Yesterday, a group of Bitch staffers/friends/kids attended a matinee screening of the new Disney/Pixar film Brave. While our reviews were mixed—as most reviews of the film have been—we all agreed that it was refreshing to see a different take on the princess narrative that has so permeated the media landscape lately. (Say what you will about Merida, at least she doesn't wear a pink tiara!)
Though Merida is indeed a teenage princess whose parents want her to live a traditional life and get married, through knowledge, determination, and honest communication with her mother (and some magic—this is a Disney princess movie, after all), she subverts the princess paradigm. Well, sort of.
Here are the five least princess-y things about Brave, followed by the five most princess-y. Spoilers ahoy!
Not So Princess-y
The endgame isn't romance. The stakes are high in this movie, but unlike your traditional princess who's risking it all for her prince (usually someone she barely knows but inexplicably loves), Merida is fighting first for her own agency and then to save her family.
No one mentions anyone else's looks. It would have been so easy to make a point of mentioning Merida and her mother's beauty, or even the oafishness of her father and his rivals. However, even though part of the plot is trying to marry Merida off to a neighboring clan, no one ever says anything about her being "the fairest in the land." When the talk turns to marriage, it's actually about getting to know one another and not just falling for the first hottie you see in the glen.
The women don't need rescuing. At its heart, this is a story about a mother and daughter. When the two of them face danger, though, it isn't Merida's dad or brothers who come to the rescue. The women work out their own problems and help each other.
The witch isn't a villain, she's a crafty carver! When Merida happens upon a witch's cottage, it seemed like the same tired "this old woman is evil and resents you for your looks" story. That is, until we meet the witch and she turns out to be a delightful entrepreneur. She's on her way to a craft fair! And, for what it's worth, she more than warns Merida about the dangers of buying a spell from a stranger.
It's about self-actualization. Toward the end of the film, Merida has to use her knowledge as a well-schooled princess (thanks Mom!) and her archery skills (thanks Dad!) to solve a problem and bring her family and community together. Their kingdom isn't about material possessions or displays of dominance, and the "happily ever after" narrative concludes with the DunBrochs hanging out together making art and playing sports, thanks to Merida's self-discover and maturity.
All that being said, this was still a mainstream movie about a princess, and it wasn't all subversive and refreshing.
The standard of beauty is white, thin, and flawless. No mention was made of Merida or her mother's looks, but their pale skin, small waists, hourglass figures, and feminine features reinforced the traditional (white) standard of beauty that is present in almost all princess media. The men had more diversity in their looks, but the female protagonists were all Disney all the way.
It's full of stereotypes. A lot of the typical othering done in Disney movies past is present in Brave as well, it just so happens that the characters are white. As Melissa points out over at Shakesville, "Scots are tribal with weird indigenous clothing and silly instruments and some old language and funny words and goofy accent and ginger hair, and these facts have been used to marginalize this occupied nation for centuries, but they're WHITE, so it's okay!"
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. While an exception could be made for King Fergus, who was a pretty active parent and husband for a princess movie, there is a clear divide between the men and the women of Brave. Merida and her mother Elinor do challenge gender stereotypes, but the men in the film are buffoons who can't control themselves and need a mother figure to direct them. The gender dynamics felt like an animated version of King of Queens.
The story is about marriage. Though Merida resists her parents' wishes that she marry, the plot of this movie still hinges on marriage. Yes, you could argue that in order to subvert the princess story you need to start with marriage, but this film could just as easily have started with an archery tournament that wasn't for Merida's hand.
It's set in the 10th century, because sexism is a thing of ye olde past. Yes, it was fun to see the beautifully animated countryside and stone castle of Brave's medieval Scotland, but setting the film in the distant past lets people believe that Merida's lack of freedom is as old as the hills, when you only need to look at a newspaper to know that girls today also face sexism and limited choices because of their gender.
Have you seen Brave yet? If so, what did you think?