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A “Brave” Heroine: Comparing the Newest Disney Princess to the Old

Merida, the heroine of the newly-released Pixar-Disney film, Brave, has a mane of red 

hair that seems to have a mind of its own. As does Merida, who has merited kudos from film critics for being a “non-traditional” heroine and a totally new kind of Disney princess.

I just saw the film this weekend, as it has recently opened in Britain and is only showing (at least in Oxford) during the day.  From the scheduling, it would appear that the film should be evaluated from a child’s perspective, but there were no children in the audience at the Odeon George Street during the showing I attended.  Such an audience profile suggests further that the film is of interest beyond the need to keep children entertained until school starts up again.

Some of the interest, of course, lies in the extraordinary artwork, as CGI films and other “new technology” treatments continue to break boundaries and inspire admiration on a purely visual basis.  And, as is usually the case with both Pixar and Disney animated features, the characters are charming.

But the story is rather flat.  Nevertheless, I would agree that Brave and Merida represent an important milestone.  Why is that? As an expert on Disney princesses (I don’t care who knows that I have always loved them–except for Snow White’s incredibly silly voice–and brought my two daughters up to do the same), I feel uniquely qualified to offer an opinion on this.

But I had to think carefully about exactly what is different about Merida and her story. Her primary attribute–other than the hair–is her skill as an archer.  And she certainly is a fighter.  But we have had female warriors in television and film for many years now, from Xena to Lara Croft to Kill Bill.  Still, this movie is aimed at children and it is Disney, so having a young girl distinguished in even the most feminine example of warfare is significant.  And the fact that she does actually fight the villain, not just find the magic amulet or entreat the prince to help her, makes this a clear departure from past Disney fare.

Interestingly, the most exhilarating moment in the film, the one I think will impress little girls most, is a brief sequence where Merida romps off astride her wonderful horse Angus, shooting arrows at improbable targets while speeding through the forest.  Her joy at her own virtuosity is contagious, inspires emulation, and is a long way from the usual Cinderella type, who takes her biggest thrill from dancing with the prince (or cuddling off on the back of his horse).  In fact, it is important that Merida is not presented as a beauty at all and the gathering in her father’s hall is more conducive to fleas than fairies.

The absence of a handsome male counterpart to the heroine is also important.  I can see that there was a key transition with Ariel, of The Little Mermaid, in terms of overall attitude and her mission to challenge to her culture’s tradition.  And certainly Disney princesses since then have come in an array of colors and ethnicities that rival Barbie’s many forms. But all the past Disney princesses have had a love interest of some sort.

That narrative element is absent in Brave.  Indeed, the three princes who present themselves as suitors are hilariously depicted as medieval Scotland’s version of “the lad,” all of them  stupid and surly and emphatically unattractive.  Merida argues they, too, should have the chance to choose a mate with their hearts, but her gambit is clearly aimed at getting out of the obligation to marry any of these distasteful fellows, though the romantic sentiment is consistent with past Disney stories.

In the end, Merida rides off into the sunset with–her mother!  And here is where more of the difference between Brave and, say, Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, can be discerned. In Brave, the heroine’s biological mother is not only a key character, but shares the role of “heroine” with her daughter.  She is neither the evil queen/stepmother of the Disney fairy tales nor the absent/dead/irrelevant biological mother of these same tales.

Instead, the Queen in Brave is clearly intended to be the loving, but sometimes controlling mother most of us had in real life.  And the task before Merida is not really the choice of her mate, but the more central one all growing girls must master, that of differentiating from her mother without losing the relationship.  Few of us negotiate this major life challenge without tears and tantrums.

But Merida’s identity crisis inadvertantly turns her mother into a bear.  There are some silly narrative moments that come from this twist in the plot, but two emotional flashpoints go a long way toward explaining why this is a different kind of Disney story.

The first is when the bear-mother slips far enough into “bear-ness” to physically threaten her daughter.  In those few seconds, we can see into the real danger that does sometimes erupt in the mother-daughter struggle and the potential for every woman, even our own parent, to be a monster.  It is not a sentimental insight–and it is a long way from Bambi’s mother going down in a forest fire.

The second is when the real villain is threatening to kill Merida.  Suddenly, we see the raging bear-mother, lashing out with the kind of visceral intention to destroy any threat to her young that is typical of animal mothers of all kinds.  I myself felt the pulse of it.  (My husband said later, “I thought to myself, ‘Linda will love this.'”) In that flash of violent intent, we see the mother-as-protector, a phenomenon that is, actually, seldom replaced by a mate.

I think it is of major importance that Merida and her mother fight and kill the main villain while every other male character in the film stands by watching, with their mouths hanging open, apparently too scared to move.  There is no hero who comes to the rescue.  These ladies are on their own.  And their coordinated fight to the death is definitely not the usual Disney thing.  If there is a villain to be killed, it’s in the prince’s job description.

Last June, I was in rural Uganda waiting out a rainstorm when a priority-flagged email came to my Blackberry from my youngest daughter, Liza, who is 25 with her own mind and her own mane of red hair.  She wrote to say I must go see this new movie, Brave, that had just opened in the US.  She had just seen it, thought of me, and cried.  She wrote that it reminded her of me, not because I had been like this mother (though I did identify with the protect-the-child-from-all-who-approach bear-mother), but because I had allowed her to be herself.

This, of course, made me feel very good (and I cried a few tears myself).  I do think I was better at letting my kids find themselves than many.  However, it is not true that she and I did not struggle, even once or twice violently, with each other.  We are both strong characters and we fought to find a way to be mother and daughter, but not clones.  Or enemies doomed to fence with spindles or slip each other poison apples.

In fact, when you think about it, the Disney princesses of the old fairy tales were struggling with the same issue.  Their mothers became witches once they themselves stood on the threshold of womanhood, suddenly presenting a rival as the “fairest of them all” or whatever.  These monster mothers locked the other Disney princesses in towers or kitchens and it took a prince to free them.  But Merida frees herself, albeit in a start-and-stop, awkward kind of way that does not exactly end where she intended to go.  So this Disney girl is doing it for herself in the most basic way:  she struggles with the crux of the story and does not wait for a knight to ride in and rescue her from what really is her own stuff.

I think it is that exhilarating and charming peek down the path of individuation that will give Brave its impact on many would-be Meridas.  I think it was Brave‘s ability to evoke the danger and lure of that path toward separation and destiny that captured Liza’s heart and my attention. And it is a very different kind of “happily ever after” than Disney princesses have ever had.


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