The Gender Of Brave’s Leads Brings Out The Curious, The Stupid And The Tomboys
By Alex Cranz
Instead of a review of Brave I’m going to just get right into analysis of the film and the public’s response to it. So be wary of spoilers because they’re there. If you haven’t seen the film then STOP READING and GO SEE IT. Kelly MacDonald, Billy Connelly and Emma Thompson fashion an instantly believable and loveable family, the animation is some of the best to date–particularly the way the light moves through the trees and the various woodland creatures’ fur moves, and in a departure from nearly every Disney and Pixar film ever, both parents survive. Also a maid’s cleavage and three young boys repeatedly steal the show.
And if you are a teenage girl or the mother of a teenage girl SEE IT WITH YOUR MOTHER/TEENAGER. You will not be disappointed. If you are email me and I’ll send you some blackbottom cupcakes as an apology. They will be laced with cyanide because I’ll be horrified you didn’t like the film.
I was a tomboy and in many ways still am. As a child I hated wearing skirts and dresses. I dreamed of the simplicity and elegance of a suit and tie and looked at my brother (four years younger) in jealousy as he got to wear the clothes I desperately wanted to wear. I had a cape so I could be Superman and a pair of six shooters so I could be the greatest cowboy to ever live. My grandmother coyly told me that if I could kiss my elbow I’d become a boy and I spent one entire Fourth of July sitting on a tombstone (the graveyard was the best place to see the fireworks and we celebrate life or some such) trying to put my lips to the elephant rough skin of my elbow.
Perhaps there was a strand of self loathing misogyny lurking in my baby brain, but mainly I just liked being me. My parents and grandmothers loved to “gender police” me and explain how a proper girl dressed and behaved but thanks to a divorce and two working parents I had enough time to myself to fully bask in my gender neutral way of life and came out pretty awesome (the parents weren’t actually THAT bad–much of their objections were a kind of a generational thing).
Watching Merida, another tomboy, balk at the rules of “femininity” being forcefully applied struck a chord in me. I was that girl. I knew her well and sympathized whole-heartedly. Because what was being forced upon her wasn’t femininity, it was a very specific idea of how a girl should behave. One developed not to help women but to hinder them.
But you know what? I also got Elinor. While I may hate the “a lady…” spiel I can appreciate where it comes from for her character (and for the older women in my own life). There are rules that govern social decorum and they must be obeyed. Rules of society must be maintained. Tomboys are rebels within the society–breaking and bending ageless rules and provoking their arbiters. Just as I may struggle to understand certain extremely progressive ideas and concepts so do the generations before me. We’re all a half-step behind the ones who follow us.
The cleverness of the conflict between Merida and Elinor is how neatly they fall into two socially acceptable and popular concepts of womanhood. Elinor is prim and stately– the peacekeeper for the whole of the kingdom. Yes her husband is the great Bear King and a physically impressive man, but it’s Elinor who makes certain the clans don’t kill each other and it’s because of a carefully cultivated image–one that she’s attempting to pass onto her daughter.
And her daughter is physical. Rowdy. Independent and aggressive.
They’re both headstrong. Stubborn. Opinionated. Neither is necessarily right. The film doesn’t condemn either for how the represent femininity. When they have their destructive fight both women immediately regret it. They’re so sure that the path they’ve laid out is the right one–but they’re both still a little empathetic. Elinor more so than her daughter (and that, as suggested by the film, is because of age and not her tomboy nature).
It’s only when Merida resolves to change her fate with a witch’s spell that the détente crumbles. And then they piece themselves and their relationship back together again. Each gives a little. Each takes a little. It’s utterly perfect and the rare time in a children’s film where the relationship between mother and daughter is the focus point.
There is no outright villain in this plot except, perhaps, pride.
As natural and affecting as the film is for me and many others it’s brought out something interesting in critics. Ebert, in a very spoilery review, says it ”seems at a loss to deal with her [Merida] as a girl and makes her a sort of honorary boy.” That comment is so mind-numbingly awful, misguided and silly that I’m loathe to say much more on the subject other than a very loud “Seriously Ebert?!”
Entertainment Weekly posits that because Merida bristles at “traditional” gender roles and doesn’t express interest in her suitors she could be gay. Jezebel and AfterEllen wonder the same thing (though to be fair to AE when you’re queer you tend to gay goggle EVERYTHING–it’s how we have Swan Queen).
Merida isn’t defined by her sexuality, and as much as the film is about two women mired in a battle of what constitutes femininity, Merida isn’t really defined by her gender either. The crux of the story isn’t “will Elinor let Merida choose her own suitor” or “will Merida give up her bow.” It is “will this parent and child learn how to communicate?” While the story might not be as rich with the sexes changed it would still be very much the same story. Boys experience gender policing just as acutely as girls and if you don’t believe me turn on the tv and watch a dad give a “be a man” speech.
We’ve grown used to this story when told about a boy and his father. Familial communication is, after all, the central theme of more than one children’s film. In fact Pixar’s most successful film to date, Finding Nemo shares many similarities. But because that film was about a boy, the “status quo” gender, it was unnecessary to analyze it. And look at Buzz Lightyear in the original Toy Story or Remy in Ratatouille. Like Merida they express no specific sexuality, yet the media didn’t exactly dive into articles pondering their sexuality days after the films crushed the box office.
Merida and Elinor are the first sole heroines ever in a Pixar film, and Merida is the first “Disney Princess” not embroiled in a love affair. And as the film breaks ground and provides girls and boys with a teenage hero for whom sex and heteronormativity aren’t everything the status quo will buck. What really shouldn’t even be up for debate will be examined ad nauseum, and older film critics will stick their feet in their mouths because the last teenage girl they knew had a bee hive and wore gloves even when it wasn’t cold.