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?