Friday, June 22, 2012

Pixar's Brave to Change the Fate of Princess Culture?

While it's a given that Brave will be a beautiful film it is interesting to see the smattering of mixed reviews surfacing in its debut week. There are the expected rave reviews and gushing over the lush animation and the feisty red-headed princess but there's been more than a little criticism too.

Why? Three theories:

1) Merida got upstaged
Pixar was a little late to the theater with their feisty heroine this year. Since we've had Hunger Games and Snow White and the Huntsman provide audiences with larger-than-life kick ass girl-women, seeing Merida do much of the same is, sadly, a little like deja vu, despite that this is the first family film in that vein where the others were mainstream (or perhaps teen-stream).

The "Brave" wigs
2) Too much hair
There's waaaay too much emphasis on all this hair! Maria Tatar recently linked to an article and it seems Ms. Tatar has the right of it when she noticed the topic continually returning to Merida's hair. It's what everybody - creators and marketers - seem focused on. Hair! A quick story to illustrate: my husband is currently working in downtown Hollywood and, in his words, this is what he saw:
This morning when I came out of the Hollywood/Highland station I saw, walking down the street in front of me, two women with a little girl and a young boy. Both women had curly, curly long red-orange hair and the girl was carrying a chunk of red-orange hair. This seemed a bit odd to me until I realized that they were walking away from the El Capitan theatre and were wearing "Brave" wigs. The boy was having nothing to do with the females and was walking apart from them. He had no wig.
I think this scene is a good example of the response we're seeing all over. Despite how strong, feisty and brave Merida is, with marketing campaigns like Target's stating: "Look pretty and be brave, too" we've diluted anything important the film may have had to say. But that's not the whole story either.

3) Change your fate. Or not.
Even more importantly, it would appear the entire story has already been told in the promotional fare and there's really nothing more to Princess Merida than we've seen. Although she's feisty and defies convention she doesn't really have a direction or drive once she's able to do all the things she wants. In other words, we have a princess who is behaving like, well, a princess. There's no saving her people, the world or anything else going on. She makes a mistake and has to repair the damage she's done but, in reality, though she grows closer to her mother, nothing much else appears to change.

There's an interesting article in Time published today, titled: Why Pixar's Brave is a Failure of Female EmpowermentUnlike the writer, I don't have a problem with Merida being a princess. Nor do I have a problem that she has to deal with the marriage issue. For the era, that was primarily what princesses were useful for: forming alliances by joining in marriage and producing heirs. How she deals with that is where she has to show her individuality. What is a problem, though, is the lack of both growth and of personal purpose by Merida, beyond the crisis (of her own making).

From the article:
The best parts of Brave are the scenes involving the changed Queen Elinor, now a gigantic bear. But despite a lot of superficial talk of fate — “Our fate lies within us. You only have to be brave enough to see it” — her physical metamorphosis represents the main transformation. Other than deciding her mother isn’t so bad, Merida doesn’t really grow. She’s simply extended her time as a tomboy, another archetype, less a girl than a stereotype of a kind of girl.  “It wasn’t clear to me what her arc was,” Orenstein (FTNH ed: author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter) says. “What is it that we are imagining girls moving toward here? ‘I get to ride around on a horse all day’ isn’t really enough. That isn’t going to take her anywhere. There wasn’t a desire to do something.” 
This wouldn’t feel so vaguely unsatisfying if Brave were just one of many Pixar movies that featured a strong female lead. It’s the absence of others that turns the spotlight on Brave. And having a princess protagonist isn’t inherently bad. It’s just that she is so chapter one of what girls can be — and so many other Pixar movies skipped most known chapters and moved on to whole new volumes. (FTNH: bold emphasis mine)
You can read the whole article HERE.
There's one other issue that appeared in the comments regarding the grilling Brave gets in the article. I feel for the parents who are tired of every movie needing to "be a good example" for their children when all they want is good, clean entertainment. I would wholeheartedly agree except for one major thing: the marketing push and resulting peer pressure from the toy angle (even four year olds will influence their peers with regard to what is "cool"!) really does speak as loudly, often louder, than the most conscientious parents. and that's when a kid hasn't even seen the movie! When the best way for a child to recapture their personal movie experience is through a toy or book with the same images, that's the "message" that will sink in and stay.

What if the marketing for Brave was more gender-neutral, or perhaps aimed more toward tomboy-girls and boys at most, rather than at the princess culture girls? Instead of exiting El Capitan with giant red-orange wigs what if each kid got a sword or bow and arrow? (No floaty blue dresses in sight either, thank you.) Do you think the boy my husband saw would have been keeping himself so carefully separate from his "wimminfolk" then? I don't think so. I think he'd be (happily) trading blows and bruises with his sister, complete with sound effects of turning into a bear of which his sister would no doubt (happily) match him roar for roar.

There is one other interesting observation by a few of the commenters on the article that I want to highlight too. I'll quote the shortest one:
I'd appreciate if films with female leads had adequate male character. I don't understand why "female empowerment" films have the need to portray men as incompetent goofs.
They have a good point and there's more in the comments expanding on it too. The presence of a "strong" female character does not exclude the presence of strong men. The now go-to standard in family films (making the men less competent to make the women appear more so) isn't good for boys, for assertive/kick-ass girls OR for the princess set. I'll let you read the debate (and rants) for yourself.

One thing I do agree with the writer on, though, is that I hope Brave does well - really, really well actually. Why?
1) I would like to see more lead heroines from Pixar. With the marketing force of Disney behind them, Pixar does have a great influence on kids. I'd like to see what other female leads they come up with and hope that the results are as "groundbreaking" as everyone's been hoping Merida would be.
2) I'd like to see more fairy tale fare handled by Pixar (and Disney) story people, especially now that the public view on fairy tales has changed somewhat.


  1. I agree with these authors. Merida doesn't grow up, and she needs to. We saw the movie the day it came out, with my six year old son. He enjoyed it, and so did we. But it was merely good when it could have been great. The next day my son pulled out our "Tangled" DVD and we watched it through. Twice. Rapunzel is the opposite of Merida. She wants life to get started, or as she sings in the opening number, "when will my life begin?" And in her moment of epiphany, she want to know what happens when you DO get your dream? (Answer, you get yourself a new dream.) Compare to Merida, who mostly wants just to stay a tween a few years longer.

    I am also tired of the claim that Disney doesn't do interesting princesses. Yes, the Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty movies are a little dated, and the princesses (and princes) rather passive. But since the re-launch of the Disney Princess with Ariel we've had quite a crew of girls: not just Ariel and Rapunzel, but also Belle, Mulan, Tiana, and Pocahontas... a varied and lively lot. Merida was, sadly, a step backward.

  2. I agree it would be great to see more female leads. I really hope this movie does well. How adorable is this female character!! And I'd also love to see more non-animated fairytale type movies come to the screen with all the action and rich story lines. Good article!

  3. Well, I've heard a lot about the movie's message / intention, whether they accomplished that or not is up the viewer. Great post anyway, oh and I also read your post about Fairest and I loved it. By the way, I reviewed issue 3 of Fairest here:

    It'd be great if you could stop by and leave me a comment.


  4. I'm really excited to see this film with my nephews and niece. This will be an ice breaker on those classic fairy tales that we used to know during our childhood days.

  5. yes woodland Fairy village women in this movies so good role and painting so beautiful

  6. If you like reading tales to your son or daughter, take a look to this app. It's an interactive fairy tale:

    Hope you like it!

  7. I love this one! My favourite!

  8. Brave is a physically gorgeous work that succeeds in transporting us to another world and immersing us there, where we find touching and even memorable characters.