23 June, 2012
Review: Brave by Pixar
I saw Brave in a group of six people. Three adults, three kids. Of the adults, two have an abuse background. Of the kids - well that's for them to decide, isn't it? Anyway, the children and one adult proclaimed Brave "Heartfelt, life affirming family fun." No really, someone said that. The other two adults hated it for different reasons. The first adult felt Brave was antifeminist, normalized domestic violence, telegraphed it's intentions, lacked charm and changed characters to suit the needs of the plot. The other adult was vaguely traumatized and wished walking out halfway through had been an option. But the rendering was cool.
For me, Brave failed on every level. (Since this will make me the least popular reviewer on the internet, I'm going to explain why in detail. You might want to see the film first then come back, because I will be talking about all major plot points.) We meet Merida in the traditional pre-titles happy family opening sequence. Then a bear ruins it all. Instead of semi-orphaning Merida as one might expect, the bear just traumatizes her father. He has bear issues. It's like, his thing. Merida's father wants her to be able to take care of herself, despite being a Princess. (The faux Scots things is all over Brave but I will leave that for someone else.) Merida's mother, who wears her hair tightly bound and extra long to show her feminine strength, wants Merida to play the dulcimer and meet the domestic pinnacles of princessdom she herself holds. In what is meant to be a send up of princess culture, Merida's mom rattles off all those traditional values while Merida rolls her eyes. Too bad the film undermines that. To begin with, Merida's father dwarfs The Incredible Hulk. Merida's mother is a slight and beautiful wisp. So the only thing Merida gets from her father is her hair. A hulking muscle bound Princess? Please. Merida's mother even complains that Merida overeats, because a Princess has an eating disorder. It's ok. Merida really only eats the occasional apple. Her plate of cookies is just for show. And her brothers. They can eat what they want because, you know, boys.
Mostly Merida's mom is just impatient with her willful teenage daughter. Things don't boil over until Merida's mother announces that the clans have been invited to compete for Merida's hand in marriage. Merida understandably balks at this announcement. Her mother tells her not to be silly, it's just marriage. Even she was nervous when she was handed off. Let's take a second here. Merida's appetite is unacceptable. Her physical prowess is unacceptable. Pimping her out to the neighbors is just fine. (Traditional family values for the win.) Merida attempts to use the traditional rules of the firstborn being able to compete for the hand of the princess to circumvent the bartering of her sexuality for social order. This infuriates her mother. Repeatedly Merida is told she doesn't know what she's done. Unless someone is allowed to marry her (read, have nonconsensual sex with her for life) the kingdoms will go to war. This message is repeatedly driven home to Merida in a number of ways. Without the Queen's calming and stoic voice controlling them the men fall into violent chaos. Without the right to marry Merida, conflict breaks out. The only thing holding these base animal men back is the dulcet and accepting tones of a confined woman. Okay then.
Moving on from the landmine of sex trafficking and young girls, we encounter Merida's plan to save herself. She runs off to cry. That's about it. She yells at her mother, and storms out. She doesn't set out to lead her own life. She doesn't open an archery school. She doesn't take a meaningful step toward independence because that is what a boy would do. Girls flounce. The magic of the forest leads her to a Miyazaki style crone in the woods who sells her a way to poison her beloved mother. To be fair to Merida, the bear obsessed witch never says the word poison. Neither does Merida. She wants to change her mother (not herself) and thus change her fate. She doesn't want independence or a solution - she wants to control her controlling mother and thus alter in some unspecified and therefore clearly unimportant way, her future. The witch is like hey, I did this once before and it really didn't work out so well but if you're paying, I'm playing. Merida tricks her mother into eating the poisoned cake. Her mother promptly turns into a bear. Wow! A bear! (Hey wasn't there another bear at the start of this movie?) Merida is like, I didn't ask for a bear. I just asked a complete stranger to feed mind altering chemicals to my mom so she'd stop being such a drag. WTF, bear?
The point of the bear is twofold. The first is for Merida to show her mother that the life skills she gained from her father were not useless. The second is to normalize domestic violence. Merida quickly realizes that since her mother is a bear, if her father sees her she will be murdered. This is all Merida's fault. If she had just let herself be pimped out, none of this would have happened. Later, Merida's mother attacks her and lays open her arm. Merida assures her regretful mother that it is Merida's fault. If Merida hadn't acted so hastily and foolishly, her mother wouldn't have hurt her. (That's right kids, it's always your fault.) Merida's father sees the torn clothes of Merida's mother and decides the bear has eaten her. The only way to avenge her death is to kill the bear. The bear that is actually his wife. If you change to the point that your husband doesn't recognize you (although all four of your children do) he will kill you (because he loves you so much) and it will be your daughter's fault. Men are scary irrational creatures women barely hold in check and upsetting that balance has terminal consequences. Merida has to keep her mother alive, control her massive father, keep the kingdom from going to war, and apologize about fifty times. If she had only been a little bit skinnier and a little bit sluttier none of this would be happening.
Of course it is through her brains and her brawn that Merida wins the day and saves the kingdom, right? Well, not so much. Mostly it is through accepting her fate. Merida apologizes a bunch more and demurely walks into a crowd of warring men to use her placid feminine voice to calm them and agree to marry at once so no one has to die. Her mother, still a bear, has seen that Merida holds more value than her stone face and untouched vagina, so she intervenes by giving Merida permission to refuse the marriage. Well, sort of. Merida postpones the marriage by suggesting that free will be given in the choosing of sex partners. No one is really into this until the young men agree that maybe they don't want to sleep with Merida either. The fathers agree that Merida will be courted by the sons and choose one later, maybe after falling in love, thus deferring the still planned upon matrimonial ending. Or course her mother is still a bear and her father still wants to kill her. Merida has to rush upstairs and do some sewing (really) run after her enraged father, fight him off to defend her mother, then cry an awful lot and beg her mother's forgiveness. You see, Merida's mom has always been there for her. All she asked of Merida was one little thing (her entire life) and Merida was so ungrateful that she refused, poisoned her, and brought the kingdom to ruin. If only Merida had just done what was expected of her everyone would be safe and her father wouldn't murder her mother or brothers.
Well, I feel empowered, how about you?
Merida breaks the curse, the other bear is revealed (and defeated) the kingdom is happy, etc. Merida's mother learns to let her hair down a bit (literally) Merida learns her proper place, and with his women returned to their roles the king settles down and doesn't kill anyone. Along the way some small children dig around in a buxom maid's breasts and millions of young girls learn valuable lessons. You can be whoever you want, as long as you have permission. Control over your own body is granted by others. Strength is nice to have, but it's not what really counts in the end. Love means always having to say you're sorry. They wouldn't hurt you if you weren't so difficult. It really is your fault. Crying can totally solve things.
I have long defended Disney's Princesses. I will make a case for the ability to be empowered by any of their willowy young beauty queens. I have to make an exception for Merida. That chick is toxic and so is her whole movie. Thankfully the youngest girl in our group said "Ok, I don't see why Merida had to say she was sorry though." There's hope for the next generation.