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?