t make it clear that she was right to advocate for herself and her rights. Furthermore, her mother doesn’t go through a similar moment of contrition for trying to force her teenage daughter to marry and for generally brow-beating her for not being lady-like enough; she just randomly has a change of heart, prompted by moments where Merida’s "un-feminine" knowledge impresses her when they’re in the woods. They obviously go through a lot and learn about eachother’s strengths while trying to reverse the spell, but I still think that more explanation and development was needed here (I guess it is pretty typical of parents to not admit when they’re wrong with regards to their parenting and simply change their mind at their own whim, though).

But I keep thinking about Merida's tears at the end, which to me was the most powerful moment of the film. She was wrong to want to use magic to fundamentally change her mother, especially before understanding the implications and dangers of all that that might mean. And she was wrong to not admit that it was her fault that her mother was in terrible danger. But she was not wrong to want her mother to change her mind about marriage, not wrong to be angry and upset that her desire for freedom was ignored and vilified, and not wrong to want to change her fate. Maybe the writers thought that this would be so obvious to us that it would go without saying. But when it comes to women’s right to autonomy, I think it’s best to just say it.



  1. When Merida's mother throws Merida's bow in the fire, she pretty much instantly says, "What have I done?" She feels contrite right away, while Merida goes off to see a witch. I think this starts Merida's mother on the path to listening to her daughter, which is why we don't get any moment later. But it still could use more explanation.

    Not Pixar's best. Still good, but rather forgettable in my opinion.

    I found a really interesting review that gives way more credit to the movie, but Delicious is down, so I don't know if it's bookmarked. I'll find it later.

    1. Here's the link to that review. I'd like to know what you think: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/just-another-princess-movie/

    2. That's a good point; I had forgotten the bow part. It is definitely a moment where her mother realizes she's done something wrong. I guess I just read that moment as her feeling contrite ONLY about burning the bow, which was so special to Merida, and not about the marriage proposal or berating her about not fitting the role of a princess. But that part is open to other readings.

      I'll be sure to read that other review and be back with comments.


    3. Wow, I had so much to say about that essay you sent me, but things at work sped up and I never got around to putting all of it down =/

      If I briefly sum it up, I think the main reason that the author and I came from different perspectives is because in my head I was comparing Brave to other Pixar movies, and she was comparing it to other Disney princess movies. She also gave Pixar a lot of cookies for making the movie the way they did ("Maybe the creative team named the movie after themselves. They were brave; reckless, even, ostentatiously fording a swamp of crocodilian movie tropes, any of which could swallow the story whole"). At times it seemed like she was attributing some grandiose plan for the representation of women to Pixar, and while I agree that they put some thought into it (duh), I don't know, I would need more proof that their goals were quite as lofty as this author suggested, and the fact that it took them this long to make a film with a female protagonist seems to throw that assumption into question.

      I'm also not sure I'm convinced about her reading of Merida's narration about changing fate. Why include narration that seems sincere if it's just a throwaway and a sort of feint to distract from the real message? Seems too over-thought for a children's movie, and even most adult critics didn't share this interpretation.

      I have only seen the movie once and my hopes were set pretty high by other Pixar movies. Maybe upon a second viewing, I'll see more. This author did make some very good points and I will definitely think of them when I watch Brave again.