SPOILER ALERT: Don’t let your 5 year old read this review.
My girls love princesses. Princess dresses, princess tiaras, dress up shoes and gloves and hats, sparkles and glitter and tutus—they spend hours playing pretend and dress up and putting on princess shows in which I have to sit on the couch and announce “And now, Cinderella will perform her beautiful dance!” And Dorothy will twirl down the hallway in her princess dress and dance in the living room and wrap it up with an elaborate curtsey while I applaud wildly. Yay princesses!
That said, they have not seen most of the classic Disney princess movies, because, frankly, there is a whole lot of death and evil going on there, and I just don’t want to have a conversation about Snow White being saved from her glass coffin by true love’s kiss from a stranger. Because really, isn’t it just a little bit weird and disturbing that the Prince is magically attracted to her when she appears to be dead? Glass coffins, vigilante mobs with torches (Beauty and the Beast), evil stepmothers (Cinderella, Snow White), octopus witches who steal your voice and/or soul (The Little Mermaid)—it just all seems a little intense for preschoolers, especially when what they are primarily interested in the sparkly dresses.
But Merida has been much hyped as a new kind of princess: she rides fast, climbs tall mountains, shoots a bow and arrow with tremendous skill and accuracy, and is endearingly imperfect. Strong, brave, independent, willing to challenge rules and traditions: you know, the kind of girl we’re trying to raise. So we left Margeaux at my sister’s, tucked a bag of Gummi Worms in my purse, and bought the exorbitantly priced tickets.
Four things we loved about Brave:
1.) She’s focused on what her body can do, not how she looks. Merida is clearly and powerfully present in her body, and focused on what her body can do, rather than how it looks. She rides, runs, climbs, jumps, fishes, shoots a bow and arrow—I’ve never seen a princess move like this, and frankly, it took my breath away. She fights hand to hand with bears (hand to paw?) and men, including her father. (The fight sequences reminded me of Mulan, which I would totally show my girls if I wanted to have a long conversation about war and the military, which I don’t). And yes, she wears a dress, but it’s clear that she’s comfortable in her body and her clothing. My girls play on the playground in their dresses. I don’t want them to think that wearing girly clothes has to mean sitting on the sidelines.
2.) She competes for her own hand, and wins, while wearing a dress. The betrothal plot went completely over my girls’ heads, but I appreciated that it directly subverts the typical princess love story, and that it gives Merida an active role in doing so. She doesn’t run away. She competes for her own hand in the archery contest. And wins. After stretching, flexing, and ripping the seams out of her fancy, uncomfortable, restrictive royal gown so she can shoot her bow. I would love to see many, many movies with heroines whose plot lines don’t revolve around princes at all, but I think it’s useful in this case to play directly with familiar conventions. I don’t want to draw a line between princesses and active empowered girls; I think that just reinforces the idea that femininity is limited and limiting. I want to see strong, brave, embodied girl characters, and I want my girls to know that includes princesses, and to that end, I think twisting the traditional princess plotlines challenges the typical tomboy vs princess dichotomy.
3.) No evil stepmothers. Merida’s mother isn’t jealous or needlessly cruel, and in the end, she uses her power to change the system, not to change Merida. Yes, she initially believes Merida needs to choose a prince. But the queen isn’t advocating tradition for tradition’s sake: she’s aware of her responsibilities and invested in keeping peace between the clans. The fact that she has to keep the peace by offering her daughter’s body and identity is deeply problematic, and I think it’s to Pixar’s credit that she doesn’t come off as a monster, but as a powerful woman who is trying to do the right thing in a system that offers her limited options. She and Merida try to change each other (and of course because it’s a fairy tale there is a witch and a spell and an evil bear in the mix), but what needs to change are the rules of the game. And that kind of systemic change frees not just Merida but also the princes who were previously compelled to compete for her.
4.) It’s awesome to be awesome. This could have been a movie about a strong, brave, adventurous girl who realizes that the right prince will love her for all of those traits. It is not that movie. There is no love story. There is no wedding. Merida and her family and her kingdom are transformed, certainly, but by a thoughtful understanding of history and a willingness to let go of tradition, not by the power of love. Compare this to, for example, Disney’s The Princess and the Frog: Tiana has a dream, works unbelievably hard to achieve her goals, and learns that what she really needs in order for her life to be complete is to let herself fall in love. If the message of the Princess and the Frog is, you can be awesome AND find your prince, the message of Brave is, you can be awesome. Period.
That said, there were a few disappointments:
1.) Bumbling, unattractive, stereotypical men. As lots of reviewers have pointed out, the male characters are flat and stereotypical, particularly the princes, their fathers, and the men from their clans. Shakesville has a great takedown of the Scottish stereotypes at play. It’s an easy shortcut to make us feel empathy for Merida’s rejection of marriage by making all the princes undesirable. Because who wants to marry those guys? But how much more powerful would the movie be if those princes were handsome and smart and talented and Merida still didn’t love them because, hey, they are total strangers to her and she’s only 16? If the core of the story is it’s awesome to be awesome, that story can accommodate awesome men and boys as well. Smart girl rejects idiots is lazy storytelling.
2.) Did the marketing department see the movie? Because the Merida dolls at Target are wearing a tiara and the royal blue dress that she bursts out of like The Incredible Hulk to wield her bow and arrow. Pigtail Pals has written thoughtfully about the problems with the toys and dolls and marketing and I had read a lot of the critique before I saw the film. But I was unprepared for how disappointing it was to see the dolls and merchandise. I think Disney and Mattel are underestimating the audience for this film. I think they could have marketed the hell out of Merida adventure ballet flats and bow and arrow sets, and stocking the shelves with will o the wisp earrings and sparkly hair gems to decorate Merida’s hair is shortsighted. Again: Not surprising, but disappointing. Like being asked at Subway if we wanted the girl bag or the boy bag for our Brave kids’ meals. (The girl bags have Merida on them. The boy bags have men or bears.) And yes, as parents we can push back with letters and dollars and polite requests for our kids to see the bags and choose for themselves. But all that pushback shouldn’t be necessary. Merida wears one dress for 99% of the movie: it’s the dress she climbs, rides, jumps, shoots, fishes, explores in. Why isn’t the doll wearing that dress?
**The Disney store has wider merchandise options, including a Merida doll wearing the green adventure dress. But if, like me, you find yourself at Target with your kids clamoring for Merida dolls placed at eye level for 5 year old girls, knowing that you can order a better Merida doll online is cold comfort.
So what’s the bottom line?
No movie can do it all. Brave is one movie. Just one. And from my perspective, though it’s not without problems, it successfully subverts the traditional fairy tale and introduces an awesome new way to be a princess. But one movie isn’t enough. We need lots and lots and lots of movies about brave, strong, adventurous girls, past and present, real and imagined, princesses and not, wearing dresses and pants and t-shirts a size too big with capri leggings, like my girls are rocking these days. One movie can’t do it all. But I appreciate what Brave is attempting to do, and I think it’s largely successful. And the girls loved it, and want to learn to shoot bows and arrows.
If you’re thinking about taking little ones, you should know that the bears are REALLY SCARY.
Did you see Brave? What did you and your kids think?