Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Guest Essay: Dana Shaffer on how Brave fails at feminism.

Friend and colleague Dana Shaffer wrote this terrific piece back when Brave first arrived in theaters.  Since I had already had my say on the film, I thought it best to wait until the film arrived on DVD/Blu Ray, which it does today.  Long-story short, this whole piece elaborates on ideas that I merely acknowledged in my review.  So do enjoy.

Does Brave give us the Disney princess we’ve all been waiting for? 
The film recycles a familiar tale, with a few misguided twists

By Dana Shaffer

Brave is the story of Merida, a bow-and-arrow wielding princess, with attitude, gobs of personality and more interest in pursuing her own ambitions than marriage. It sounds like a dream come true for many who have longed for a princess story with more of a plot arc than meeting a man and falling in love.

But let me give you a quick synopsis of the film (complete with spoilers, be warned):

It is the story of a vibrant and sassy redheaded teenage princess who doesn't quite fit in. She has an unusual hobby that her particularly strict parent does not approve of. During a nasty fight one day, the very strict parent destroys the daughter’s most beloved possession in a fit of rage. The parent instantly feels regret, but the damage is done. The rebellious redhead runs away. The girl seeks help from a witch, who gives her a spell that will change her destiny. But unless she fulfills a mission within a few days, the spell will turn very, very bad. After a series of inconsequential “fish out of water” scenes, the daughter must face the consequences of the spell, and her parent’s life is put in danger. The princess is rescued from peril, and in the end, the parent decides to let the daughter win the initial argument and have her way.

So that’s a bare bones plot synopsis of Brave. But perhaps it sounded familiar to you. Read it again, but this time think a little less moors of Scotland and a little more “Under the Sea.” Yep. Brave, whether it knows it or not, borrows heavily from the structure of The Little Mermaid. Of course there are some vast differences between the narratives. And perhaps in a world that recycles fairy tales and fables over and over, it’s not a big deal. But it lends some interesting ways to compare the two princesses.

Some might scoff at the notion of comparing the wily Merida to the lovesick Ariel. Merida is a creation of the modern era! Merida has more ambition than Ariel, who risks her life multiple times for a man she barely knows because of a teenage crush! But does that make Merida better? Is she someone our little girls should be looking up to any more than the spunky mermaid? First of all, the biggest difference in the stories obviously is that Ariel very much wants to be married to a particular man, where Merida is fighting her mother’s desire to place her in an arranged marriage with the winner of a tournament. On the surface, this feels like a Disney Princess victory for those weary of every princess film ending in a wedding or the promise of one. I know I am. But I couldn't help cringing at this subplot. Yes, yes of course Merida doesn't want to marry some strange man. But her argument isn’t “I’m too young” or “I don’t know any of these men” or “I don’t love any of them.” No, her major reason for not wanting to marry is that marriage is no fun and she won’t be able to shoot arrows anymore.

Seriously? Disney’s response to decades of lovesick princesses is giving us a girl who tells us that marriage is lame and you can’t follow your dreams if you get married? Please by all means have her fight for her right to wait until she’s ready and has met the right person, if that ever even happens. But to tell little girls that they might as well just throw their ambitions out the window the minute they marry a man is almost as dangerous as telling them it’s OK to put their well-being on the line for a chance to be with the man of their dreams. At least with the latter plot convention, it’s one that we also see from fairy tale men, who put themselves in peril to save the fair maiden whom they don’t know, and of course end up marrying. It’s a silly convention, but not a sexist one, and not totally insulting to every married woman on the planet.

Second is the issue of the girls’ talents. Ariel of course is gifted with a beautiful singing voice. The creators of Brave chose a less ladylike skill for Merida in archery. Fortunately the film doesn’t dwell on an obnoxious “archery is for boys” theme too much. But it also doesn’t capitalize on just how cool this talent is nearly as much as the trailers would lead you to believe. Merida wins her own hand in marriage in a tournament, but it doesn’t matter because she’s still forced to resolve the issue of which man she will marry. She catches a few fish by shooting arrows at them. And she unsuccessfully defends herself from a bear. That’s it.

You could literally delete archery from the film and it would have no consequence on the plot whatsoever … one of the biggest letdowns considering how prominently it was featured in the marketing campaigns. Plus if we’re to sympathize with her desire to shoot arrows instead of settling down, maybe the story should show how meaningful her talent really is. Meanwhile under the sea, Ariel is holding concerts that feature her singing, she wins over the man of her dreams with her voice, she uses it to barter for a spell that will change her into a different species, and it gets used in an evil plot by the sea witch to ruin Ariel’s dreams. If you delete Ariel’s talent from The Little Mermaid, you've got a big problem. One talent is clearly more dynamic, and holds more purpose, than the other. Funny enough it’s about the same point in The Little Mermaid that Ariel loses her voice as it is in Brave when Merida inexplicably stops using her bow for anything. But in The Little Mermaid, it was an important plot convention, while in Brave it was a sign of the plot taking a very tedious detour.

I’ll also mention briefly that Merida’s mother has a tremendous talent for creating tapestries. But never is that talent appreciated or appropriately acknowledged as being extraordinary. It’s merely used as a tool for Merida’s destructive behavior as she ruins one of her mother’s creations out of spite and later shoddily fixes it. Third is the maturity of the two princesses. Ariel’s father tries to change her because he believes her interest in humans is dangerous. He tries to force her hand to keep her safe. Merida’s mother tries to change her because Merida is whiny, petulant and irresponsible. She tries to force her hand to get her to grow up. Both girls resist and run away, but what they do next shows a startling difference in maturity. Ariel decides to visit Ursula the sea witch. She signs a deal that will turn her into a human. If she doesn't kiss Eric by the end of the third day, she will be turned into a nasty sea creature and banished to Ursula’s garden. Ariel agrees knowing that this is what she really wants and she’s willing to pay the consequences to get there. Merida on the other hand has no interest in displaying such willful independence. Instead Merida blames all of her woes in life on her mother and asks the witch to give her a spell that will change her mother so that she can continue to frolic and play. Without any knowledge of the spell, the girl recklessly feeds it to her mother.

The witch is so vague about what the spell will do that for all Merida knows she could be shoveling poison down her mother’s throat, killing her. But she doesn't think of that, or doesn't care, and proceeds with giddy greed, yipping at her mother with questions about canceling the arranged marriage all while the mother is clearly becoming very ill. Merida is so hell-bent that she deserves to live a certain way that she doesn't care who she hurts along the way, nor is she interested in paying the price herself to make those dreams happen on her own. Instead it’s her mother who is punished throughout the film. Certainly the mother had some things to learn about letting go of her daughter and putting her family’s needs and desires ahead of traditions. But the punishment does not fit the crime in this case, especially when Merida never faces any real consequences for her selfish, destructive and downright cruel actions toward her mother. And given that Merida’s little temper tantrum could have led to her mother’s death, I have to say I side with the queen in saying that Merida needs to grow up. Just because the mother eventually concedes on the issue of the arranged marriage does not mean she was wrong about Merida’s overall lack of direction in life.

Meanwhile Ariel has a fearful respect of her father. Yes she rebels against him, but she tries to hide that rebellion, not throw it in his face every chance she gets because she still respects him and his wishes. She fights for what she thinks is right, but doesn't try to hurt her father to get revenge. She’s horrified when her father intervenes and takes the sea witch’s curse upon himself to save her, while Merida actively asks the witch to curse her mother. Which begs the question of why the film is called Brave? Merida’s moments of bravery in the film are so fleeting and irrelevant, that the title of the film is downright confusing. It’s those around her who get hurt and show true bravery, while Merida just cleans up her own messes when she’s backed into a corner, mostly in an attempt to save herself from further trouble. One could argue that this is the tale of a girl learning the meaning of true bravery from the mother she never respected, which would be lovely. But then why does the finale feature the mother naked and humbled, with little fanfare for her being the most heroic female in the film? Instead she, and everyone else, seems satisfied with Merida simply saying she loves her mother and all is right in the world.

I would have loved to have seen more celebration of the queen, but instead the women now behave as if they are equals as a result of this ordeal. Also it would have been great to really emphasize the new, improved Merida that is born from these events. The film is so in your face about how spunky and rambunctious the princess is, yet her transition into the mature Merida is abrupt and rushed as if even the filmmakers believed that maturity equals boring. I won’t be one to defend The Little Mermaid. I know darn well that I loved that film as a child because Ariel was pretty and I liked singing along to the songs. And let’s face it, I probably would have loved Brave for the same reason (hello, red curly hair)! But in terms of Disney princesses, Ariel’s integrity, respect for her father and willingness to pay the cost for what she wants in life has Brave’s Merida beat by a long shot. And maybe those are qualities that are more important than just being really good at archery.

1 comment:

oldscrumby said...

I guess if you mention fate enough in the previews people will assume the story must be yet another "young girl defies tradition to find her true path" trope and do whatever it takes to force the film into that mold. Brave was a mother-daughter conflict story; the kind where they fight and won't listen to each other until some weird circumstance forces them into each other's roles. That whole scene where they keep flipping between Elinor talking to her husband and Merida having a one-sided conversation that shows they are
both fully aware of the reasons for the others positions and the flaws
in their own pretty much sets up that entire premise. This movie is not about Merida finding her freedom; it's about Merida and Elinor learning to communicate with each other and compromise. You're better off comparing it to Freaky Friday than Little Mermaid.


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