Brave’s Merida versus the Disney Princesses

If you dont know that the good guys/gals always triumph in Disney films, you might want to skip this post.

Sara and i have been excited about seeing the new Pixar animation Brave for a while.  For me it is because i like animated comedies and especially because Merida is a notable break from Disney traditions.

First off, she has a mother.  It was Brittany from Twin Oaks who pointed out that this is a rare bordering on singular occurrence for Disney princesses.  Cinderella, Snow White, Pocahontas, Belle, Jasmin, Rapunzel, Tiana, Ariel and Aurora all have either step mothers (who they are in unresolved conflict with) or no mothers at all.  Mulan (not a princess) has a vanishing mother.  Merida’s relationship with her mother is the most important interaction in the film.  It is somewhat complex, troubled at first and the resolution of their conflict is central to the plot and message of the story.

Historically, Disney has done poorly with empowered female characters

It may be the first Disney animation (i have not seen them all) which passes the Bechdel Test.   Which is that the film has at least two named women characters, who talk to each other about something other than a man.  This is admittedly a low bar, but it is disturbing how many films fail this simple test.

Merida goes well beyond this as she both turns down her suitors and overturns the patriarchal tradition.  For a Disney film, this is big.  Perhaps the most sexually radical predecessor to this film is Sara’s favorite Mulan.  Dresses up like a man, infiltrates the Chinese army and saves the country.  Then she is offered a seat on the Emperors Council (which she declines), is bowed to by the Emperor (which is unheard of) and even hugs the Emperor (which is even more unheard of).  But in the end, the empire stands and Mulan likely settles down with the captain who has repeatedly disrespected her.  Sorry, this feels a bit like voting for Obama.

Merida, alternatively, breaks the betrothal tradition by refusing to her arranged marriage.  She goes on to advance independent romantic decision making in a move interpreted by some as a pitch for gay marriage.  Disney is sanctioning open revolt against parents and tradition.

There is quite the rage going on over the interweb about this film.  My personal favorite critique  comes from the UK Guardian writer Jaclyn Friedman who writes in her clever piece on the evolution of Action Princesses

Brave producer Katherine Sarafian made no bones about this [Merida as being a princessed-out action hero] in a recent interview on NPR, saying:

“We tried making her the blacksmith’s daughter and the milkmaid in various things … There’s no stakes in the story for us that way. We wanted to show real stakes in the story where, you know, the peace of the kingdom and the traditions are all at stake.”

Let’s take that in for a minute: the studio whose most iconic heroes include a toy cowboy, a rat, a fish, a boy scout, and a lonely trash compactor (all male-identified, of course), couldn’t figure out how to tell a story about a human girl without making her a princess. That’s the problem in a nutshell: if the sparkling minds at Pixar can’t imagine their way out of the princess paradigm, how can we expect girls to?

Important as Brave is as a step forward, it is clearly a very long road in front of us.