June 23, 2012 § Leave a comment
Last night I went to see Pixar’s Brave at my local movie theater. I had been looking forward to its opening for months and was excited to see how the story would be told.
I wasn’t planning to write about the movie – even though it has broken important ground for Pixar and the industry in many ways – but I couldn’t stop thinking about it after watching, so I thought I’d post what I took away from it.
***SPOILER ALERT*** Certain key moments of Brave will be discussed in the rest of this post.
Brave is essentially a film about Merida, a teenage girl who is being forced into a role she does not want to assume, and her mother, Queen Elinor. There are many complex themes woven throughout the story, but at the heart of the movie is Merida. Who happens to be a princess. And the role whose adoption she is facing is that of wife and (eventual) queen. I do not, however, believe that this defines Brave as simply a “princess movie” or a story about marriage.
Among the many articles and reviews written about the movie, some seem to miss this point. The central conflict in the movie is not that Merida, a princess, does not want to get married while her mother tries desperately to force her daughter to accept the betrothal anyway. Those are merely skeletal summaries of specific plot events that illustrate the deeper themes of the film – how to grow into your true self (especially when your surroundings do not necessarily encourage that), how to develop a mature relationship between a mother and daughter as they get older, and the struggle between responsibility and personal freedom. Countless other situations could have illustrated these concepts, because the story is about so much more than whether or not a princess will get married. It is about whether someone should be forced to do something completely against her character, or instead able to choose how to meet her responsibilities in her own way. To change her fate.
At the start of the film, we see that Merida does not take to the absolute self-control her mother is trying to teach her daughter in an effort to shape her into a “proper” princess (“A princess never lays her weapons on the table…A princess strives for perfection”). Much of the behavior Elinor endorses closely matches traditional female gender roles in America today – girls should not raise their voices, girls should not engage in dangerous activities, girls should project a very limited (read: socially acceptable) image. It is important to note though that Elinor’s motivations for doing this are not driven by a mindless pursuit of conformity and acceptability, but by her understanding of how to rule a kingdom powerfully. She is truly trying to help her daughter become stronger. When Elinor speaks softly, she holds more influence over a room full of raucous, fighting men than her husband does (who is himself caught up in the chaotic brawl). In teaching her daughter not to raise her voice, she is trying to show her how to tap into a certain kind of authority.
Merida does not understand this though, and her mother does not understand that her instructions do not fit her daughter. Merida sees the lessons as stifling, and her mother sees her daughter’s rejection of them as stubborn selfishness. Merida’s only solution to this struggle at first is to ride into the forest on days when “she does not have to be a princess,” meaning days when she can leave her instructions and responsibilities behind and just be exactly who she is. Again, this is not simply about rejecting traditional femininity, but rather rejecting roles in opposition to one’s true nature. (For more on the impossible standards girls are often forced to try to live up to in America though, check out The Triple Bind.)
Merida and Elinor must both learn to understand and listen to one another, to see where the other one is coming from and find the value in each other’s perspectives. Merida slowly recognizes the responsibility she has to her family and the other clans, and Elinor realizes that her daughter should be able to decide when and who (or even if?) she wants to marry. Mutual understanding is particularly difficult – but all the more important – when trying to communicating about a situation/issue originally seen very differently by those involved.
This last point ties into an idea that I hope to explore further in my next post – how do people communicate about topics for which they take polar opposite sides? How can Americans navigate decisions so controversial (from economic policy to abortion to immigration) that they are met only in deadlock or and endless give/take between sides?
There is a moment in Brave after Merida is bound into her constrictive and self-covering dress for the tournament when Elinor says her daughter’s name, and the two look at each other without any barriers between them. This open moment contains the possibility of true communication, but they are unable to act on it and instead revert back to their original dynamic. A future post will discuss how that relates to real world situations.
In all, Brave was a beautiful, engaging film about a young girl and her relationship with her mother that can be enjoyed on many levels. I would highly recommend watching it if you have the chance!