Saturday, June 23, 2012

Brave: Brought to you by Judd Apatow

The curly hair? Gratifying.
If Brave were a girl I was trying to set you up with, I would spend a lot of time talking about how good looking she was, and not as much about her smarts, wit, or personality. The reason isn't necessarily that the film doesn't have those latter qualities--though they're not in nearly as much abundance as some of Pixar's classics, like Ratatouille or Finding Nemo--but because the movie seems to want the audience to pay more attention to the dazzling surface (and it remarkable) than what could possibly lie beneath. And considering the studio has marketed this as a feminist fable, that's a bit of a problem.

Merida, the much-ballyhooed first female Pixar heroine, isn't different in any substantial way from her tomboy foremothers (Jo, Scout, Watts, etc.) who rebel against the unfair constraints of idealized femininity by and through rejecting its approved wardrobe and activities. She is a princess who would rather ride her horse and shoot her bow (bows are so hot this year) than obey her mother's directive to act like a lady and get married. And the film's resolution of the marriage plot is articulated in language so trite that it might as well have come at the end of a very special episode of Saved by the Bell.

Where the film's potential for, and incompletely realized exploration of, radical feminism is through Merida's conflict with her mother, Elinor (voiced to flinty perfection by true feminist icon, Emma Thompson). Merida is more terrified of turning into her mother (who doesn't so much ride horses and shoot bows) than she is of getting married. And that, my friends, is a fear not only experienced by Scottish princesses. When Merida visits a witch for a spell to change her fate, she crucially and revealingly asks for a spell to change her mother. The way that spell gets realized and resolved I won't spoil here, but know that the bulk of the film is spent not watching Merida fall in love with a man, but rather getting to know her mom. And that is not common for a fairy tale, or a summer blockbuster.

The problem for me is in the way gender is represented in Brave. (Of course it is.) And my qualm is hinted at in the title of this post. All the men in the film (Merida's father the King, her three impish little brothers, the clansman who arrive at her castle to compete for her hand) are freaking hilarious. They're fun, they're joyful, they're uninhibited. They're also childlike, childish, unwilling to accept adult responsibilities, and have bodies born for physical comedy. Sound like anyone you've seen in movies before?

Conversely, the women, well, woman, Elinor, is uptight, serious, and completely consumed by a commitment to successfully managing her life, leading her to be the de facto monarch. No wonder Merida doesn't want to turn into her, despite her happy marriage and family, and no wonder all the  men serve as comic "relief" from the plot that is supposed to make this film different.

But there is one other major female character in the film, now that I think of it. A woman who lives in the woods Merida loves so dearly, who also rejects the confining clothing of "proper" femininity, and who makes her living as an artist. It's the witch, of course, who provides Merida with her spell. I think a braver Brave would have looked more closely at this unnamed sorceress as another possible  model for Merida to emulate when deciding what kind of woman she wants to be.

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