Or: My Problem With The Pixar Film ‘Brave’

Pixar’s Brave was widely hailed as a welcome addition to a corpus of films which most often depict girls as princess types waiting to be saved. But I wasn’t as impressed with Merida as many gender-conscious cinephiles in my feed. I think now I’ve worked out why, after reading a summary of a completely different thing — two picturebooks which parody traditional gender stereotypes. The first is Prince Cinders by Babette Cole and the other, a book called The Dragon Of Brog by Jean Hood. This is from the final chapter in Deconstructing The Hero by Margery Hourihan:

Just as [Babette] Cole’s stories lampoon the stereotypes of large hairy masculinity and the swashbuckling hero who overcomes all difficulties, so Hood’s story ridicules the figure of the brave knight in armour whose profession is mayhem, and appreciation of the joke likewise depends upon familiarity with the originals.

These stories certainly raise the issue of gender, and provide effective discussion-starters for teachers. As Stephens says of Prince Cinders [by Babette Cole] ‘that abjection, humility and passivity now become deficiencies poses the question of why they should be virtues for the female’. But there are problems with these works that go beyond their parodic dependence upon the originals.

Their ridicule of the gender stereotypes is ultimately nihilistic for females. There are no admirable male figures against whom to measure the exploded stereotypes, and the attitudes of the princesses Smarty Pants and Lisa [and Merida] suggest that all males are contemptible nuisances. While this might amuse some girls because it is such a neat inversion of the dismissal of females in so many stories, it offers nothing except a sense of pay-back. Smarty Pants and Lisa [and Merida] themselves are little more than the old male stereotypes in drag: they are arrogant, self-assured know-alls with no empathy for others — hardly positive embodiments of the female. The trouble with dualism is that if you simply turn it on its head it is still a dualism. Inversion is not the same as subversion

Further, these stories fail to engage with the material they deride. Despite the patriarchal values inscribed in traditional hero tales the fields of folk talk, legend and romance are rich with potent symbols that work at many levels. …

Hourihan does go on to say (of the picturebooks mentioned above):

Of course these stories do have an ideological content. They are celebrations of self-interest, of ruthless, unconsidered individualism. The behaviour of Smarty Pants and Lisa, who both want to do exactly as they like all the time, exemplifies the strident selfishness of the extremists who give feminism a bad name.

On this, I feel Brave does better. By the end of the film, Merida has changed the local law for everyone; no one will be forced to marry someone unless each is of the other’s choosing. Merida has been an activist for wider social change. However, let’s not mistake this for storytelling gender equality. That will not have been achieved until female characters are fighting for something other than female freedom.

Related

Of all the reviews I have read of Brave, the review from Feminist Disney most closely matches my own impressions of it.

As for the importance of subversion:

Alison Lurie, author of Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature makes this argument about how children’s books can affect the common good:

The great subversive works of children’s literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten. 

Race, Culture and Power in Children’s Stories

I’m not the only one who does not consider Pixar’s Brave as a particularly good example of a children’s film which explores gender, pushing its traditional limits. An academic from Emory University explains in this short video that Merida of Brave encourages girls to be independent, but within the fairytale structure of this arc, demonstrates that there are severe consequences to stepping outside gender roles. Merida unleashes a curse by doing so. A better representation of girlhood in animated film is that of Violet from The Incredibles, who uses her super-power of invisibility to create a force field around herself. But there are other issues with this story — again, Violet exists — as most fictional female heroes do — within the realms of her family. She is not given the opportunity to leave the family and seek out independence as many boy heroes do. Pixar’s Up is quite a gender-bender in this sense, because the little boy who befriends the old man is desperate for the love of family rather than separating from the family to seek his boyish independence on the way to manhood. His is a more typically feminine storyline, in which family is important to him.

 

Jack Zipes says that:

[Schools in the West] are geared towards making children into successful consumers and competitors in a ‘free’ world dictated by market conditions…If storytellers are to be effective on behalf of children in schools…it is important to try to intil a sense of community, self-reflecting and self-critical community, in the children to demonstrate how the ordinary can become extraordinary…Schools are an ideal setting for this ‘subversive’ type of storytelling…if schools want…to show that they can be other than the institutions of correction, discipline, and distraction that they tend to be.

‘UNDERCUTTING THE GENRE’

From John Truby, The Anatomy Of Story:

The great flaw of using a prefabricated metaphorical symbol web is that it is so self-conscious and predictable that the story becomes a blueprint for the audience, not a lived experience. But in this flaw lies a tremendous opportunity. You can use the audience’s knowledge of the form and the symbol web to reverse it. In this technique, you use all the symbols in the web but twist them so that their meaning is very different from what the audience expects. This forces them to rethink all their expectations. You can do this with any story that has well-known symbols. When you are working in a specific genre like myth, horror, or Western, this technique is known as undercutting the genre.

Sort of Related

What Really Makes Katniss Stand Out? Peeta, Her Movie Girlfriend from NPR, in which the Movie Girlfriend trope is gender swapped.

Dragon-Slayer vs. Dragon-Sayer is a paper by Keeling and Sprague which discusses the female hero as opposed to the ‘heroine’, which may be considered a different thing altogether — a ‘hero in drag’.