Is Merida From Pixar’s Brave The Worst Role Model For Girls Ever?



Dear Reader,

The answer to the question in the title of my blog post is: No, but she is pretty bad.  Lemme set up the question first though.

I was thinking about the Disney Princess catalog recently due to an article someone posted on my wall about how Drag Queens make better role models for young girls than Princesses.

Drag Professors at RuPaul's Drag U!

Drag Professors at RuPaul’s Drag U!

It’s a sentiment I definitely have some agreement with.  I think Drag Queens are amazing, I’m looking into the possibility of becoming one myself, and RuPaul is basically my Oprah.  However, this put me in mind of the state of literature for young girls overall, and the article raised the specter of some troubling thoughts I’ve had recently regarding role models for young girls.

Specifically, what I have noticed, is that in much of the newest media, a female heroine is not highly thought of (by the sorts of people who make pronouncements about what female heroines are good and bad for girls to view) unless she is, for lack of a better word, butch.  The girls these days have to be as tough as boys, as outdoorsy as boys, as athletic as boys, as crude as boys.  It’s like all the female heroines suddenly have to be Hyenas (if you don’t get that reference, go google Hyena clitoris.  I’ll wait.)

Case in point...

Case in point…

It was something that I started thinking about, honestly though, after I saw the Pixar film Brave in theaters.  I dug up a rant I posted to my writing group about the film, and I’m polishing it up and posting it here.  It is a little late to the party, but I’d like to express the opinion nevertheless.  To see the thoughts, hit the jump!

(Written 2 hours post viewing Brave in theaters)


So, after viewing Brave, I’m not quite sure what my feelings are.  The film was undeniably magical.  And as an adult viewer I was very satisfied with how the film came together.  I felt Merida was very well realized, and I was struck by the way in which the world was crafted around her as a heroine, and I felt overall there was a sense of everything that was in the film was present for a reason.  For as lush as the setting was, it all actually felt rather minimalist in the larger scope of things. The usage of magic in particular was often subtle or had “natural” effects.  There was no glowing light when Eleanor finally transformed, no sparkle dust that mended the tapestry.  It all felt very intentional.  And I liked that.

I did feel that, in terms of pacing, a lot of the right pieces were in the wrong places.  For instance, Merida’s big speech to the gathered men, where her mother finally accepts and trusts her was very powerful, but came at an odd point in the film.  It felt like the scene needed to be at the climax, and occur as more than simply Merida’s “distraction” to sneak her mother through the castle chamber.  And the big demon bear didn’t feel at all well seated in the story.  It almost felt like they wrote the whole film without him and then realized they’d written a film with no real villain, so they pasted in a spooky legend which turned out to be true, and made the villain show up to cause some trouble because…I mean…the guy was an angry bear right?  Rawr!  Scary!  I just wasn’t feeling it.  Either the demon bear’s fate needed to somehow be tied to the mother’s, IE he could sense her and was drawn to destroy that which she cared for, or the Kingdom Merida was from was the Kingdom founded by the demon bear’s only surviving brother and so he was out to destroy it, or the wisps were the spirits of his ancestors leading him as much as they were Merida to the girl who could free his spirit.  All of these pieces were already there in the film, and could have easily been sharpened by a simple line or two and given the demon bear a more well grounded place in the plot.

I'll admit we had some work to do in the opposite direction ok?

I’ll admit we had some work to do in the opposite direction ok?

As I walked away what bounced around in my head the most was the usage and subversion of gender roles as a way of differentiating Merida.  From a purely queer perspective, I thought the film was a great story about being different than the world expects you to be.  Merida, CLEARLY a young Lesbian in all the stereotypes(And actually, further out, I can see there being a decent case for Merida being read as Transgendered), is eventually accepted, just as she is, by her mother.  Boom.
Analysis done.
Give it a LGBT Gold star and move on.
However, from a broader perspective, Merida was certainly not the first female heroine to rely upon the “anything a boy can do I can do better” trope as a way of separating her from the drivel and uselessness that is her Princessy life.  However, as a woman I would think that I would find that technique ultimately troubling.  Merida is valued not for who she is but for how masculine she is.  And yes, it is an anthem of liberation to girls that feel like they are trapped in dollhouses, but I think that is a rather tired horn to blow at this late stage in the feminist game.
Further troubling still, from the perspective of a human being, is that activities are still obviously gendered (which is believable in the time setting, which, for Pixar, was ALMOST realism) but the female gendered activities like sewing and bill paying, and table etiquette are almost completely devalued.  Yes, Merida must sew the tapestry, and there is some hint that she is utilizing what her mother taught her in her big speech to the men, but by and large what I call “cross valuation” is absent.  Merida doesn’t really learn to value her mother, so much as her Kingdom and her position within it.  The virtues that win the day are exclusively masculine.  Archery, sword play, ferocity, violence, self-reliance.  Now, I think the point of the film was that these virtues are not fundamentally masculine, and I agree entirely, but the film sets them UP as masculine, and then values only women who embrace them.
[INSERT CLARIFYING BONUS RANT]  I think what I was intending to point out here is that there are traditionally female virtues, which are not anymore female than the masculine virtues are masculine, but in our culture it’s easy to talk about them that way.  And in this film, the virtues are still clearly divided among the traditional gender norms.  Merida’s father and brothers are hyper-active, hyper-violent, bash-it-with-a-stick, burp and fart types.  Her Mother is poised, proper, artistic, refined, and uses communication rather than violence to resolve difficulties.  My problem is not really with the fact that Merida is more “masculine” but rather that those virtues are still labeled masculine, and that her mother’s virtues are still labeled feminine, and that her mother is brutally punished for her feminine virtues and painted to be all the things that empowered women are painted to be: cold, calculating, bitchy, needless complex, etc, etc.  Watching Eleanor’s character develop was like watching a character assassination of Hilary Clinton by Tea Party Republicans in some ways.
This whole situation could have easily been remedied by even a small character, a friend of Merida’s who was a boy that was more feminine.  Or by exaggerating Merida’s usage of her mother’s “ways” while she is locked in the tapestry room.  But that didn’t happen.  As a result, all virtues and skills the film presents as feminine are devalued.
I may be overstating it, and maybe we have moved past a point where gender roles need to be so carefully monitored for balance.  Every film now-a-days may not need to be a pillar of gender affirming balance.  But it was one of the first things I thought about when I walked out of the film.  Merida didn’t noticeably change.  And for a movie about changing your fate, that struck me as an odd loose end.  Again, as an adult viewer, as a queer viewer, I was enormously happy with the film.  Well.  Moderately happy.  I felt the Bear-Witch was a little random (what, the ONE major spell she seems to know is Polymorph:Bear?), and I wished the budding chemistry between the fat unintelligible suitor and Merida had been better developed.  But overall, I felt highly enjoyed Merida’s character.  I just feel like she didn’t really undergo much believable change, for as kickass as she was to begin with.
So more than a year later, I am still left with the same nagging sense that in our culture, rather than moving for equality, we have somehow been swayed towards moving towards letting women be masculine.  Now, let me be perfectly clear here.  I am not in any way saying the women should not have come the way they’ve come.  I don’t think they had other options, and frankly, I think the world is a better place for people of all genders because of the courage and tenacity of women fighting for their right to self-express, self-determine, and participate at all levels of society.  In some ways, this very blog post is POSSIBLE because of their fight.
And I know that Women WEREN’T allowed to be masculine.  They were trapped by gender stereotypes, and there were huge battles that had to be fought in order to allow women a more natural and well-rounded expression of their gender.  And also, some women are more inclined to solve problems and overcome challenges using more “masculine” means (again, I use this term only for ease of conversation, not because I believe those virtues are actually more masculine than feminine) and they should be free to be that way for sure.
Here is my issue.  What about the girls, and maybe more importantly, the boys, who really are just more traditionally feminine by nature?  What if a boy prefers to resolve conflict through social means?  What if a girl really enjoys home making, and is enlivened by the act of caring for those she loves?  What if a person counts it as a success when an opponent is understood rather than conquered?  Those virtues, to name a few, have not come forward along with the women who were expected to embody them in the 1950s.  There was a lot of patriarchy that needed to be thrown off back then, but that same patriarchy seems to still hold those “feminine” character traits hostage.  We don’t value an effeminate man, and we’re beginning to devalue an effeminate woman too, it seems.  My worry is that if there are no role-models left who show how people more inclined to what we consider feminine modes of thinking and acting can succeed, then what do those kids, the boys AND the girls do to learn how to use what they’re naturally inclined towards?
Maybe this is one area that a Drag Queen is a better role model for young girls than a woman.  A Drag Queen is a man’s love letter to his feminine half, a startling hybrid of fierce courage and feminine beauty.  What it takes to be a good Drag Queen is a lot of boy AND a lot of girl.  They’re actually a pretty freakishly amazing balance, for all I can see.  So in that way, maybe we do need to turn to the great Ru Paul for our salvation.  I’m not sure.
I know that for my part, as a result of my thoughts a year and a half ago, I slightly altered the trajectory of Sebastian Smith, the hero from my current project.  I make a conscious effort to have him be more effeminate in the way he approaches the world.  Not girly, as in he likes pink and knows how to do make-up, but more that he has what we would call a feminine mind.  Often he solves problems not by fighting them himself, but by recognizing the strength in the people around him and inspiring them to act to overcome the obstacles facing the world, just as a traditional Princess can be seen to call forth the Hero in the Prince who rescues her.  I have taken steps to very clearly show that there are situations where masculine virtues are necessary and good, and feminine virtues are necessary and good, and I have a wide range of characters who embody various aspects of the masculine/feminine divide that have nothing to do with their genitals.  It is my own way of trying to be proactive about making sure children know it is ok to be exactly like they are, even if exactly like they are conforms to traditional feminine norms.
So long answer short:  Merida is not a bad addition to the Disney Princess catalog, which has been slowly (and some might argue cravenly) diversifying for the past twenty or so years.   We have token Princesses of almost every racial background now, and we’re beginning to have token Princesses with non-traditional gender expressions too.  From that perspective, Merida is a good, even necessary addition to the lineup.
However, because of the particular way in which her story was told, by explicitly embodying gender norms in the setting and characters as a storytelling device and then brutally devaluing anything feminine through curses and death and humiliation, Merida’s story is a clear barometer of a larger problem with modern storytelling: Women can be equal as long as they start acting like men.  Lets not even talk about what we do with Men who don’t act like men….
Me at 3 yrs of age.  Clearly I needed a Princess Role Model...  (ALSO, my Aunt is so fierce!)

Me at 3 yrs of age. Clearly I needed a Princess Role Model… (ALSO, my Aunt is so fierce!)

Flames may commence in the comments section below.

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