Monday, June 25, 2012

More Bravery from Pixar

"Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?" "A time may come soon," said [Aragorn], "when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised." And [Eowyn] answered, "All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death." "What do you fear, lady?" he asked. "A cage," she said, "To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire."
-The Return of the King
Eowyn, in the guise of Dernhelm, later plays a crucial role in the battle for Minas Tirith. In fact, it is explicitly her rejection of Theoden's gender expectations that allows her to be present at the pivotal moment. She puts on a man's armor and deepens her voice; she actually appropriates masculinity in order to fulfill her destiny. It's doubtful that Mr. Tolkien was intentionally commenting on gender construction in The Lord of the Rings; nevertheless, Eowyn's transformation stands out in a book that is otherwise rife with silent women who sit on the sidelines.

I couldn't help but think of Eowyn, then, while I was watching Pixar's latest entry, Brave. Merida, the spunky, willful princess of an ostensibly Scottish kingdom, resents the obligation that is thrust on her in the form of an arranged marriage. A series of fantastic obstacles threaten the kingdom, but Merida, along with her loving but overbearing mother, manages to save the day and even avoid marriage.

I found myself pleasantly surprised by the unorthodox story. Like most people who have seen any movie in the genre, I expected the typical, Disney princess-encounters-conflict-only-to-fall-in-love-with-prince story. Instead, Brave gives us a strong, female character who isn't punished by the plot for wanting a different future for herself.

Even in the most beloved fairy tales, strong heroines are only at the helm of their fate until they find the right man. Suddenly, then, they become supporting characters in their own stories. Ariel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White...they all were made complete by an archetypal, masculine prince. While there isn't anything intrinsically wrong with that narrative, I wonder why there aren't any other options for damsels; must they always be in distress? And if in distress, can none save themselves?

In Brave, we are treated to a refreshingly feminist take on fairy tales. The two women, Merida and her mother, seem to have everything under control while the bumbling men nearly destroy themselves in their thirst for violence. The two women overcome a series of dangers and their damaged relationship just in time to rescue the kingdom from threats within and without; all the while the men sit around boasting and cavorting.

What is incomprehensible to me is the great number of reviews (particularly the Top Critics portion of Rotten Tomatoes) that panned the movie for being too "safe". On the contrary, Brave presents a highly irregular and, if anyone dared to take it seriously, potentially controversial position on the question of how gender is constructed. The message to the little girls in the audience: it's ok if you don't want to be a girly princess who becomes complete once a man solves your inadequacy. I can imagine a more conservative, "boys should act like boys and girls should act like girls" perspective that would see Brave as a perverse redefinition of femininity.

I suspect that most girls, regardless of the shape of their formative years, will probably always imagine themselves as beautiful princesses who will one day be swept off their feet by a prince on a white steed. They'll play dress-up and have tea parties and eventually fall in love and get married. All of those things are wonderful, truly. But for those little girls who long for a different story, for those girls who pine after the "chance of doing great deeds," it's nice to know that there is at least one fairy tale that gives color to their dreams.


  1. I read Ebert, O'hehir, and the Times. Despite what Rotten Tomatoes gave it for freshness, it seems everyone said mostly the same thing: It's good, perhaps really good, just not great. And we expect great from Pixar. Semi-imaginative remakes and sequels of Michael J. Fox vehicles notwithstanding, this is the first Pixar film to score less than 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. To paraphrase Dargis of the Times, they seem to find the plot more melodramatic than mythopoetic. Interestingly, some also seem to find the film's notions of feminism too narrow and simplistic. In Ebert's words, "'Brave' seems at a loss to deal with [Merida] as a girl and makes her a sort of honorary boy." What's your take, John? Everyone seems to agree that it's depiction of a strong, young female protagonist/heroine is good, but does it have the depth to function as myth?

  2. Since when does myth have depth? By its very nature, myth deals in broad strokes with necessarily familiar motifs and situations. I think that's why it's so easy to dress it up in a modern vernacular and setting.

    After reading Dargis' piece, I admit that the centrality of sewing smacks of tradition. I maintain, though, that Merida's happy ending is shockingly original. How often does a young, female protagonist not end up with the boy? I can't think of another example.

    I also think the whimsical nature of Merida's archery and daily journeys speaks more to her youth than her gender. But her desire for independence isn't the notion of a silly, little girl; on the contrary, it is central to the movie's position on gender. We would typically expect a young heroine to buck the system and whine about duty..only to happily embrace it at the end after a grueling, eye-opening learning process. Instead, though, Merida gets exactly what she dreamed about - and it's a victory.

    It's not surprising that seasoned film critics would fail to pick up on that which is 'blindingly' original. Ebert's words bare this out: she can't be the way she is and still be a girl. She must be a tomboy. But that's precisely what the movie wants to paint: a acceptable alternative to what it means to be a woman.

  3. Depth was probably a misleading word to use. Myth, I think, must resonate strongly with culture to be myth. Yes, this deals with familiarity, but I think it also entails symbolism and archetype. One thinks of Lucas and his reliance on Joseph Campbell's study of the hero. Like Tolkien and Lewis, these are the sorts of tales that I so greatly love and treasure. Your comparison to Eowyn suggests, perhaps, that you see a similar archetypical/heroic significance in Merida? That Brave *does,* in fact, function as mythopoesis?