Oh dear. Remember that time I promised two part blog post on Pixar’s Brave, and then left the country half-way through? Yeah. That was embarrassing. Without further ado, let me get this sucker out of the way so that I can get going with my many anxiety-ridden teacher posts (Get excited people. It’s gonna be fun. Or terrible.)
LENS #2: Brave as a Disney Princess Movie
Do not get me wrong. I love Disney Princess movies as much as the next 23-year old who secretly is convinced that, if she tries hard enough, she too can marry a courageous, singing, dancing, decent man who also just happens to be a prince. However, they also teach their young audience some really problematic habits of thought, which I am convinced manifest in the teenage years.
Indeed, in comparison to Disney Princess movies, Brave has a remarkably level head and care for the formation that it performs.
1.) Brave vs. Little Mermaid: “How to Depict Teenagers”
If you are reading this blog, you may be under the apprehension that I pay way too much attention to the thought patterns and behavior of teenagers. To that, I say: No Kidding.As such I am constantly annoyed by the media/Disney/Twilight versions of Teenagers. I am convinced that they have encouraged the idea ALL Teenagers are ONLY misunderstood, whiny, little angst buckets. How? By glorifying the whining, the angsting, and the self-righteousness, and cultivating that same self-centeredness in younger and younger children.
Take Ariel of The Little Mermaid fame:
Despite the fact that her frame seems to be that of an anorexic 12-year-old, she is the quintessential 16-year old. She whines. She disobeys her father. She preaches. She throws away her relationship or chances of seeing her family EVER AGAIN for the chance of being with a guy WITH WHOM SHE HAS NEVER SPOKEN.
Angst bucket… OK, she is also spirited, adventurous, funny, and exceptionally talented. And has awesome hair. Is that a fair assessment of Angsty – I mean, Ariel?
Now, up to this point, I can point out a whole lot of similarities with Merida. In fact, aside from the obsessive romantic behavior, Merida is an Ariel knock-off. She even has the gravity defying red hair. (So.Much.Envy.) The big difference comes in how we, as audience, are asked to view the respective princesses in relation to their parents.
With Ariel, the entire plot is set up as a spirited Ariel rebelling against an over-protective father to the point where she makes one teensy HORRIBLE decision, but then her father learns his lesson, saves her, and she gets the happy ending exactly as she wanted it. From the start, we are encouraged to see Triton in one of two ways. At best he is too strict and perpetually scolding her for silly things like being late:
At worst he is cruel, destructive of his daughter’s most prized possessions, full of fear, bigoted, and willing to let humans DIE.
Triton: Is it true you rescued a human from drowning?
Ariel: Daddy, I had to…
Triton: Contact between the human world and the mer world is strictly forbidden. Ariel, you know that! Everyone knows that.
Ariel: He would have died.
Triton: One less human to worry about!
Ariel: You don’t even know him.
Triton: Know him? I don’t have to know him, they’re all the same! Spineless, savage, harpooning fish-eaters, incapable of any feeling of…
Her crucial decision to make a deal with a witch – sacrificing her voice, family, and everything she has known for the sake of a random guy to whom she has never spoken- is depicted as a direct result of Triton being a jerk. In a plot that takes its moral center exclusively from her first-person perspective, it damned near impossible to watch that scene and not think that her father is the villain. Sure, later we get to see him sacrifice his triton, his kingdom, and his life to save his daughter and her boyfriend (I cry every time.) But even this is depicted as Triton realizing his mistake and acquiescing to the superiority of Ariel’s world view.
So what does this tell us? It tells us that to achieve a happy ending, teenagers should ignore parents’ rules because rules are just regimented bigotry and fear. It tells us that teenaged bad decisions are really their parents’ fault. It tells us that the teenager’s perspective is the only one worth examining. And finally, it tells us that teenagers are whiny, rebellious, preachy, and impetuous because they are mostly right
HOW IS BRAVE DIFFERENT?
As I mentioned, Merida of the Awesome Hair (as she shall henceforth be known), is very similar to Ariel. Heck, she too follows mystical creatures that lead her to the lair of a witch, with whom she makes make a terrible deal, in which she sacrifices her family and everything she has known, directly after a knock-down-drag-out fight with her main parental figure involving destruction of highly symbolic property. Sound familiar?
Indeed, if Ariel is the quintessential teenager, then Merida is the caricature of teenager.
Merida is spirited and awesome. She is also anachronistically obnoxious in her teenager-ness. She actually says the words: “You were never there for me!” …
- Who’s a little pouty angst bucket?
However, the big difference, is the comparison of how Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor, have been introduced to us up to this point.
Where as in Little Mermaid, Triton’s fears are bigoted and centered on humans, who pose no real danger to his daughter, in Brave, we have been shown that Elinor’s fears are justified. By showing us countless scenes to which Merida is not party, we know about the very real political dangers to this kingdom. We know that Elinor’s first major action of the movie was to protect her tiny daughter from a giant scary demon bear. We know about the conversations Elinor has had with her husband about what is best for their kingdom and for Merida. So, when Elinor looks worried or lectures Merida on responsibilities, we know that there is probably a really good reason.
Secondly, BOTH Merida and her mother are guilty of the property destruction. In Little Mermaid, only Triton is the big destructive statue smashing jerk. In Brave, Queen Elinor throws Merida’s bow and arrows into the fire in frustration only after Merida has cruelly sliced a gash in the tapestry of their family, which we have seen Elinor carefully work over as she attempts to figure out what is best for her daughter and her kingdom. There is no one totally innocent party here.
Finally, when we see Merida run off into the woods, Pixar (Notice how I attribute all things that I like to Pixar and everything that I don’t to Disney? Yeah. I’m fair like that.) does not simply cut away from Elinor and follow the fuming teenager. Instead, we first see Elinor collapse to the floor with the guilt of having lost her temper and destroyed something that her daughter loved. Then, we see Merida fume and blame her mother for everything.
Throughout the movie, Pixar encourages us to maintain multiple perspectives, in time and in characters. Both Merida and Elinor have merit. Both Elinor and Merida falter and learn. If both Elinor and Merida have failed in some way, we are not given a clear cut idealistic emblem of how to act and how to view the world. Moreover, we are able to better see both the strengths and weaknesses of both characters. We can like Merida and her spirit without taking her as the absolute guide for behavior. We can see the love Elinor has for her family and respect her diplomacy and poise. We can praise teenagers for their spirit and ideals without having to admit defeat to their tendencies of selfishness, impetuosity, and angst.
PIXAR SUCCESS #1!
2.) Brave vs. Tangled: “How to Present Mother-Daughter Relationships”
Let me just say, by the way, that I freaking LOVE Tangled. Nevertheless, I am troubled by the Mother- Daughter relationship.
Ok, I know that Mother Gothel is not actually Rapunzel’s mother. So, I suppose that you could say that the super unhealthy relationship between them doesn’t count. However, when the Evil witch’s main solo is “Mother Knows Best,” I feel pretty justified in reading this relationship as parallel to Elinor and Merida.
First, let’s look at the stated reasons for why Mother Gothel doesn’t want Rapunzel to leave the tower.
In what is essentially a curfew debate, the writers have taken very good reasons for a young naive girl to be careful – thieves, dangerous people, etc. – and placed them in the context of literally making Rapunzel scared of the dark. Once Rapunzel is actually out in the world, the only people who are actually as scary as the people Mother Gothel has described are the men that she has hired to kidnap, terrify, and steal from her daughter. This is a typical mother-daughter relationship apparently: fear, manipulation, and ego stroking.
Now let’s look at Brave. Sure, there is tension. OODLES OF TENSION!
Yet, from the very first encounter, the writers seem determined that we not think of this Mother-and-Teenaged-Daughter in a vacuum. Over and over, they cut to flashbacks of Elinor and Merida’s early relationship. Over and over, they give us flashbacks of Elinor obviously loving, protecting, and fostering her daughter.
Therefore, Pixar again allows and encourages us to maintain a broader perspective. Just as we are not allowed to take Merida’s point of view as dogmatic and infallible, we are not allowed to take her teenaged tension as the only important time period.
By this repeated emphasis on broadened perspective, Pixar is teaching real empathy and compassion.
PIXAR SUCCESS #2!
3. ) Brave vs. Mulan: “How to Present Traditionally Feminine Activities”
Finally, I will turn to a little one of my personal soap-boxes. (I did warn y’all that I have a ludicrous number of opinions.. right?) In the insistence on female equality, there seems to be the question of how feminine equality is to be attained. Unfortunately, somewhere in the debate, I think that general opinion leaned toward the idea the power of women must be made manifest in doing the same stuff as men, only better.
For instance, in Mulan, the critical moment for Mulan’s story arch is her decision to mask her femininity and to literally become a man – a soldier who saves her country to be precise.
Let’s get down to business!
I’ll Make a Man out of You
However, again, think that by this decision, there is the implicit judgment that traditionally feminine virtues are somehow frivolous and inferior. Which, in and of itself, is a type of sexism. If, in order to become equal to or better than the men in the army, she must set aside the weak, silly feminine things like make-up, marriage, etc., then there is the judgment that masculine things are inherently better and something to which women have been denied access.
That bothers me. Ok, sure, at the end she actually saves the country by dressing like a woman and getting her male army buddies to do the same. However, the emphasis here is not on feminine virtues but on the the sight gag of the three men flirting their way into a palace.
Women’s clothes, virtues, and interests are still silly. Alternately, the male virtues, as better manifest by Mulan – virtues like courage, physical strength, combative skill, etc- are glorified.
So, what of Brave? Merida’s major skill set is definitely traditionally masculine. She shoots. She fights. She rides. She steps up to win her own hand in marriage.
Definitely not the docile type.
And yet none of that bothers me. “Why?” you might ask. It does not bother me because of the ending.
At the end of the story, there are two critical moments for each of the main characters, Elinor and Merida. Each must acknowledge and embrace the virtues and value of the other.
(I will focus more on Merida, but would be happy to talk about Elinor’s moments if you are interested.)
1.) Merida makes the semi-self-sacrificial and diplomatic decision to pacify the warring clans, even at the expense of her own freedom. (Granted, Elinor gives her and out, but still.) The essential gesture lies in her unconscious mimicry of the dignity, eloquence, and diplomacy that we have previously seem demonstrated by Elinor.
2.) More importantly, Merida only breaks the spell on her mother by an undeniably feminine action. She sews. In order to “Mend the bod torn by pride” as required by the spell, Merida literally uses the skills taught her by her mother to sew and mend the gash that she cut in the tapestry in the initial fight.
‘Fate be changed, look inside. Mend the bond torn by pride.’
In no uncertain terms, by resolving the story with this sharing of perspective and giving proper respect to typically feminine actions, Pixar again insists on a broader perspective. As a result, the ending shot and beautiful picture of Elinor and Merida’s more adult relationship of mutual respect is genuinely beautiful.
PIXAR SUCCESS #3!
Actually, I think that this might be the most practically helpful-to-teenagers messages I have ever encountered in a movie:
(1) Take a step back.
(2) Remember that the person you are fighting with now has likely spent the better part of the last two decades sacrificing for you, protecting you, fostering your gifts, and generally trying to make your life the best that it can possibly be.
(3) Remember that just as you are hurt by your parents’ actions or your friends’ actions, they have likely been hurt by yours.
(4) Remember that your perspective is not the only one and that your virtues are not the only virtues of merit.
(5) Remember that growing-up is not asserting your will and freedom over everyone else. It is the process of learning sacrifice, empathy, and perspective.
P.S. I just have to throw in that I freaking love Elinor so much. In every possible beautiful, protective, maternal form that she takes. (I am really not trying to spoil EVERYTHING!) And so I really needed to include a picture.