Pixar, Brave, and Merida’s Load to Bear
|June 26, 2012||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Ladytexts|
On Friday night I saw the new Pixar movie, Brave.
Now, here’s the thing about me and Brave. When the first still of the redheaded heroine, Merida, appeared on the internets, pretty much everyone I knew emailed, messaged, or tweeted at me to make sure I’d seen it. When I mentioned I was seeing it to one of my coworkers, he said, “Isn’t that movie pretty much just about you?” And when he left on Friday with a parting, “Enjoy seeing your biopic!” another coworker, who hadn’t heard our initial conversation, went “Oh, Brave?”
They’re not wrong: I tend to identify hard with redheads, especially plucky, tomboyish ones who save the day. (My favorite fictional character of all time is Annie, 1982 movie musical-style. So.) I love archers, and I could already tell just from the trailers that Brave was playing into my own particular mother issues. And I love both Disney and Pixar. Basically, Pixar could not have asked for a better audience than yours truly.
To cut to the chase: I liked it. But oh man, is “I liked it” a disappointing thing to have to say about a Pixar movie.
[Moderate spoilers below.]
First, the good: All the usual Pixar suspects. The animation is stunning – I could write a book on the resplendency of Merida’s unruly locks alone, though I may be a wee bit biased. The voice acting is superb. The score is gorgeous. And I love that it’s a story about a mother and a daughter who love each other but don’t understand each other, that they’re both competent and heroic yet flawed and funny, and that their relationship is given the same importance and care that the paternal relationships in so many other Pixar movies (Marlin and Nemo, Carl and Russell) get. And, I mean, a movie about a mother and a daughter made $67 million dollars in its North American opening weekend with a 43% male audience. I can’t be bummed about that.
But let’s face it: the story was a big ol’ mess. The first half? – act? everything before Elinor got bearified – seemed desperately rushed as the film tried to cram the bear-heavy mythology of the movie plus all the characters into our heads. What happened to the grace of opening sequences like Up’s tearjerking montage, WALL-E’s stately, dialogue-free panoramas, or the funny, high-octane setup of The Incredibles? So much of the movie relied on literal deus ex machinae – the wisps. There did not appear to be a second act at all. The unfortunate truth is that Pixar has its transcendent movies (the Toy Story sequels, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, etc.) and its serviceable ones (A Bug’s Life, Cars, Ratatouille), and Brave falls into the latter category.
And you know what? That’s fine. Not every movie is perfect, even from Pixar, and if this had been a Dreamworks or even a Disney film, I would’ve been well satisfied. 1
But Pixar has a lot riding on this because it’s their first movie – out of 13! – with a female protagonist. They’ve gotten considerable flack for their lack of female-led movies, and they’ve gotten more for deciding to make the first one a princess, all Disney-style, as if that’s the only conceivable role for a girl.
And it’s absolutely deserved flack. They’ve created great female characters, like Helen Parr and Dory and EVE, but their female characters are inevitable satellites to their male protagonists: wives, children, helpers, damsels, quip-spouting love interests. Even Jessie, who showed so much promise in Toy Story 2 as a character with her own tragic narrative, was reduced to a mostly-helpless love interest for Buzz in Toy Story 3. Pixar’s movies are so great that many people seem inclined to let them slide on the female character front, but as far as I’m concerned, that gives them less of a pass. They’re great enough to stop telling dudely stories about the dude pains of being a father or trying to impress a beautiful girl robot or driving real fast, and start acknowledging the other half of the population. 2
And then there’s the princess thing. Look, I have a half-finished post defending Disney Princesses in my Google Docs. I have no problem with princess characters. What I have a problem with is how Pixar handled it with Merida. According to this NPR article, Pixar tried to make de-princess Merida. Producer Katherine Sarafian is quoted as saying: “We tried making her the blacksmith’s daughter and the milkmaid in various things…There [are] no stakes in the story for us that way. We wanted to show real stakes in the story where, you know, the peace of the kingdom and the traditions are all at stake.”
The writer of the article, Neda Ulaby, rightly points out that Pixar didn’t have a stakes problem with Russell, the decidedly non-royal little boy in Up. I’d like to add: or a toy. Or a rat. Or an ant. Or a fish.
See, Pixar movies are about the unexpected hero – the little guy who saves the day. That’s their thing. They tell stories about nonentities: household objects, lower vertebrates, neglected old men, forgotten bureaucrats, abandoned garbagebots. They’re about the beauty and the strength and the heroism in the everyday.
But not with a girl. And that betrays a distinctly male point-of-view: Pixar movies are about ordinary people. And ordinary people are men.
Women in our society are expected to be responsible. To be caretakers. Merida’s reluctance to get married is framed as disastrous in the movie because the tenuous peace of the kingdom depends on her picking a suitor. The lives of every character we see hinges on, let’s face it, her sexuality. Other Pixar protagonists have saved worlds, yes, but it’s never before been couched as their inborn responsibility – it’s a choice they make or a byproduct of their adventure. Merida, meanwhile, is born into her responsibility, and it’s apparently the only way Pixar could even conceive of telling a story about a woman.
Elinor, meanwhile, can silence massive brawls just by walking into the room and is clearly the brains behind the running of the kingdom – because, you know, men are just so rowdy and troublesome and stupid, and women are just so civilized and composed.3 On the one hand, that scene shows how competent and respected she is. On the other hand, it’s once again the woman who’s responsible for “the peace of the kingdom and the traditions,” in Sarafian’s words. These hackneyed gender roles grow tired, Pixar!
And the other woman in the castle? Well, of course she’s the one-note maid/cook/nanny/assorted female-coded caretaking task-doer (with bonus violence boob jokes for extra fun!). In fact, out of the four female characters in the movie, only one – the witch – shuns the responsibility of caring for men, and thus she is the villain, dangerously transgressive and chaotic.
So in the end, a Pixar movie about a girl still makes her – still makes all women – the helper, smoothing things out for those confused, impassioned men.
Again: I liked Brave. I thought it was a fun if not terribly original story, beautifully rendered, with a protagonist I am hardwired to adore. I liked Merida, I liked Elinor, I liked the witch. I liked Fergus and the boys.4 I liked the movie.
But I would’ve loved to see the movie Pixar could’ve made if they’re seen Merida not as The First Pixar Female Protagonist and just as a Pixar protagonist who happened to be female.
- Oh man, now I’m picturing it Disney-style. Some well-placed musical numbers would’ve livened it right up. ↩
- Actually, it’s way more than half; can we please get a protagonist of color, Pixar? Frozone and Russell are getting tired of carrying the weight of representation on their own. ↩
- I am being sarcastic here. Gender essentialism pisses me off. ↩
- Clearly Huey, Dewey, and Louie moonlighting. One was even named Hubert! (Yes, Huey is short for Hubert. Yes, I know all three Duck triplets’ full names (Hubert, Louis, and DEUTERONOMY), canon birth year (1940), and extended family tree. WHAT.) ↩