Disney-Pixar’s Brave: Critiquing the criticisms

I saw Brave the day it debuted in theaters, and I’m glad that Merida is a different kind of princess–one who can be read as a critique of both the trope that princesses are passive and the trend to tell their stories as romances. But I also have some mixed feelings. For example:

  • The film’s marketing, which essentially ignores that Brave is a tale of a mother-daughter relationship (presumably for fear that such a story wouldn’t be a box office draw), is insulting.
  • The storyline itself features such unappealing would-be suitors that Merida’s disinterest in romance is undercut: What if the three young men who must vie for her hand were more like Prince Charmings than doofuses?
  • Finally, having studied girl power media for several years, it bothers me that Merida is presented as isolated, an anomalous female, without a community of female peers her own age. Can’t a girl who is supposed to be strong not be a loner?

With all that in mind, since the release of Disney-Pixar’s Brave, I’ve been reading reviews and commentaries of the film with interest. There are two strands of criticism that I would like to address: 1. that the film is unoriginal, and 2. that Merida is a brat.

Is Brave an unoriginal film?

When Joanna Weiss of the Boston Globe and I talked about Brave, she mentioned that a lot of early reviews complained the film was unoriginal–“just another princess movie,” she said. Reviewers were complaining that unlike other Pixar films, Brave didn’t feature a fully fabricated, fantastically unexpected world; it seemed to be treading old ground.

For example, Todd McCarthy wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that Brave is “familiar” and treads “startlingly well-worn territory.” He also complains that it is “laden with standard-issue fairy tale and familiar girl-empowerment tropes.” But is it, really? It’s a story about a mother-daughter relationship. How is this “familiar” and “well-worn”? He and other reviewers complain that Brave is too Disney and not enough Pixar. In reading reviews like these, I sensed the reviewers just couldn’t get past the fact that Brave is about a princess, rather than something as unexpected as talking cars or talking toys or talking fish.

Ask any girl who’s been raised on princess films, and she’ll tell you that Merida is different, and very unlike her Disney Princess peers. As far as the narrative goes, what does Merida have in common with Disney Princesses, exactly? The fact that she’s a princess who has utterly fantastic hair. That’s about it.

(Even the witch in Brave seems perfectly nice. Unlike Disney’s approach, there’s no vilification of old ladies in Pixar’s film, which is refreshing.)

Other than that, while watching Brave, I was amused to notice how closely the film follows Pixar’s formula for its protagonists:

  • The protagonist (e.g., Woody, Lightning McQueen, Marlin) makes some bad decisions, portrayed in ways that make them seem not entirely likable. (Because of his ego and jealousy, Woody is a jerk to Buzz; Lightning is self-centered, smugly superior, and judgmental of others; Marlin is a smothering, over-protective parent.)
  • The protagonist does something that causes harm or potential harm to someone else. (Woody pushes Buzz out a window; Lightning coerces Mack into driving overnight; Marlin embarrases Nemo in front of peers so badly that Nemo takes a risk and is captured by a diver.)
  • Said protagonist has unexpected experiences, a journey beyond his comfort zone. (Woody has to leave Andy’s house to save Buzz, and gets to know him better; Lightning, separated from Mack, has an unexpected several-day detour through Radiator Springs, and actually gets to know its citizens; Marlin travels across the ocean to find his son, confronting his worst fears.)
  • As a result of these experiences, the protagonist changes. (Woody becomes less egotistical and ultimately makes friends with Buzz; Lightning becomes less egotistical and ultimately makes friends with the citizens of Radiator Springs; Marlin calms down and becomes a better parent.)

Merida goes through a similar journey. She begins as a self-absorbed teenager who wants to avoid the responsibilities of being a princess. After a fight with her mother, she finds herself someplace new and strange. Merida makes a bad decision that turns her mother into a bear. While trying to save her mother from this predicament, Merida then spends an awful lot of time insisting that it’s not her fault.

Finally, however, Merida changes, developing a better understanding of her mother and growing as a person. She realizes it is her fault, and by the movie’s conclusion, she has incorporated some of her mother’s statements into her own worldview, such as “Legends are lessons. They ring with truth” and “How do you know you don’t like it if you won’t try it?” (At this, a young child seated behind me and my son in the theater marveled, “She’s acting like her mother!”)

So if the film seems familiar to reviewers, I don’t think it’s because it’s a Disney princess story. Merida is so different from the other Disney Princesses. Do Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Ariel have journeys in which they learn something about themselves and change? No. Their problems are solved by others. What about Belle? No. She longs for “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” but ultimately she is reduced to a catalyst of change for someone else–the Beast.

I really think that Brave feels familiar to many viewers because it’s telling the same type of story Pixar has been trading in for years. And so, as I told Joanna, it seems a little sexist for reviewers to place the blame for the film’s familiar feeling on the fact that Merida is a princess.

Is Merida a brat?

Another strand of conversation that has caught my eye is the debate over whether Merida is more bratty than brave. After all, she’s sassy and outspoken and argues openly with her mother. A reviewer at SFGate.com expresses concern that the movie “the movie may tilt the balance too far in Mom’s direction, so that the film’s ostensible heroine ceases to seem adorably spunky and becomes more like an awful brat.”

Indeed, in some audience members’ opinions, this seems to be the case. One blogger writes, Brave “seems to accept and perhaps even glorify the defiance of the diva, the ‘coolness’ of being a brat, and the idea that insolence is synonymous with independence. When did respect for one’s parents, a gentle spirit, and a longing for a loving partnership involving mutual sacrifice become sexist and outdated?” Another argues, “I worry that our culture perpetuates a sort of entitled-brat attitude in girls these days: that our daughters deserve to get what they want, when they want it simply because they are girls. And nobody can tell girls these days what to do or what to want. They’re in charge.”

In all of this, I haven’t seen anyone acknowledge the reality of teenagers’ relationships with their parents. As Nurture Shock explains, studies indicate that 96% of teenagers lie to their parents, often about really big issues. Which teens lie the least? Those whose parents consistently enforce rules while being the most warm and having the most conversations with their children. They explain why rules exist but are supportive of their children’s autonomy and freedom.

This, perhaps, can be understood as Elinor’s big parenting mistake: She dictates things to Merida without really explaining them to her, and so it seems to Merida that her mother does not support her freedom.

Yet ironically, Merida’s protestations and efforts to change her mother’s mind are not signs of a bad mother-daughter relationship. Studies also show that the teens who argue more openly with their parents are the teens who are the most honest. According to Nurture Shock, one study showed that families with less deception had “a much higher ratio of arguing/complaining. Arguing was good–arguing was honesty.” However, “The parents didn’t necessarily realize this. The arguing stressed them out.”

Meanwhile, another study of mother-daughter arguments summarized in Nurture Shock found that while nearly half of mothers felt arguments with their daughters were bad for their relationships, less than a quarter of daughters felt the same way. For daughters, what was most important was how these arguments ended. The daughters needed to feel heard by their mothers, and over time, they needed to win some arguments and get small concessions from others. But they did not need to win every battle; they mainly needed to feel heard. (As Merida says to her mother, “Just listen to me!”)

In other words, the fact that Merida makes her disagreements clear to her mother does not make her a brat. As unpleasant as this may be for parents to consider, Merida’s argumentative nature may actually be a sign of respect and a mother-daughter relationship that is fundamentally sound. That’s important to keep in mind. When Merida and her mother begin to really consider one another’s perspectives, both parties grow as individuals, and their relationship becomes stronger. For parents worried that Merida is a “brat” who is setting a poor example for their children, these facts could provide useful talking points for the entire family.

Related Post: Katniss vs Merida: Mattel’s doll versions of strong girl characters

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5 Comments on “Disney-Pixar’s Brave: Critiquing the criticisms

  1. I get the feeling that a large part of the criticism that Brave is “a princess movie” is because of Disney’s marketing — all the dolls and other toys, costumes &c. tried to force Merida into the Disney Princess mold, and so reviewers were biased againt the film in advance, and never stopped to truly watch the film. If they had, they’d have noticed that Merida is the very antithesis of the Disney Princess. (Which probably sent Disney’s marketing department into a panic, but that’s a whole other thing.)

    I took my 4-year-old niece to see the first showing of Brave on opening day. After the movie, she told me about the Merida dolls she already had, and the dresses she could put on them. So we talked about how Merida despised those kinds of dresses and hated the classic “princessy” stuff, and I asked my niece to think about how Merida would feel if she saw those dolls.

    As for the “brat” idea, that’s just ridiculous. The filmmakers did a brilliant job of setting up the conflict early on, when Elinor laid out her argument to Fergus while Merida laid out hers to Angus. The fact that neither woman could communicate her side to the other rang perfectly true. Both Elinor and Merida must put aside their own stubbornness and make compromises (or “mend the bond torn by pride”, as the movie puts it). And as a man, I appreciated what the movie strongly hinted at, even if it didn’t explore it in detail: the three princes were chafing just as much under their fathers’ expectations as Merida was under her mother’s.

  2. I love the way you break down the criticism in this post! So many great points! And thank you for a bit of parenting wisdom I will be tucking away for the future:
    “Studies also show that the teens who argue more openly with their parents are the teens who are the most honest. According to Nurture Shock, one study showed that families with less deception had ‘a much higher ratio of arguing/complaining. Arguing was good–arguing was honesty.'”
    Good to know!!

  3. Pingback: Weekly Round Up: July 17 | Mouse on the Mind

  4. Thank you for this post! I’ve been looking for an analysis that is a little more balanced, I think you may be pretty spot on – I have yet to see the movie for myself so I am working off of clips and spoiler descriptions, but this rings pretty true with my impressions so far.

  5. My feeling that Merida was behaving badly wasn’t because of her arguments, which were perfectly understandable and great to see because they’re so true to life. It was because of her putting a spell on her mother and then being extremely slow to take responsibility for it. But I wasn’t totally dismissive of her as a character, just a little put off by that.

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