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Teenage Merida and her mother Elinor (via)

To escape the heat on Saturday, Hanna and I went to the movies and saw Brave (Disney and Pixar, 2012) which most of you have probably heard much of a muchness about since it was released back in June. There’s been tons of insightful, critical analysis of Brave and what it does and doesn’t do to advance our cultural narratives about girls and women. I’m not going to try and reproduce or summarize the conversation here — but a few of my favorite reviews/reflections come from Amanda Marcotte, Jaclyn Friedman, Heida, and Lili Loofbourow.

What follows are some heat-and-humidity-infused reflections on what moved me about Brave and thoughts about some of the non-Disney cultural narratives the movie may be drawing its inspiration from.

Spoilers below. Also massive rambling.

First and foremost, the most striking thing about Brave — and I’m far from the first person to point this out — is that the story centers on a mother-daughter relationship. Let me say this again: The story centers on a mother-daughter relationship. Just last week, my friend Molly tweeted about how her six-year-old son Noah has just started noticing all of the dead and absent mothers (thanks Freud and Jung!) in children’s literature. When parents aren’t dead, they’re most often either out-of-touch with their children’s lives or actively malicious. Often, for women, there’s a twofer with the dead-mother-evil-stepmother theme.

The lesson in these stories is, so often, that parents and children (and the generations they represent) are inherently in conflict, and that women are naturally rivals with one another — usually for power as represented by male attention/alliances).

In Brave, Merida and her mother are in conflict to begin with: Merida is a rebellious teenager (very much a modern American construct) and Elinor is a mother trying to do what she thinks is best for her daughter and letting her fear muddle her ability to see clearly what is best for her daughter. The narrative tension of Brave revolves around mother and daughter finding their way back to the quality of relationship they have lost, while incorporating into that relationship a greater — more adult — knowledge about themselves and one another.

I think the radical audacity of this storyline finally hit home to me in last act when Merida defends her mother (temporarily turned into a bear) against the clan leaders who believe they’re avenging Elinor’s death. And then when Elinor-as-bear comes to the defense of her daughter who is nearly killed by the real beast, Mordu. It’s a powerful thing to see, on screen, a princess defend her living mother from death rather than speaking in her absent/dead mother’s name. And an equally powerful thing to see a living mother, a fierce mother bear, coming to the defense of her girlchild — not only rescuing her from Mordu, but ultimately listening to Merida’s wish to delay any marriage plot until some nebulous future.

Let’s just say that when Merida says to her father and his soldiers, “I will not let you kill my mother!” I could feel the tears spring into my eyes. How often does a girlchild get a chance to say this in our Western fairy tale canon?

This reworking of the mother-daughter relationship speaks not only to our own interpersonal relationships, but also to the broader social narratives of generational tensions. I’m thinking especially here about feminist “waves” and the way we’re so often encouraged to think of feminist activism in generational terms, with overbearing, bitter, jealous mothers pitted against bratty, sexually-potent, ungrateful daughters. Brave points out that division between mothers and daughters — the failure to listen on both sides — obscures the true villain of the piece: adherence to (patriarchal) tradition borne of fear.* I’d argue that such a message is one we truly can’t get enough of in this world obsessed with generational rebellion and rupture. By seeing each generation as a threat to the one that preceded it, we’re hobbling our chances for deep, progressive change.

A few more (briefer) observations.

Merida owes much of her adolescent truth-telling, I suspect, to fictional fore-sisters such as Jane Eyre and Psyche. As Carol Gilligan argues in The Birth of Pleasure and more recently in Joining the Resistance, children — she would argue particularly girl children on the cusp of adolescence — are bellweathers and truth-tellers, pointing out the deceptions we practice on ourselves and one another, and demanding honesty from themselves and those around them. I’d also suggest that Brave‘s narrative lineage owes debts to Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, and to virtually every film produced by Miyazaki. Particularly Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, and (Hanna tells me, since I haven’t yet seen it) Nausicaa.

As with Into the Woods, we have themes of parents having to let their children grow up and forge their own path (see: Bernadette Peters’ brilliant witch) while not abandoning them wholesale (see: “You Are Not Alone”). The message in Brave as in Into the Woods is that heroes — regardless of gender — are strongest when working in cooperation with others, and that this message of community isn’t incompatible with forging a new path.

As in Miyazaki’s films, the protagonist(s) Merida and Elinor must learn values such as respect for others, harmony with the community, and a balance between the qualities identified as “masculine” and “feminine” in our culture. Merida is fierce and physically fearless, yet needs to learn the art of political persuasion and empathy for others. There is a subtler morality at play in Brave that shares closer kinship with Eastern folk traditions (in my admittedly limited experience) than it does with the fairy tales Disney usually draws on for inspiration.

And, of course, there’s the brilliant freedom of watching a film about a teenage girl that is decidedly not a marriage plot. Merida’s age is indeterminate, though her body is that of a young woman gone through puberty. She isn’t anti-sex, or anti-marriage even — she’s simply not ready to make the choice. As others before me have pointed out, to have a teenage girl in a mainstream film whose sexuality is indeterminate — meaning she could swing straight, gay, bi, fluid, or something else entirely: We don’t know. And, for once, it’s immaterial to the plot! — is a breath of fresh air.

This is the exact opposite of pretty much every princess movie — and even most YA novels! — out there on the market, because romance is a driving force in stories about adolescents. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, but when coupled with heteronormative plots it means that girls look at the narratives about young adulthood and they see that they’re expected to be boy-crazy, or at least boy-interested. They could be boy-interested in the most kick-ass, gender-bending guy on the planet — but boys it almost always is expected to be. And if not boys, then girls (or girls and boys), and it’s always, always, always meant to be an all-consuming preoccupation.

Teenagers are expected, in our culture, to be preoccupied — for better or worse — with sex and relationships. And as a teenager who wasn’t personally driven to explore these things (except in a fictional, future-looking sort of way), I often felt really out of step with stories that depicted my concerns in that way. Merida’s maybe someday but certainly not now attitude toward romantic relationships, coupled with her deep, passionate involvement in her familial relationships, show how teenage girls (and, I’d argue, teenagers more generally) are more complex persons than our media so often portrays them to be.

My one frustration with Brave (and then I promise to stop rambling!) was the one-dimensional portrayal of the male characters, particularly Fergus (Elinor’s husband, Merida’s father). It’s understandable in a 90-minute film that some characters get short-shrift, but the buffoonish character of Fergus, coupled with Elinor’s  level-headed political thinking and parental role can all too easily be read according to the “smart woman married to a boorish man” trope of situation comedy fame (Simpsons and Family Guy anyone?). While the teenage boys put forward to compete for Merida’s hand eventually speak up for their own independent choice of spouse** they are also caricatures clearly meant to communicate “brawn but no brains,” “brash, vain hottie,” and “sensitive weakling.” Since Merida’s protests regarding marriage are valid regardless of the merit of her suitors, it seems like a poor choice to recapitulate harmful stereotypes about men in a film that is otherwise quite smart about women and gender.

I suspect that this shortcoming has less to do with Brave in particular than it has to do with the fact that our culture has still not answered the questions of masculinity posed by feminist thinkers and activists. We haven’t figured out how to tell a story about fully-dimensional, human women, that also includes fully-dimensional human men. In order to tell a story in which a mother and daughter are the central relationship, Elinor’s husband, her (much younger) sons, and Merida’s would-be suitors, cannot be taken seriously — must provide, in fact, the comic relief to an otherwise revolutionary plot. Which leaves open the question, of course, what place fathers, sons, and male lovers might have in this brave new world which Merida and her mother are building for the clans?

Some anti-feminists would argue there isn’t a place for men in the world Elinor and Merida seek to build. I’d argue it will be up to the men — and women alongside them — to discover and create that place for themselves.

*As an aside, the historian and feminist in me would really love to know the details of Elinor’s back-story. She and her husband seem to have a loving relationship, yet she clearly sees marriage to some extent as a political alliance. I yearned for a glimpse inside her head, so that we could understand some of the reasons for her fear, and the reasons for the decisions she made — both in pushing Merida toward a betrothal of political expedience, and then later in choosing to support her daughter’s desire to forge her own path.

**And seen through slash goggles, Hanna and I agree that in the final scene it’s clear at least two of them have found each other as potential mates!