(Warning: This review spoils major plot points for Brave)
The marketing for Pixar’s new girl-centric film, Brave, suggests it is a movie in which a wild-haired heroine single-handedly conquers the monarchy, the patriarchy, and the myth that there are no attractive flat-heeled shoes. Feminists as much as anyone imagined that this would be the story, since so much of today’s media aimed at girls is about “empowering” young women (as if the main obstacle to women’s equality throughout most of history has been a lack of spunk, instead of eons of direct and indirect oppression based on the notion that women exist to be the trophies and helpmeets of men). Small wonder then that so many critics have emerged from the theater a bit befuddled by what they saw: the story of a young princess and her mother trying to understand each other despite their radically different approaches to life as a woman in medieval society.
Tom Carson, while praising the movie’s effectiveness, argued that the filmmakers “seem to be playing by rules that don't interest them very much and not making an especially bright job of it.” Jacyln Friedman also loved the movie but asked, “If the sparkling minds at Pixar can't imagine their way out of the princess paradigm, how can we expect girls to?” It’s hard to blame these critics for feeling a bit let down. The movie fails to present any alternatives to stifling gender roles; the lead character, Merida, is all rebellion, but she never offers any ideas for how to fix things other than a speech denouncing arranged marriages.
Still, there’s a danger in letting this disappointment blind us. For all its faults, Brave is shockingly radical for a mainstream movie. As with Wall-E before it, Brave is an example of what happens when Pixar gets political. We don’t get much in the way of imaginative alternatives to our current problems, but we do get a scathing satire that doesn’t hold back despite being in a children’s movie. Wall-E turned its satirical eye on the problem of mass consumerism and environmental destruction; the laziness and greed of the human race allows our planet become a landfill while we become formless blobs without any goals higher than being fed more sugary sodas. In the end, no real path to prevent this dystopia is suggested. Wall-E seems satisfied to go no further than biting commentary.
Brave turns that same satirical eye toward the patriarchy. In the imaginary medieval Scotland of Merida’s world, unquestioned male dominance lets men be buffoons. They spend all their time puffing out their chests and bragging about how tough they are. These men know so little outside of violent competition that the smallest upset—Merida’s unwillingness to be traded in marriage like a baseball card—nearly dissolves the kingdom in war. As in real life, men in Brave often tune out women telling them things they don’t want to hear, and Merida’s father’s reluctance to listen to his daughter almost causes him to accidentally kill his beloved wife.
Even more interesting, the filmmakers take a critical look at the way women function under male dominance. Many patriarchal societies leave the stressful job of forcing girls to comply with degrading social norms to women, especially mothers. Unlike other movies such as Real Women Have Curves, where sexism-enforcing mothers are painted as villains, Merida’s mother, Elinor, pushes her daughter to perform femininity out of love. As with mothers throughout history who have done everything from put young girls on diets to hold them down to have their clitorises removed at puberty, they are acting not out of hatred but out of a love that leads them to protect their daughters from the price of rebellion. In real life, that price is often exile; in this movie, it’s war. With stakes this high, it’s hard not to feel for a mother in such a bind.
In this grim world of male dominance, the fantasy of a single individual changing everything with a grand gesture of empowerment starts to look silly indeed. A lesser film would have made Merida’s plot to out-man the men at archery the end of the story, but this more realistic portrayal shows how individual action can make the situation worse. Only when the female characters start to work together—to take the collective action so beloved by progressive organizers—does actual change occur. In the end, Brave doesn’t have much to do with girl-power fantasies that imagine girls doing it for themselves without offering a real challenge to male privilege. But it tells a story that feels awfully familiar to those doing feminist work in the maddeningly complex real world.