Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Brave: A Feminist Princess in Disney's Most Traditional Family

Dear Readers, if you've been following the blog for the past couple years, you may have noticed that each and every year we hit a blogging drought in late summer. Each year we follow said drought with promises to never let you down again, but when the next year comes around, our promises turn out to be for naught.

Which is my long-winded way of saying that I meant to write this review a month ago, when I saw Brave on opening day. But hey, the plus of waiting all this time is that I can fill this review with spoilers, right? (Don't worry, I'll give additional warning before any major spoilers).

By now, it's probably old news that some have seen Brave's lack of a happily wedded after ending as cause for alarm. Because, as Stephen Colbert put it, any fifteen-year-old girl who objects to an arranged marriage must be a lesbian. Discussions of whether Disney should have lesbian princesses aside (I see a question of the week here!), such assumptions just reinforce the stereotype that all feminists (as Merida could easily be classified) are lesbians - after all, no woman who wants a man would object to sexism! But the utter lack of evidence that Merida is romantically interested in anyone should pause those discussions until Pixar puts together a sequel.

So no, I'm not interested in debating Merida's sexual orientation. What I want to talk about is how shockingly traditional the film is for a Disney movie. "But Emily!" you may be thinking, "Merida doesn't get married, she does archery, she rides a horse around." But despite all that, Merida has the most traditional nucleic family of any Disney princess that I can think of. She's got a burly hunter of a father, a mother who does domestic things and keeps everyone in order through her grace, and she's got three stereotypically-mischievous (if delightful) little brothers.

But that traditional family is really quite progressive, coming from Disney. Heck, the very fact that she has a mother at all is progressive, never mind that she's got two living parents who are married, in love, and invested in her life. Don't believe me? Let's run through other Disney princesses.

Snow White: has an evil stepmother, no living parent. In contrast, the original fairy tale at least starts with her parents alive.

Cinderella: has an evil stepmother, a father who dies while she's young, and a dead mother. In contrast, the mother returns in traditional retellings, in the form of a tree that gives her the dress and shoes.

Sleeping Beauty: Aurora is raised away from her parents, by three fairies. The father gets screen time, but I can't even remember the mother.

Belle: Has an absent-minded father who gets her into trouble, though at least the dead mother fits with the original story.

Pocahontas: Has a present father who is a powerful figure, but her mother is dead.

Jasmine: Has a father, but no mother. *Noticing a trend?

And I could go on and on, but I'm sure you'd all get bored. My point is just that for a Disney princess, having a mother is a rare luxury. Frankly, I think The Princess and the Frog had the most prominent role of a biological mother out of any movie before Brave.

So, with that background in Disney movies, imagine my shock when the entire plot of Brave turned out to focus on Merida's relationship with her mother. There were plenty of plot twists I could predict from the trailers, such as the lack of a love story or (spoilers!) the brothers turning into bears. And then there were elements I wasn't expecting, like the prevalence of naked Scotsman butts. But the last thing I expected, going in, was for the plot to focus on repairing things between Merida and her mother.

And the very solution they found was quite moderate. It wasn't a matter of Merida giving in and doing exactly what her parents said, anymore than it was a matter of her parents backing off and letting her do whatever she wants. After all, royalty have obligations. Instead, there are clear, symbolic gestures that spell our the importance of compromise and communication. (Spoilers) Merida has to sew, and her mother learns to fight, allowing them to understand each other better. (Big Spoilers!) And her mother even agrees to change tradition so that Merida doesn't have to choose a husband.

And none of this is shocking or even ground-breaking on its own. The shocking part of all this is that it's taken 75 years for Disney to produce a princess movie that portrayed a nucleic family.

Take that fact as you will.

* If I'm forgetting about some disney princess whose mother is a major part of the film, feel free to remind me in the comments.

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