Heroism, Spotlight

Female Heroism in Pixar’s “Brave”

One day on my journey I saw the movie Brave with two friends. Kira and Tony put me up for a couple nights at a family cabin. After swimming and drinking by the lake we decided a little red-headed warrior girl would be a great addition to our evening.

I enjoyed the movie. I was surprised when Matt Langdon of the Hero Construction Company lampooned it in the Hero Report. He had two main criticisms:

  1. The main character, Merida, starts off too accomplished (a master at archery and horsemanship) so there isn’t an arc of becoming a hero.
  2. The concept of being brave enough to change your fate, supposedly the eponymous point of the movie, is hardly made at all.

Matt isn’t totally wrong here, but he misses a big chunk of what’s important (and inspirational) about the story. I think this is largely because he comes at it with a very masculine expectation of what constitutes a protagonist.

I should disclose some biases. One, I’m male myself. Two, I love Celtic culture and stories, as do Kira and Tony. We adored the setting and the little hints of Celtic and Viking society that were peppered throughout. More to the point, as someone who enjoys fencing, traveling and adventuring, I like stories about becoming a badass. Brave doesn’t deliver such a story.

But actually? That’s a breath of fresh air.

Breaking the Formula

There’s a pretty formulaic way of doing adventure movies. An initially clueless male hero discovers he has great power; he masters that power and saves the world. Since this is the archetypal hero, there was a time when feminists agitated for more females in this role (or at least, that’s what male directors heard).

Accordingly, Matt wanted Brave to use the same “become a badass” story arc but with a female hero. He cite his daughter’s poster of a female knight storming a castle as an example of what he’d like in a movie. And admittedly, that kind of female badass was really a step forward in our view of gender roles—in, like, the 1970s.

We have a pretty good stockpile of those heroines now. (Cf. Battlestar‘s Starbuck, Firefly‘s River Tam or Metroid‘s Samus, among hundreds of others—I’m leaning toward non-sexualized examples here.) This character is so common she’s become a trope, parodied by comedies like Your Highness. (heh, minotaur penis). And sure, female badasses are still outnumbered by male badasses, but the role-model-value of this trope is questionable.

Increasingly, I hear feminists criticize the female badass.* Sure, it’s nice that women are allowed to have swords and guns now, but is that the only way to be a female hero? Do heroines really have to give up all pretense at femininity and occupy a traditionally male role? Are tomboys the only successful females our daughters are allowed to see?

What if a girl likes princesses and ribbons—can she be heroic, too?

*Readers: I now can’t find the feminist articles I had in mind here. Anybody have a link to a good one?

Brave gives us a heroine who is torn between these worlds. Merida wants to shoot arrows and ride in the woods, which she only does once near the beginning. To Matt this is a shame: why can’t she use these skills throughout the movie to change her fate? But she tries to use these skills—and discovers that badassery can’t always change power structures or one girl’s fate.

The reason Merida begins as a badass is the same reason Luke Skywalker begins as a farmer. Neither the archery in Brave nor the vaporators in Star Wars are going to be enough to save the day. The hero has to find new skills to achieve their goal.

Merida’s goal is not to be married off to some lug her parents choose. Instead of shooting her way to freedom, she ends up having to rely on a mixture of traditionally masculine and feminine talents, including her outdoors skills, ancient magic, deception, a jail breakout and, unprecedented, accepting the advice of her mother. 

Merida’s character changes substantially over the film. She goes from a badass but selfish/clueless teenager to a real adult. She learns to establish her personal freedom without ditching her responsibilities to others.

That’s a pretty impressive change. It echoes Sarah from The Labyrinth more than it does Katniss Everdeen, thank the gods.

Matt closes by summing up what he disliked:

…It’s a cliché against another cliché. Her mother wanted her to be a Disney princess, but she wanted to be a Disney prince.

Unrealistic parental expectations versus unrealistic childhood dreams? Sounds believable to me.

Merida’s arc is to overcome both extremes in favor of a successful, realistic adult life. This is a major departure from Campbellian story structure, so it’s a bold move for Hollywood—and it’s long overdue.

Have any of you seen this movie? Is Merida a good role model for girls? Is she a hero? Was the story good?

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37 thoughts on “Female Heroism in Pixar’s “Brave”

  1. I saw the movie shortly after it came out and I liked it.

    I think, however, that perhaps you and Matt missed the part that “Brave” refers too. It isn’t about being brave enough to change your fate. That part was easy, and accomplished early in the movie.

    The brave part was about admitting you were wrong.

    If you think about this, the entire movie is about admitting you’re wrong and trying to make up for it when you make a mistake. Merri easily changes her fate through will alone (and out willing a witch). The part that isn’t so easy is fixing it and restoring her mother. Her mother goes through the entire beginning of the movie trying to crush Merri’s dreams and make her a proper princess (one gets the impression the same may have happened to her in her youth) and after being transformed has to change and admit she was wrong to do so. And her father has to admit in the end that his blind hatred for all things bear was kind of a bad idea after he practically kills his wife. It’s only after Merri and her mother both admit they were wrong and work together to make it right with each other, They had to be brave not only to admit to themselves they were wrong to act the way they did, They had to be brave to admit it to each other. They had to be brave to face the perils that needed to be overcome in order to make it right.

    The fact that Merri is a bad ass doesn’t detract for me. See, I’m kinda tired of the “becoming a badass” stories. They’re good, and classic, but most of the time it seems stories lead up to “becoming a bad ass” and just end. You never get to really see what a bad ass has to face after he (or she) is a bad ass. (on a related note I sometimes wonder if our higher divorce rate isn’t partially due to movies and tv series constantly running the romance plots till the characters get married, and then stop, as if that was the end of the story, rather than showing examples of happy, successful, loving marriages).

    And, while I know I might sound sexist here, the idea of the Brave part being about admitting you were wrong is almost as important a lesson to girls as learning to stand up for yourselves and others is to boys. Women have a great deal of trouble admitting they are wrong (at least all the one’s I’ve ever dealt with). But this is an important part of life, to be able to do so. If you can’t admit you were wrong, you can’t fix your mistakes. Or you blame others for them and all your problems, but never admit your own fault. And then people are irrevocably hurt (just as Merri’s Mom would have stayed a bear, though often not quite that badly).

    That is the true quest of Brave.

    • If you think about this, the entire movie is about admitting you’re wrong and trying to make up for it when you make a mistake. Merri easily changes her fate through will alone (and out willing a witch). The part that isn’t so easy is fixing it and restoring her mother.

      This is spot on. Wow, I hadn’t thought of it this way. But when you point it out, I totally agree.

      admitting you were wrong is almost as important a lesson to girls as learning to stand up for yourselves and others is to boys. Women have a great deal of trouble admitting they are wrong (at least all the one’s I’ve ever dealt with).

      You could replace “girls” “boys” and “women” with humans, I think.

      • True, it is very much a human failing to not admit we are wrong. But if you think about it, the entire issue started because neither Merri or her Mother would admit they were wrong. And in an argument, which gender is always wrong, and which is “never’ wrong. ;)

        • I don’t believe this is biological, but I do accept that how we socialize our children (gender roles) has an effect on what strengths or weaknesses they are most likely to have.

          But about admitting wrongness… I think women are told they are wrong constantly, and are expected to bear it. Men on the other hand are told it’s okay to disagree and argue back.

          So yes, there definitely is a trope that men say “yes dear” and women are “always right,” but that doesn’t necessarily correspond in a realistic way to how often each gender actually backs down or admits wrongness.

    • Beth says:

      Took the words right out of my mouth about the bravery of changing your perspective, though I disagree about women being told they are always right. I’m with Drew’s comments below on that one.

      The other thing I liked is that in the end, when the conflict had been resolved, we drop both the cliches. Why does the heroine have to hate seeing and dresses in order to rail against an arranged marriage and being subservient to her husband? The most powerful part to me was the sign that the change of heart in both mother and daughter was sincere. They both became more complete people, freed from characterizations.

  2. I went to see Brave with my 5 year old granddaughter and her father, my son. We really enjoyed the movie. My granddaughter loves the outdoors. Living on a rural piece of land that is on the edge of a thousand acre nature preserve gives her plenty of opportunity for adventures exploring with her Dad, and playing in the woods. SHe loved the action and the adventure of the movie , and identified with the desire to ride a horse (she wants to take riding lessons next year) in the woods. I loved the fact that the movie stresses Merida’s courage, and without the need for her to be an amazonian type of Zena Warrior Chick. At age 5 my granddaghter has her own tree house and a fort in the woods. She also loves jewelry and collects bottles of perfume. It was great to see a princess that could hold her own without having to take on all the male hero stereotypical gender traits.

  3. I like the others saw it as a breath of fresh air. For awhile now I have wondered where the feminine heroes have gone. Either you have to become male to succeed on a journey or you have to give yourself over fully and loose yourself (See Twilight, you can agree with me or not but at the end of the day she saves everyone she loves. Bella just had to give up her identity for that of Edward’s to do it. Sorry for bringing up the Twilight.) in order to be a heroine. It’s sad to realize that generations of girls that are to come will have a very shallow pool to pull from in literature for heroine role models.

    Also, I liked that it was not only Physical Bravery but Emotional Bravery. That she had to over come herself (both mother and daughter) just as much as her environment. All in all I loved the movie and am glad that Pixar decided to tell the story.

  4. B.J.G. says:

    Changeing your fate…I think Brave is more about the idea that changeing the people around you isn’t the thing that CHANGES YOUR FATE. Its when YOU CHANGE that your fate begins to change. You may not have control over the circumstance you’re in, but you do have control over what you decide to think & do.

  5. Lynn says:

    I can’t believe I still haven’t seen this movie yet! I blame college and being poor…

    Anyway, I am now very interested in that article you wanted to link. I too have been annoyed that the only way for a girl to be a hero or stand out is if she murders her femininity.

    • {Triggers ahead:}

      One of the best ones I read also linked it to the raped heroine trope. Like the only reason comic book writers can think of for a woman to be badass is if she was raped and wants revenge (against her rapist, against all men). So not only is it a very narrow niche for females to become heroes, it also has disturbing rape culture associations.

    • Also, I feel a little bad for spoiling the movie for you. Maybe I should have put a spoiler warning at the top. I figured that the title of the article implied spoilage, however :)

  6. “Sure, it’s nice that women are allowed to have swords and guns now, but is that the only way to be a female hero? Do heroines really have to give up all pretense at femininity and occupy a traditionally male role? Are tomboys the only successful females our daughters are allowed to see?”

    Nail, meet head. :) We saw the movie with our son and we all had a great time. I found the story that’s *not* advertised to be the best one, the relationship between the two women. How often does a Disney character, male or female, have BOTH parents still alive to grow with and learn from? Not very often. However, I fear that if this movie had been billed honestly, that it was a mother/daughter story, it would’ve tanked.

    • Arden says:

      The parent problem is bigger than Disney, though. In order for a kid to have an adventure you have to remove their power over the situation, or the kid, somehow. That’s why you get so many orphan stories, imho.

      • True. The trope of a hero with no parents or mysterious origins goes all the way back to ancient times. Goes hand in hand with the “individual outside of the social order” theme.

  7. Rua Lupa says:

    I honestly have yet to watch it (don’t have access to it yet). But I agree to the premise of your post. I’m personally for gutting and ditching the words masculine and feminine all together – they don’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things.

    Everyone wants to look ‘pretty’ but we don’t need societal boxes to fit into to determine what is pretty and what is not – what is usually considered a feminine trait. But all genders can look pretty in their own way – what ever makes them feel beautiful. Some cis-women want to be pretty but in different ways which don’t have to be ‘princess’ oriented, and some do want that posh princess look. But I often wonder if it is only wanted because it is an expectation of what is pretty, or is it a reaction in opposition to what is expected – in other words, is it what you really want? This is one reason I like MLP:FIM (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic) each character has their own way of looking and feeling good, and being themselves. Each quite different from the other, but none better than the other. They are also very independent and strong in their own way – a typically ‘masculine’ feature that need not be masculine. Looking attractive and being strong in character need not be separate.

    What I would like to see in future heroes in movies is a diverse flavor of self reliant, capable people – each with their own quirks. Much like Firefly i.e. Wash was married to a “warrior woman” that kept him safe from harm – a nice couple quirk. But Wash was very capable in his own way too that his wife Zoe couldn’t accomplish. Each character having their own strength to contribute, but also their own weaknesses that force them to support one another in order to be successful – team work. One person can’t do everything by themselves. Its a network of people that supports the whole. Most everything we use has been through the hands of a large number of people in order for you to have it. We would be fooling ourselves to think that we can actually do everything on our own. Not saying that we couldn’t support ourselves from scratch – but the vast majority of us don’t have the skill set to do that. This is where traditional roles in a community/culture come in. Even the hunter gatherers didn’t have every skill in their community, although they could learn most of it. Clothing, basket and pottery making was done by one group of people, while hunting and tool making was traditionally done by the another. Being unusual for them to over lap. Not necessarily being masculine or feminine, it was a simplified way of dividing up tasks and skills to support each other. In modern times this would be more based on interest and merit. So should modern characters in movies be.

    • I’m personally for gutting and ditching the words masculine and feminine all together – they don’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things.

      See, that’s the agony of these words – they do actually mean something, something very specific and very powerful. Both words evoke a constellation of meanings that is highly poetic and easy to quickly understand. Unfortunately, among those meaning each one is hard-tied to one biological sex.

      That’s foundational to the concepts, so it won’t be going away anytime soon. Which is a shame because it sure would be handy if I could say “they use such masculine brush strokes” or “fabrics with very feminine patterns” and not attach male or female sex to the subject.

      Since that’s impossible, I guess I too am in favor of just ditching the words.

      What I would like to see in future heroes in movies is a diverse flavor of self reliant, capable people – each with their own quirks.

      I’ll probably do a post about this soon, but that’s another HUGE genre of heroic story that doesn’t fit Campbell at all: the “small group of dedicated people” model of heroism. Firefly is certainly a great example, and so is virtually all Japanese RPGs and much of anime. This model, of a group of (sometimes uneasy, always imperfect) friends against the world, has gripped my generation and has a profound influence on how we think about heroism.

      With that said, I will say that the Classical concept of a hero is almost always a transfunctional person who is, in fact, quite capable on their own; and you’l certainly recognize the parallel of Lugh in that. Myth aside, I think a hero needs to be as broadly skilled as possible and, while they may not be omnicompetent, even in stories from hunter-gatherer societies the hero is usually at least more broadly competent than average.

      • Arden says:

        ” This model, of a group of (sometimes uneasy, always imperfect) friends against the world, has gripped my generation and has a profound influence on how we think about heroism.”

        OMG. Yes. Abso-fucking-lutely. It’s partially an 80s thing too, I think, there were lots of shows to that effect (Captain Planet, etc) then– and of course superhero teams which appeared far earlier… hmm. On second thought, it’s not just 80s, it’s kind of an “episodic story format” thing. Ragtag teams lend themselves to extended character development, story arcs, etc. You can’t do that in a huge one-shot Campbellian type story.

        Friendship is a huge component of my personal adventure mythos, but it didn’t occur to me how specific to our generation it is, in some ways. Awesome.

      • “I think a hero needs to be as broadly skilled as possible and, while they may not be omnicompetent, even in stories from hunter-gatherer societies the hero is usually at least more broadly competent than average.”

        Which definitionally means that a more broadly skilled person is more likely to be the right person in any given “right place/right time” scenario.

        Having more broad skills only makes the capability of being a hero more possible, but is not needed to be a hero.

        Totally agree. As usual though the project of this blog and of my exploits in particular is to discover the most effective way to develop people toward heroism – and since being multiskilled seems to enbiggen one’s chances then it’s a rather important factor.

            • Rua Lupa says:

              I almost wish I did. I think it was a lack of sleep and many distractions. I think I’ll refrain from commenting late at night anymore and wait until the next day. :S

                • Rua Lupa says:

                  Rua the next morning doesn’t compute previous night’s exploits and would rather keep such activities to less permanent and public places. Its my version of a hangover. But does enjoy late night game nights with friends – far more private and less likely to be brought up again. Unless it becomes material for run on jokes – then there is no mercy :D I’ll see if I can learn my limit for now though, since I enjoy entertaining ^_^

      • Rua Lupa says:

        What I would like to see in future heroes in movies is a diverse flavor of self reliant, capable people – each with their own quirks.

        With that I didn’t exactly mean always a team, but quirky capable individuals like how the 2012 movie on Captain America in the early part of the film – I had hoped that he would stay that way because he had the wit to think outside the box that was great – a skill that was forgotten later in the film which should of remained held high as valuable. That was the point I was trying to make. We don’t always need the buff and strong for heroes. Heroes come in all shapes, sizes and ways of doing. Its the unconventional heroes that I cheer for the most, especially when they are more ‘normal’ than superhuman. And to make them feel more human is to give that character something that is unique to them as a human – like a strange habit, or a favorite/signature way of going about a certain situation. Which brings me to mind of certain captains or sergeants in war movies whose character brings a side smile to your lips. Much like the feel you get from bromances as the two characters play off of one another, teasing each other for their oddness i.e. Men in Black, Bad Boys, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, 2009 film of Sherlock Holmes, etc. The last two especially because they were doing things that were quite believable and not over the top sci-fi or action.

  8. I enjoyed Brave. I liked that Merida didn’t allow circumstance to stop her from the life she sought, save for total disobedience of her parents’ wishes. I find I usually feel this way about Disney princesses; they persevere but always dismiss their parents. Now, absolutely there is a place for such dismissal and rejection of direction. However, I do not want my children, or anyone else’s children, learning that when one disobeys one’s parents and ends up in great peril, one will live happily ever after with everything one wants.

  9. Pingback: Merida Does Not Wear Make-Up « Tricialo

  10. Pingback: Kick-Ass Heroes – No! Make that Kick-Ass Heroines | Kim Koning

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