Thursday, July 5, 2012

My Take on Brave: Does it Have a Boy Problem?

I finally got to go see Brave this week, and I loved it. Everyone has already been gushing over how great it is to finally see a "princess" who is active, strong, and has interests in something other than her own looks and finding a man. Sure, I've read a few reviews that say this film isn't really the feminist fantasy we were all hoping for. Overall though (and maybe it's just because I'm really cynical), it surpassed my expectations.

There was a lot about the movie that I really, really loved. It made me cry real tears. I was already thinking about watching it with my daughter when she gets a little older as I left the theater. It was emotional, sweet, and funny.

There is one complaint I've seen that I want to pay a little more attention to, however, and that's the claim that Brave has no positive male figures.

But first, the good: (WARNING: There will be spoilers from this point on.)

Obviously, I like this movie because Merida breaks the stereotypes of a Disney princess. She is beautiful, but in a way that is also real. Her hair is wild and often out-of-control. She's not caked with make up. Her body isn't inhumanely thin. She isn't shown in clothes that accentuate her in a sexual way (except for when she's forced into a dress she hates in order to be more attractive to her potential suitors, and then we see her complain about its restrictiveness and later rip it in order to regain her mobility). There were also some more subtle things that I really liked about this movie, namely:

1) The Focus on Communication- As a rhetoric scholar, I really appreciated that the message of this film is about the importance of rhetorical listening. Merida and her mother can't see eye-to-eye because neither one of them is listening to the other. When the witch's spell changes Queen Elinor into a bear, it's not because Elinor needed to stop being who she was; it's because bears can't talk. When she wasn't able to talk over Merida, she finally had to listen to what she was saying. But this isn't a one-way street. Since Merida now had to try to pick up the subtleties that her mother was using to communicate as a bear, she was also learning to listen. What appeared to be the greatest barrier to communication (the loss of speech) was actually its strength. By forcing both of the characters to listen to one another in a way they never had before, they each learned something new. The message is not that one was wrong and one was right; the message is that by listening to one another, they both learned something and each grew stronger because of it. 

2) The Portrayal of Cooperative Parenting- There were definitely some gender stereotypes in the way that the King and Queen were portrayed. He's wild, silly, and violent. She's prim, proper, and elegant. He eats piles of meat for dinner. She daintily dabs her face with a napkin. He's loud and in-your-face. She's quiet and guides his decisions subtly. 

But there is also a current of cooperative (if not quite equally shared) parenting throughout the film. Both parents are seen interacting with their children and helping to shape their perceptions of the world. In the very first scene, the Queen is encouraging Merida's belief in magic and the King hands her a bow to encourage her strength and skill. While neither agrees with the other's point of view, both messages become central to Merida's identity. She is a product of both of her parents in every sense of the word. 

There were also some things that I can definitely see a problem with. 

1) Scottish Stereotypes- Does Brave rely too heavily on Scottish stereotypes? I have to admit that I'm not really well-versed in the culture, and I don't feel qualified to make (or defend the film from) that accusation. I do know that this Time article points out that this isn't the first time that Pixar has fallen back on some fairly simplistic stereotypes to further its plot. 

Which brings me to one of the points that I want to look at a little closer. 

2) Negative Portrayal of Boys- Several people have pointed out that Brave has given us a female character worth admiring, but perhaps at the expense of male characters who tend to be portrayed as bumbling idiots. I've even heard arguments that the portrayal of men in the film undercuts the positive portrayal of women because it might suggest that women can only be strong characters when men are weak ones, as if character and personality are zero-sum games. 

Bloggers like Backpacking Dad and mama nervosa have pointed out that--among the film's other strengths--this weakness is somewhat glaring. 

I agree with them that the characterization of the boys (especially the completely incompetent suitors) is very poor indeed. 

I also disagree with people who have suggested that this isn't a problem. After all, they say, girls have been stereotyped for years, as if this portrayal somehow just works to even the score. But two wrongs don't make a right and, furthermore, a society with true gender equality cannot just focus on breaking down gender stereotypes for women. Boys need to see competent male role models just as much as girls need to see competent female role models, and all children need to see characters who make decisions based on ability and interest rather than arbitrarily assigned gender roles. All that to say that I really don't want to downplay the concern that some people have over the portrayal of the boys in Brave

That said, I also think that there's something a little deeper going on, and it all hinges--for me and my interpretation--on the short film that plays before the movie. Here's the promo for it:

You don't get that much detail from this short clip, but the basic premise is that this little boy is learning the trade of cleaning up the moon from (ostensibly) his father and grandfather. The two are in a bit of a battle over whose ways he will adopt. The father wants him to wear his hat pointed up (like his own) while the grandfather wants him to wear it slung low (like he does). The father wants him to use a short, wide broom; the grandfather wants him to use a long, skinny one. The little boy is clearly torn over who he should emulate, and he goes back and forth imitating each of them. Then there's a crisis. A giant star crashes into the moon and neither of the older men's methods work to clean it up. The little boy gets a determined look on his face, turns his hat backwards, and climbs on top of the star. He creates his own method for cleaning it up, and the three men are finally shown working together, the grandfather has the long broom, the father has the short broom, and the boy has a rake. The message is that it wasn't until the little boy stopped trying to emulate either one of them and devised his own path that they reached their strongest as a team. 

With the theme from that short film running in my head, I didn't see Merida's suitors as representative of what boys are like; I saw them as representative of what happens when parents try to mold their children into carbon copies of themselves without any regard to who they are as individuals. 

Each of the potential suitors is dressed exactly like his father, and all of them are coached by their fathers on what to say and how to act. None of them is allowed to express a dissenting idea or have any say in his own future. In other words, these boys are being stretched and molded to fit a stereotypical ideal much in the same way that Merida is. Merida's strength and courage (and magic) allows her to break out of this mold, and--in doing so--she sets up the possibilities for the boys to grow as well. 

Think about it, when Merida is presented as the princess in her tight-fitting dress and hair-hiding cap, she doesn't look like much of a catch, either. She's grumpy, despondent, and really pretty mean. If all we got to see was that brief image of her being coached and paraded around by her mother, we probably wouldn't think that she's a very good role model, either. But because we get to see more of her, because we know that she's fighting against that kind of restrictive identity, we know that she actually is a great role model. And now that she--the heroine--has broken down those barriers for her male counterparts as well, they will have the opportunity to--like the little boy in the short--turn their hats backwards and find their own paths.  

What did you think of the film? Do you think it offers too few avenues for boys to see themselves in it? Will you/did you let your children watch it? 


  1. I took my 5 yr old son to see Brave and we both really enjoyed it. I agree that outside of Merida there are still a lot of gender stereotypes in the film - perhaps that is really setting up the context and backdrop for Merida's "rebellion," but they are there nonetheless. And others are probably right that there aren't particularly strong male role models in the film, but I like your explanation of how it parallels the theme of people being defined by others vs. for themselves. The portrayal of males didn't stand out for me, but probably because I was so focused on Merida! I really took my son to the film so that he could see a strong, active, intelligent portrayal of a girl! You offer some thought-provoking insights, as always!

    1. Glad to hear your son liked it! It's definitely one I'm planning to watch with my daughter when she's older.

  2. Seth and I actually snuck out of work to see this and took our Goddaughter Zoe with us. We all loved it. I cried all through the opening sequence (it's the beauty and music, it just overwhelms me) and I cried at the end. I'm a Disney sap.

    Having seen it now, there are a few things I can say about it.

    Merida is a strong female character. But I take offense to anyone who says that past Disney females are not. Disney (starting with Snow White) has a tradition of strong females who make sacrifice for their families and roll up their sleeves when the going gets though. I should write a book itemizing each Disney heroine and her strong, independent nature. Merida doesn't break some mold of dainty, weak, innocent disney princesses, but she does push the independent spirit of them further, mainly in her refusal to marry.

    However, she doesn't refuse because she is against the general idea of marriage or because (as some people have suggested) she is a lesbian. To say either of those things would ignore Merida's complete character altoghether. She is a complex little lady. Her father actually has a pretty good idea of who his daughter is when he imitates her and says "oh I just want to run free and let the wind blow through my hair." She is 16 (or possibly 18). I got married at 18 the first time and it was the biggest mistake of my life. It isn't that she never wants to get married, she just doesn't want to be forced into it. Merida has a lot going on: the poor relationship with her mother, the jealously at the freedom of her naughty brothers, the knowledge that the games are pejudiced against her because of her sex, and she just wants time to be herself. She didn't say she would never marry any them, but she needed to love one of them first. At the very end, the blonde boy was trying pretty darn hard to woo her. And she wasn't fighting him off (she had an 'ewww' look on her face, but this tells me that while she might not always appreciate their advances, she won't fight the courtships that will most likely be following very soon).

    So are the boys weak in light of the strong Merida? I don't neccessarily think so. The boys are meant to be comedic, that is for certain. But remember, in the end this is a kids movie and they need some goofy slapstick. at then end of the film, the boys have no problem standing up to their fathers, either. Unlike, Merida, they were trying to be what their parents wanted them to be. But with Merida's help, they were able to stand up as well and the entire next generation will be better for it.

    Are the men in general weak, oafish, brutes in Brave? Hell yes. Have you been to a Scottish Highland games? They really are like that! As the clans marched into the main hall yelling, fighting, and making noise I leaned over to Zoe and said "yeah, that is how Scotts really are!" And every Scottish person I know personally loves this movie!

    1. I think what you say about her just taking the other Disney princess' strength one step further is really interesting.

      I am biased against the films, so I know that I'm a harsh critic. I see some redeeming qualities in the stories that most of the princesses are based on, but I have a hard time reading most of the actual Disney films' princesses as strong.

      Growing up, my absolute favorite Disney movie was The Little Mermaid because I LOVED the ocean (even though I'd never seen it--kids are weird.) I was in love with the world that Ariel lived in and the way that she could collect weird objects and have a curiosity for life. But I hated the end of the film, even as a kid. I didn't understand how she could give all that up--the ocean, her collection, her friends, her VOICE for God's sake--for a man that she saw a couple times. To me the message was that all those other things, all those passions, were childish, and you weren't a real woman until you gave it all up for a man.

      My other favorite princess movie to watch as a kid was Beauty and the Beast (and I think that's largely just because of the timing of when it came out). Watching it now--especially as someone who grew up in a house with domestic violence--I literally cringe. Here's a woman who is being abused (thrown around, locked in rooms, screamed at), and the message is that if she's just patient and keeps loving her abuser, he will turn in to a prince--which, of course, is what every girl should be looking for.

      Merida is--in my opinion--worlds away from these other princesses, and I'm glad for it.

    2. I know people are really hard on Ariel for giving up her voice for a man, but it really speaks (pun) volumes about Eric that he doesn't fall in love with her until she gets her voice back. Ariel is willing to sacrifice everything for what she wants, and she doesn't just want a man. She wants to be part of the human world long before she meets Eric. And in the end, she ends up bridging the two.

      Belle is another strong and completely unselfish person. She isn't patient with her abusive Beast because she loves him, she gives up everything to rescue her father and accepts the consequences with her head held high. She yells back and won't be intimidated by the beast and, when it gets to be too much, she does remove herself from the situation. In fact, Beast turns into a Prince in his heart long before he does physically because he falls in love with her first. He doesn't turn physically into a prince until she finally loves him back, which is at the very end. He has to win *her* over with kindness and compassion and a changed heart.

      However, my favorite heroine is Mulan. She knew when she left her home she most likely would die, and she was prepared for it. She is strong mentally, physically, and emotionally. For Mulan to be left out and lumped into "stereotypical weak Disney princesses" infuriates me.

      I think the problem Disney princesses have is that there is no clear definition of what makes a "strong" woman. For example, you are watching Buffy for the first time. Buffy is usually held up as an example of a "strong" female character. However, to me, just because you can rip a monster's face off, it doesn't make you a strong person. Buffy may be strong physically, but her personality is defined by the man in her life (Angel) and by season 4 she is completely broken. She is strong physically, but weak mentally and emotionally. Is she someone who should be imitated and held up as a positive example for our young women? I take Mulan over Buffy any day as a role model for my daughter.

    3. I haven't seen Mulan, but everyone keeps telling me I should. It's on my list. I think you make a great point about how our definition of "strong" women is often flawed and not based on a strong inner character.

      I also think you make a great point about Ariel having been interested in the human world before she sees Eric (maybe her from-afar fascination with the world of the land was akin to mine for the sea). Still, I can't give Erin any points for waiting until she has her voice back to fall in love with her. It's not like he was in love with her ability to make great points in a debate; he was in love with six notes that she sang, which is really just shorthand for his obsession with a particular element of her "beauty." And even if she is fascinated with the human world from the beginning of the film, the message that marriage (and quickly falling in love with the first person you see who might give you an advantage) is the only path to your dreams is appalling to me.

      As for Belle, I agree that she is individually a strong character who wants to defend her family, but I think that makes the message of accepting domestic violence even worse! There's a lot to admire in Belle, and to watch someone who is so strong of heart go through the stages of accepting an abusive relationship is horrible. It allows children watching to see someone so good fall into that trap, and they may even conflate the two, that being a "good" person means accepting someone's flaws, even when they're "flaws" are abusing you. Domestic violence--especially among teens and young adults--is really, really high, and I just can't accept a role model that ignores abuse.

      And maybe that's my main complaint with all the Disney princesses. It's not so much that they are weak characters, but the messages at the end of most of the films is that being a strong woman isn't enough to overcome the circumstances of being a woman and that you might as well just give into the system. I think about this particularly with someone like Jasmine who spends much of the movie dressed as a sex slave waiting for a man to save her. She is clearly a victim of circumstances, but Aladdin is a victim of circumstances, too, and he gets to be a powerful character who breaks out of his "fated" path. Jasmine's success depends on his.

      Same with Cinderella. We see her embody many wonderful qualities: kindness, hard work, determination. But her success is never in her own hands. The message is--again and again--that these women's character traits are not enough. Unless a man comes along and saves the day, they are doomed to sit in misery.

      I know that there's an argument to be made that--to some extent--this portrayal is accurate for the time and place of the source text. Women really didn't have that many avenues to success outside of marriage for many of these stories. However, our children aren't watching them in the context of their original sources; they're watching them now, and those messages are internalized.

      This is a fun debate! :)

  3. "This is a fun debate! :)"
    I know, right? We should write a book together!

    I have to take issue with your portrayal of Jasmine as "dressed like a sex slave." That's kind of harsh on the Persian culture of the time. That's kind of how they dressed. But, given her own choice, she would rather live in rags on the street, if that helps. Also, Aladdin isn't about Jasmine, it's about Aladdin. His character is far more important to the overall story. Kind of like how in Brave, the story isn't about the boys so of course we have very little to go on when it comes to her true personality. But, like Merida, Jasmine refuses to be forced into a marriage out of duty.

    You definitely make a good point about Eric only loving Ariel for her 6 note voice. Too funny, actually.

    I still would disagree about Belle. She doesn't accept and love an abuser. After he changes, he isn't the abusive man he once was and that is the person she loves. However, I think your next argument will be that Belle sends the message that an abusive lover can change and stop being an abuser. I would agree that that would be a very, very dangerous message to send. But that isn't the message I think the story actually sends. As I said, he has to change first before she loves him.

    I haven't watched Cinderella in a long time, so I need to see it again to remember how she is saved. But the prince had an extremely minor role in that. I think her mice saved her more than her prince haha.

    The only princess I think that falls short would be Aurora (Sleeping Beauty). She is extremely passive, but it has been a long time since I have seen that one too.

    Of course the case that these are "old fashioned" stories is there. Most of the stories are set in times where women were relegated to marriage. However, you make a good point that the stories are being told today, when that life no longer the case. But at the same time, we all grew up watching them and still became the strong, independent women we are. Therefore the message the movies send to young women can't be as damaging as people fear. Do you really think these movies will damage a child? Will you let your daughter watch Beauty and the Beast?

    Part of the problem with debating these as adults is we don't have the mindset of a child any more to know how they are internalizing them. Sure, an adult could make the case that Beast is an abuser and that it is wrong for Belle to accept him. But does a child see it that way? I know I didn't as a child. I saw him grow and change and realize the error of his ways and become what every little girl wants to marry when she grows up: someone kind and handsome. As an adult do I find it abhorrent that a woman would give up her voice for a man? Absolutely. But as a child, it didn't symbolize that much for me. Even without a voice, she was still a human being. I saw a Prince who loved her completely, as a pretty girl, a sweet and kind person, and with a magical voice. (After all, Merida just showed us you can learn a lot more about a person when one of them can't talk:)

    But you haven't seen Mulan?!? All your arguments are invalid! hahaha

    1. When I say I remember Jasmine dressed as a sex slave, I'm mostly talking about the scenes where she looks like this.

      That scene's really stuck with me, and I haven't seen it since I was a kid.

      The thing that made me really decide to be harsh on the Disney princesses (though not exclusively them, by any means) was some research that I did for a communications project. I didn't know how much kids internalize the messages that they get from media (I didn't realize how much adults do it, either, but kids do it more). There's a lot of work out of the UK (where they have MUCH stricter regulations about what can be advertised to kids) regarding the way that children internalize messages they see. I read Consumer Kids, which talked about how children were shown a short clip of Home Alone where there was a Pepsi bottle in the background (not even a part of the plot line). A control group was shown a different clip of the same movie. Then the kids were later offered Coke or Pepsi to drink, 62% of the group who'd seen the Pepsi clip (for just a few seconds) chose Pepsi; only 42% of the other group did.

      Then I read a book called Television and Child Development that looked at the way that racial stereotypes impact children of color. It showed that children look to television to figure out patterns about the world because they don't have exposure to that many real-life situations yet. In interviews, children of color repeatedly reported that people of color were less important and less capable--and the researchers drew strong links to the media they consumed. (They also think that media exposure to ideas about race is largely responsible for the horrifyingly sad results of the infamous "doll tests.")

      I also looked at Bushman's research on violence and media, and he found that children have fewer violent reactions to short-term exposure to violent media, but more violent reactions to long-term exposure, whereas adults were the opposite. The theory he's suggesting is that children are learning social scripts from their media, whereas adults already have their social scripts in place.

      All that to say, no, I won't let my daughter watch Beauty and the Beast--at least not until she's cognitively old enough to talk through and analyze the themes that I see as damaging. I know that a lot of people think I'm crazy for it, and I'm not judging whether other people make the same decision (I'm sure I let her do things that other people don't think are good).

      And I don't know about the argument that "we all grew up watching them and still became the strong, independent women we are. Therefore the message the movies send to young women can't be as damaging as people fear." Women have made a lot of strides toward equality, but we're certainly not there yet. We're much more likely to be portrayed as sexualized. We haven't reached equal pay in the workplace. Work that is traditionally considered "women's work" is devalued and under appreciated. Do I think that watching Disney Princesses is the direct cause of any of these inequalities? Of course not. But do I think that showing little girls over and over and over again that the only path to success is through a more competent man might be slowing down the progress? Yes.

      And I promise I'll watch Mulan.

    2. I never said that children don’t internalize what they see. But I am unconvinced that what they internalize from Disney movies is only negative aspects that we are able to decipher as adults. I watched Beauty and Beast hundreds of times as a kid. Even in slow motion! I literally memorized that film frame by frame. What I took away from it was Belle’s love of books, her willingness to sacrifice for her father, and that love doesn’t matter what someone looks like, but it depends on what is in the soul. As an English major, I can totally support a reading of the film as a negative and abusive relationship that could send a negative message to young women. But do I actually think that is the message the movie sends and is internalized by children? No.

      I am not saying the movies are perfect. Now I look at Ariel and her typical, teenage “you don’t understand me, now I’m running away from home” as probably the most extreme example of a parent’s worst nightmare. But I don’t believe that is the message from that film that children take away from it. What I took away from it was the tragic consequences that can result from a parent losing their temper (which spoke to me a lot because my father had an explosive temper). That, and never trust a sea witch.

      There are so many good messages that come from Disney films, and so many positive female role models in them to be found (Mulan, Jane, Megara, Belle, Rapunzle; we didn’t even talk about Rapunzle! Talk about an indomitable spirit!). I refuse to give up on these amazing ladies and focus only on the hardships they all worked so hard to overcome.

      I can’t wait to see what you think of Mulan.

    3. Oh, I completely agree that there are a lot of positive messages in these films. They're classics for a reason, and I certainly don't believe that parents are intentionally showing their kids damaging messages. They're drawn to these films for the very reasons you point out: they send great messages about life.

      But, for me, it's not worth the risk of also giving my daughter internalized messages that are damaging. And I'm not talking about a subtle, twisted interpretation of something minor. I think that there are messages (good and bad) that are patterned again and again in multiple films. To me, if they show up that often and that pronounced, there's something deeper going on than just an extremely analytical interpretation.

      For instance, one of the positive themes that I see embodied again and again is to "follow your heart." I think that's a great message. It shows up in multiple films, and it's one that becomes a cornerstone of the entire Disney mythos. On the other hand, another message that gets promoted with just as much frequency is that marriage is the goal for women's success (excluding Merida's tale--even Tangled, which I more or less liked and will most likely let my daughter watch, fell into this theme). I think that's a damaging message. Disney also promotes a message of standing up for what you believe in, and--again--that's a message I'm completely on board with. But if it only comes with a big side of the message that physical beauty is the most important trait for a woman to have, then I'll go somewhere else to find it.

      If I think my daughter is smart enough to pick up on the positive messages--and I do--then I have to think that she's also smart enough to pick up on the negative ones.

      As something of an aside, I also think that Disney's marketing to children is completely out of hand. After reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter and The Mouse That Roared, I'm appalled by the underhanded and manipulative tactics that Disney uses to bring parents and children into their mega-corporation. They are one of the handful of major corporations that control virtually ALL of the media that we consume and that's a leash that they continue to pull tighter and tighter. When everything from Band-Aids to garden seeds sport Disney princesses on them and when Disney is a huge contributor to the "pink" aisles for girls, I have to side-eye a marketing strategy that subsists on promoting a strict gender binary. I hope that Merida (and to a lesser but still important extent, Tiana and Rapunzel (and Mulan, probably!) are a sign that that will start to shift. But have you seen the marketing for Merida?! It's appalling! The Mattel doll looks like a Barbie, complete with a tight dress, make up and jewelry for accessories. I have to think that Merida would have a couple arrows to shoot into the wall to get the attention of the marketing execs in that board room.

    4. Well I've been in China for the duration of the Brave release, so I haven't seen the Brave marketing. But selling make-up and jewelry seems out of line with the moral of the story lol.

      But I do think Disney is evolving. When I think of "strong" females (like Merida, Mulan, and Belle), they are all the more recent stories. The most flat female character would be Aurora and the stories that center around marriage and being rescued would be Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty; the older ones. But this style of storytelling has worked for Disney since the 30's and is based on stories that have existed for hundreds of years. If it works, they aren't going to change their model. But I think they see that that old model isn't working as much and are working to make their stories better fit the times. (I actually would like to see a Disney princess story without a marriage plot at all, but I don't see that happening any time soon haha)

  4. Hi Balancing Jane (First time commenter),

    I actually did find the boys and men in Brave a bit problematic and I think this concept of "male as neanderthal/oaf" is unfortunately back in vogue with tv and movie screenwriters (Think Tim Allen's new TV show). I guess the nitpicky part of me would have liked to have seen one of the boys rebelling against his father in an attempt to be more intellectual/sensitive - but alas, all we get is one of the sons who appears pasty and weak. Yes, I am probably looking wayyyy too much into this.

    That being said, I took my 5-year-old daughter to see this and it was such a fantastic experience to see her eyes light up! She adored Merida. And - my absolute favorite part - no marriage proposal at the end! Is that a first? Hmmm... maybe Mulan also, I can't remember.

    1. Hey Nursing Clio! Thanks for stopping by; I've actually been lurking over at your blog, too. I thought the post about the history of eugenics in America was really interesting.

  5. Hey thanks! I also enjoyed your Buffy post and am wondering if you are still watching?

    1. I am! I'm about five episodes in. So far it's mostly just making me miss grunge music! ;)