by Jessica Mason McFadden
Brave, Disney-Pixar’s newly released fantasy adventure film, features two female protagonists struggling within the strictures and dynamics of 10th century life in the Scottish highlands. Before seeing the film, I was told it was about a kick-ass princess.
After seeing the film, I read feminist and other reviews that essentially made similar claims: that the film succeeded at, failed at or partially succeeded at portraying a kick-ass princess. But Brave, while possessing its kick-ass princess moments, is not simply about a princess. It’s about relationships, the central one being a mother-daughter relationship. I did not take away a linear or single-character focus from this film; what I took away was a lesson on communication – an in depth exploration, with sociological and psychological underpinnings, of the ways we relate to ourselves and each other.
Bravery is not something over which feminists, warriors, feminist warriors or any other single group has ownership; bravery ethereally belongs to humanity as a sort of magical force that propels us toward action and progress. The film was complex, confusing and off-track at times because of it, but necessarily complex because that is the nature of relating. Since the film was not just about the journey of ONE character, but about the journey of relating, a spectral approach was essential.
One of the major feminist feats of this film was its (at times chaotic) inclusivity. One cannot, or at least it seems so to me, consider the state of one of the protagonists without also considering the state of the other.
Pixar’s mostly-man team did do something different with this film – they took the heteronormative institution of marriage and used it as the vehicle through which personhood and belonging could be explored. While marriage and tradition are the surface issue with which Queen Elinor and Princess Merida struggle, their struggles and their bond with one another are much deeper than that.
The intense and complex nature of their relating to one another and to the world keeps the marriage issues on the periphery of the film. Marriage is the issue, acceptance is at the heart. Both mother and daughter are prisoners to convention, in their own unique ways. Each struggles with convention individually and both struggle with it collectively.
(Warning: spoilers ahead)
Just as duality is a theme and carrier for the greater messages in Brave, Elinor and Merida face two paths in the course of their relating: to move away from one another because of differences or to relate despite differences. Listening, one of the major themes in the film, is the key to learning – and learning is the key to relating. Elinor does not listen to Merida until she becomes a bear and is unable to talk; Merida, likewise, must listen to what her mother is not saying in order to understand her.
In taking the journey to repair their familial bond, they have to listen in order to survive. Elinor learns to listen to herself, her own impulses, in order to survive and Merida learns to look outside of herself and listen to the heart, the good intentions inside, of her mother. Brave throws us around and confuses our ability to put things, like characters and people, in their places. It’s a gray space film. It is the gray in each character, and in their manners of relating, that saves the day.
Individual growth cannot happen without simultaneous community growth. In the film the growth of the family is accompanied by the growth in the relationship between the clans. This isn’t shown as well as it could have been, and the barbaric nature of the clansmen mentality and manner of relating still leaves a lot to be desired.
The last-minute connection between family and clan serves its purpose plot-wise and provides a small window of opportunity in which more global idealistic connections can be made about how to overcome our self-protective warring impulses as humans.
As for the role of the witch and magic in the film, they also serve a purpose in supporting lessons on relating – first and foremost that there are no easy solutions when it comes to mending challenging relationships. Escapism, an impulse driven by a kind of magical thinking, is not without suffering.
Elinor and Merida, together, had to struggle inwardly and externally in order to find a common ground. It was not enough for Merida to rely solely on herself, her survival instincts or her fighting skills and it was not enough for Elinor to rely on convention; they had to rely on each other and to take action when action was needed. Listening required their openness, and it was the laying down of their defenses that allowed them to trust each other and work together. A lot can be said about the power of diplomacy in contrast to the reactive power of weaponry.
Finally, and of particular interest to self-identified feminists, Brave fearlessly but indirectly asserts that gender convention is a major cause of familial discord. This is where Brave gets really interesting. When we do not fit easily into a traditional gender framework, into any gender framework of any tradition, we can easily become outsiders to both our families and ourselves.
Those trying to uphold traditional values in the face of change and progress are caught up in as much of an inner struggle as are those who cannot fit into its framework. Bravery is not just for the transgressor, it is for the whole family. Progress is a family affair. A community affair. Bravery is facing the reality that change is not instantaneous, that it does not occur in a vacuum.
Brave is about the fluid nature of change, which requires the qualities that both mother and daughter discover within themselves during the film: patience and action. Reserve and patience might fit into a traditional gender role for women while action defies it – in this way, Brave challenges the dualistic notion that in order to fit in to a society you have to be one or the other, either/or, female or male, woman or man, feminine or masculine.
If you want to take away one thing from Brave, take away the notion that reconciliation itself is a state of fluidity and continuity that forms from and creates a space for relating. The hard earned but ultimately invaluable goal of reconciliation is the heart of bravery. Reconciliation between mother and daughter, against the odds and despite differences is the heart of Brave. There are ways of reconciling traditional gender roles with progressive ones. There are ways of reconciling our pasts with our presents.
We have the power to be brave, and to transform our histories for the worthy cause of peace. Unlike warring, peacemaking is the state in which we are able to relate and become unified. The power of bravery starts within each of us but is only realized when it is actualized in our relationships with each other. In Brave, this is the lesson learned that restores the relationship between Elinor and Merida, the state of the family and the peace of the people. A lesson worthy of critical acclaim – in the film industry, within the feminist community and across nations of the world.