As we pointed out in our last post, Princess Merida is a pretty conventional tomboy. However, “Brave” does not present a conventional happily-ever-after: its Disney princess is the first ever to not get a prince. From the beginning to the end, she is all the man she needs. …Which is handy, because in her world, there aren’t any others she can turn to.
Merida may not have been a particularly brave new kind of princess, but we believe that “Brave” presented the newest and bravest fairytale world in Disney princess history. Castles and tiaras notwithstanding, this brave new world is actually a lot more like ours, for two reasons.
For one thing, this fairytale kingdom is not a medieval patriarchy: It’s a modern matriarchy. Despite whatever clichés and tropes you might have been expecting (as we were), this is not actually another story about a progressive, free-spirited heroine kicking against old fogey men’s ideas about woman’s role. It’s a story of 3rd wave feminism kicking against 2nd wave feminism: the daughter’s rebellious, no-cause-but-myself girl-power versus her mother’s more self-sacrificing, cause-driven, authoritative woman-power; a girl who would rather be a bohemian than undergo training to be an educated, powerful future ruler.
This film is about “contemporary, modern women,” said co-director Brenda Chapman, pinpointing what few critics picked up on, “a contemporary kind of family set in an old world fairy tale.” Producer Katherine Sarafian points out, “Both the female leads are headstrong women. The princess is rebellious and yearns for things to change and the Queen is a working mother, a professional running the kingdom.”
Merida is supposed to be learning how to run the kingdom, from the only person in the kingdom who can.
The second reason is the realistic outgrowth of the first. True to a real feminist society, there are no real men in this movie.
Merida’s father and the rest of the clan leaders are rowdy, buffoonish children who have to be shushed, scolded, and dragged around by the ears by the queen. The suitors are all such that Merida’s clearly better off without one. And that makes her the first Disney princess who doesn’t want a prince, and who doesn’t get one.
This point got half-hearted “yay”s from critics trying to be consistently supportive of feminism’s a-woman-needs-a-man-like-a-fish-needs-a-bicycle ideals. “You’ll be relieved after you see her choices for prince,” wrote one reviewer. “However, I felt something was missing when she became the first independent princess……and, for the life of me, I can’t believe I feel that way.” We can. And there’s a world full of young women who are not excited to find that the feminist landscape they’ve inherited means they get to make the same choice Merida did.
The catalyst of the movie comes when Merida’s mother tells her that, for political reasons, her three horrifying suitor options are IT and she needs to choose one of them NOW. The situation explodes into a catfight that eventually ends happily, with the two feminist views reconciling, the mother happily continuing to rule the realm (essentially) alone, and the daughter happily pursuing single independence. It’s the kind of “happy” ending that a lot of women would dutifully applaud… but few truly want to live.
Unfortunately, it’s a premise a lot of girls watching feel like they themselves have to look forward to – no men leading, little fatherly guidance, no suitable suitors, and people still trying to pressure them into getting married faster.
We might all see Merida’s reactions to these crises as childish (which they were), but then we’re left with the question, “What would we do in her shoes?” One of the great things about movies is how they can give us practice analyzing scenarios we might have to deal with ourselves one day. So how should we respond if, for instance, we feel like: “I’m being pressured to marry someone I don’t like!”?
Hints from well-meaning friends, probing questions from relatives, introductions from prospective in-laws, or nudges from parents could all be scary if any of these people had the biblical prerogative to force you into marriage against your will, but guess what? They don’t.
Theologians believe Scripture sets a precedent for the daughter’s consent being necessary for marriage (Gen. 24:57,58). We also see that the very essence of a covenant is that there are two parties entering into it of their own volition, and the covenant has to be between the two parties who have to keep it (the parents, siblings, or dog of one involved party can’t enter into it for them.) Even if you were told to take your pick of three slobbering buffoons (as Merida was), you could still , on biblical grounds, choose none of them. Remember, doing the right thing is always one of your options, even if it didn’t seem to be on the ballot. (Hint: Resisting by way of a magic potion, a temper tantrum, or a plan to publicly humiliate parents and suitors alike would not count as “the right thing.”)
Next, how should a girl respond to the fear that “None of the young men my age are mature/godly/serious enough to get married!”?
“Should I a) keep sitting around waiting for my prince to come (Old Disney Princess style), or b) decide that I don’t need a man anyway (New Disney Princess style)?”
How about neither of the above?
“Brave” critics were delighted that Merida made things happen for herself instead of waiting around for her prince to show up, and we had mixed feelings about that. Sitting around waiting for our ship to come in, our prince to come, or some outside force to get our lives started for us (sometimes called “Cinderella Syndrome”) should have no place in biblical womanhood (or, we would argue, princess movies). But neither should defiant, misandristic autonomy – “Yeah! Who needs men anyway?!”
We need to use this time of life actively, not passively; to bless and serve others rather than to complain and freeload; to be loving, edifying sisters to those fellows and not cold, critical harpies. After all, your “ever after” doesn’t start after you get married – it started the day you were born. Whether it’s happy or not is up to you.
But how should we respond to the fear, “There are no real men leading in the world!”?
As mentioned, this film has several elements of grim reality to it, but one of the most profoundly truthful is this: Whenever you see crude boy-men like King Fergus and the clansmen, you’re going to see women like Queen Elinor and Princess Merida right next to them – dragging them around by the ears, doing all their talking for them, beating them at their own game, making their decisions for them, treating them like four-year-olds, and scolding them when they act like males.
“Brave” is a very accurate snapshot of the symbiotic relationship between feminists and perpetual frat-boys, and why it’s in both of their “best” (and worst) interests to keep the cycle going. For as long as the men keep playing, the women can keep running things… and as long as the women keep running things, the men can keep playing.
This might sound hopeless, but should actually give us hope – and the answer to the problem of “no” real men leading in the world. When there aren’t many real men in the world, that means that there aren’t many real women in the world either. It means that most of us have been, in small ways or large, part of the problem. And it means we can now be part of the solution. We can become the women that the men around us need us to be – not the men we wish they were.
And then maybe we can help forge a happier ever after for everyone.
Twenty years ago, our mother walked down the Walmart Pink Aisle, past all the Disney-heroine Barbies, Disney-movie-inspired vanity playsets, sequined polyester fish-tail skirts with seashells, and itchy yellow off-shoulder Belle dresses, and decided, “Not for my daughters.”
We were 4 and 6, and like most little girls, were each on our quest for the holy grail of femininity, the all-inspiring vision of who to be when we grew up. Like many mothers, Mom realized that the entire panoply of Disney “woman” options, from Snow White to Ariel and Belle, were not it. Unlike many mothers, she ditched the entire franchise, tossed Barbie, and made us beautiful cloth dolls based on our intrepid Swedish-immigrant great-grandmothers, and taught us how to make clothes for them ourselves.
Seven years ago, Disney-Pixar also saw a problem with their insipid line of princesses. “I love fairy tales, but I am tired of the message of waiting around for your prince to show up and you’ll live happily ever after,” said Brenda Chapman, writer and co-director of Disney-Pixar’s newest movie. “[M]y goal was to offer up a different kind of princess — a stronger princess that both mothers and daughters could relate to, so mothers wouldn’t be pulling their hair out when their little girls were trying to dress or act like this princess. Instead they’d be like, ‘Yeah, you go girl!’”
So last week they unveiled…
…Princess Merida of “Brave,” a fiery-haired, fiery-tempered, arrow-shooting, teenaged tomboy, who doesn’t want to get married, doesn’t want to mind her manners, and hates being a princess. She takes after her boorish warrior father instead of her polished power-woman mother, who tries in vain to shape her into a responsible and proper future queen. Merida’s head-butting with her mother turns into all-out war when she’s faced with an forced marriage to her choice of three slobbering buffoons in order to keep the kingdom’s peace.
To make a long and rather weak story short (you can read our brother Isaac’s analysis of it here and here), Merida strikes a spiteful and reckless bargain with a witch to fix her mother-problems, which endangers her mother’s life and causes a national crisis. She then has to fix her mistake, which involves reconciling with her mother, and the two then overrule the kingdom’s tradition together in perfect, heartwarming mother-daughter harmony.
This spunky new princess is supposedly breaking all kinds of stereotypes, and presenting a brave new kind of role model for America’s daughters. But is she really?
Let’s first ask why this even matters, as some might complain, “Merida is just pretend,” “’Brave’ is just a movie,” or “It’s just entertainment.” Disney knows better. Interviews with any of the writers, directors, or producer make it clear that their goal was not to entertain girls. They wanted to inspire them. Nor did they ever mean for “Brave” to be just a movie. “Brave” is an advertisement. It’s trying to sell something, and we’re not just talking about billions of dollars’ worth of Merida merchandise. What it’s offering is a new product in Disney’s catalog of personalities, attitudes, and identities. If you didn’t want to be the singing scullerymaid, the vapid plot-vehicle, the defiant teenaged mermaid, or the daydreaming bookworm — now you can be the Amazonian spitfire!
Analyzing Merida matters because she was designed specifically to be a model for others to follow, by people who know girls will. So what did they put into the package, and how brave is it really? Let’s examine Merida’s example.
• Whining for time off from responsibility, rules, expectations, and having to be a role model: not all that brave.
• Resisting self-discipline, education, and training for the future in favor of outdoorsy hobbies: not all that brave.
• Defying parents (while freeloading off of them): not all that brave.
• Refusing to follow basic rules of manners: not all that brave.
• “Making things happen” in your life (instead of sitting around) by causing mayhem in others’: not all that brave.
• Fighting for your own way over anything else: not all that brave.
• Confessing and actually repenting for her catastrophic mistake at the end: very brave.
• Realizing that her mother was a person too, who could be terribly hurt by her daughter’s selfishness: extremely brave, for a kids’ movie about parent-child conflict.
• Refusing to marry any of her suitors: Sorry, we’re saving our thoughts on this one for the next post.
Yes, there were some points to her example that we were happy to see, but honestly, doing no more than owning up to and fixing the mistakes she herself made hardly makes her a hero. We’ve seen little toasters braver than this.
Nor does her example rise above stereotypes of femininity – it just creates one new one (which isn’t even that new). Not only is Merida not as brave as a toaster; she can’t even make toast. That is to say, she’s yet another heroine with excellent motor skills in the woods but who’s totally incompetent indoors. She can sit the trot, but not sit up straight in her chair at royal functions (nor walk without lumbering, eat without gobbling, and so forth.) How are all these socially and domestically challenged heroines who swing swords but fumble with teapots broadening society’s expectations for what a girl can do? How is this a more empowering womanhood?
Full-orbed biblical womanhood should involve more than pouring tea or singing with forest creatures, of course – but should also involve more than spending all day shooting arrows into nothing (which is maybe why our mother used to buy us tea sets and bows and arrows.) The helpless someday-my-prince-will-come vision and the autonomous barbaric tomboy vision are both narrow, unhealthy, and most of all, unbiblical. In other words, “Brave” can just join the roundup of usual suspects for creating unhealthy stereotypes for girls, along with Queen Victoria, Aristotle, June Cleaver, Rousseau, Rosie the Riveter, and Barbie. And like our mother, we can just say “no” to all of them, because they’re all inventions of man and they’re all wrong.
There is a vision out there that is bigger, better, and braver, and it is because it’s God’s.
It requires a lot more than being the kind of “heroine” that “girls [can] look at and not feel inadequate” (the goal of Merida’s creator Brenda Chapman), because it was designed by a God Who wants us to become more than we are. We all start out immature, foolish, weak, clumsy, and yes, inadequate, but He calls us as women to move on and develop courage, compassion, wisdom, knowledge, strength, dignity, discretion, diligence, gentleness, resourcefulness, entrepreneurship, generosity, submission to authority, and sacrifice for others.
The Bible tells tales of women who were intelligent, brave, beautiful, and who acted like women instead of little barbarians. Of women who didn’t fit inside personality-type clichés like “the lovable klutz,” “the beautiful bimbo,” “the steely battle-ax,” “the mealy-mouthed Mary Sue,” “the defiant teen,” “the snarky geek,” or “the tomboyish wildcat.” The godly deeds of these heroines never included teen rebellion, ruling over men, or “following their hearts,” though they did include a lot of things that would have shocked Queen Victoria.
Of course, our culture will keep trying to give us new “role models” to expand our catalog of options, but the spread is still too small, and always will be until the Bible becomes the basis for a new vision of femininity.
Now, as soon as Disney gives us a princess who can put tent pegs through enemy generals’ heads, hurl millstones at invading armies, defy pharaohs, shelter spies, rebuild walls, work in the fields, water camels, and risk her life for her people, as well as sew and cook and raise a family — then we’ll call that a brave princess.
1 (Respectively, Jdg. 4:24, Jdg. 9:53, Ex. 1:15-21, Josh. 2, Neh. 3:12, Ruth 2, Gen. 24:19,20, Esth. 4,5, Proverbs 31, Acts 9:39, Gen. 18:6, Tit. 2:4, 1 Tim. 5:9,10, and Prov. 31:27.)