-The Return of the KingEowyn, 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.