This parent-child discussion guide for Disney/Pixar’s Brave is a supplement to The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years.
Brave (2012): A parent-child discussion guide
by Nancy Gruver
Nancy Gruver and her family founded the groundbreaking international publication, New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams, in 1992. She is still the publisher and is a national leader in the movement to empower girls and foster their creativity and self-confidence. She’s also the Executive Director of Dads and Daughters, the national advocacy non-profit for fathers and daughters, and manages the newsletter Daughters: For Parents of Girls. The author of How to Say it to Girls: Communicating with your Growing Daughter, Nancy is frequently asked to speak about girls’ issues and communication strategies for adults with 8 to 14 year-old girls in their lives. She lives in Duluth, Minnesota with her husband Joe Kelly.
Brave is rated PG for “Parental Guidance Suggested.” Common Sense Media recommends Brave for ages 8 and up, because of some “very scary scenes”; but their review also notes that Brave might be suitable for children as young as 6, depending on the child. I’d put the recommended age even higher for imaginative and/or emotionally sensitive children. This film would have given my daughters nightmares at age 8. One of the film’s strengths is its emotionally realistic, rather than slapstick, portrayal of things that will be scary for many children, like the transformation of the main character’s mom into a bear who almost attacks her daughter and husband a couple times.
Brave is Pixar’s first feature with a female main character, and the storyline focuses on the relationship between her and her mother, Queen Elinor. Merida isn’t your typical princess. In childhood, she’s allowed to follow her passions as an independent, adventurous and highly skilled archer and horserider. At the same time, as first-born daughter of one of four clans in a Scottish kingdom, she’s expected to maintain peace by accepting an arranged marriage to a first-born son of one of the other three clans, just as her mother had done. When the time comes, Merida doesn’t want to give up her freedom. Shown as a realistically self-centered adolescent, she feels her mother is the problem, rebels against her parents, and runs away to the forest, finding a witch she pays to cast a spell to change the queen. But when the queen eats the magical cake, she’s transformed into a giant black bear. Now her mother is a bear that her father is hunting, thinking it’s the same bear that bit off his leg years ago. Merida must find out how to break the spell before her mother stays a bear forever, and prevent her mom from being killed by her dad. She shows growing maturity in improving understanding with her mother and working to solve both the challenges from the curse. Along the way, she proposes that tradition change so the young people of the clans will be allowed to decide themselves when and if and who they will marry.
Here are some suggestions for discussion. Because this film isn’t appropriate for most children under 8 I haven’t divided the questions by age group. Of course, you know your child and I don’t, so adapt and tailor them to your child and their development.
- The Pretty Princess Mandate
Brave gives us several ways to critique the Pretty Princess Mandate. Merida is beautiful in an energetic, independent and wild way – represented by her unruly red hair. And in contrast to the PPM, she doesn’t spend any time thinking about or trying to improve her looks. This is a major step toward freedom for an animated princess, making her into a fuller character, who has human flaws of character like impatience rather than a focus on flaws of appearance, which are still a common burden for real-life girls in our culture.
Watch the movie together and talk about what’s on the screen to show how you think and question while viewing media. Encourage your children to express their opinions, too, and don’t expect or require them to agree with your opinions. Your child will hear what you say, even if they don’t comment back. Try questions and comments like these:
- “How would you describe Merida to a friend who hasn’t seen the movie?”
- “What do you think are the most important things about Merida as a person?”
- “Do you think she seems to be different from a lot of other movie princesses in how she looks? How?”
- “Does the way Merida looks show you things about her character?”
- “What’s the main story of the movie to you?”
You can also later expand upon these topics and continue the dialogue. Remember that a child’s experience of a film can change over time, so don’t assume they will always have the same opinions they had while watching the first time. Always try to avoid yes/no questions and try something like these:
- “Since we watched Brave I’ve been thinking about how Merida looks. I don’t think her looks mattered in the story. What do you think?”
- “I felt angry when Merida had to wear the corset and the tight dress and cover up her hair for the betrothal competition. It seemed like she was supposed to change into someone different from herself. Have you ever felt like someone wanted you to change yourself?”
Listen to your child’s responses and acknowledge her perspective, especially if she disagrees with you. If not sure how to respond, you can say something simple like: “That’s interesting. I didn’t think of that.”
Make it Real: It’s great to use these parts of the movie to talk about how colors and clothes in media are often used to show what a character is feeling. Ask your child if there are certain clothes they wear that show their feelings, and what those are.
- The Gender Stereotypes
With both the first Pixar female lead character and the first woman-originated and directed Pixar feature, Brave offers a wealth of ways to talk about various specific gender stereotypes, including the overall concept. Even more significant to my mind is talking with children about how media creators can always choose between using gender stereotypes and not using them.
- “Why do you think the queen didn’t want Merida to get a bow and arrow for her birthday?”
- “When you think about Merida and her mom, how are they different and how are they alike?”
- “How about Merida and her dad, how are they different and how are they alike?”
- “Why do you think the queen told Merida she had to learn other things in addition to archery and horseriding? Were some of those things gender stereotypes? Why were those other things important to the queen?”
- “What are the gender stereotypes in the male characters of the king, the little brothers, the other clan leaders and the first-born sons?”
- “I saw the queen was worried about trying to keep the peace with the other clans and had to work very hard to do that. Why do you think that was her job?”
- “Do you think it’s realistic for a girl to be better than the three boys in archery? Why?”
- “Merida seemed to act much more grownup when her mom turned into a bear. Why do you think that happened?”
- “What’s different from how the queen acts as a bear from how Mor’du acts? Why do you think that is?”
- “I think that whoever thinks up stories and makes movies, books, games, etc. can decide if the characters are going to keep with gender stereotypes or not.”
Make it Real: Use Brave as a jumping-off point to make a list of behaviors your children have seen in media that are stereotyped as female or male. Animal characters are especially great for this with younger kids. Then make lists of both highly stereotyped and non-stereotyped characters from their media. Finally, you can expand the conversation to real people and how stereotypes are also assumed there.
- A Romance Narrative That Includes Only Adults
Brave is a gust of fresh air for a princess film in having the romance narrative limited totally to the queen and king. In fact, it’s Merida’s certainty that she’s not interested in or ready for romance that triggers her biggest rebellion and the crisis caused by the curse. She doesn’t fantasize at all about a romance or a romantic partner of any kind. I, for one, am delighted. It’s very freeing for both girls and boys in a time when much media and culture is determined to emphasize romance as the only type of relationship there can be between females and males.
- “Why do you think Merida runs away from the betrothal ceremonies after winning the archery competition?”
- “I agree with Merida that if she doesn’t feel interested in romance she shouldn’t be forced. What do you think?”
- “It used to be very common all over the world, and still is in some cultures, that the parents decide when and who their children will marry. It’s called an arranged marriage. What do you think that would be like?”
Make it Real: Ask follow-up questions to help daughters and sons think about romance as only one type of way that females and males feel close. Give examples and encourage them with opportunities to make good friends who are not their gender.
- The Race Stereotypes
Brave is located in Scotland, where white people were then and still are the vast majority of the population. Depending on your child’s age, race, ethnic background, and where you live, they may be fortunate to take for granted a racially diverse environment, where race is talked about as part of daily life. If they don’t have that situation, you can help them feel comfortable noticing and talking about race, by bringing it up in a regular matter-of-fact, informational way. You might say something like this about Brave:
“Did you notice that there are only white people in Brave—no black or brown people like in Aladdin or The Princess and the Frog? That’s because the movie takes place in Scotland, in northern Europe, and at a time when almost all of the people who lived there were white.”
“What ways do you think living where there are many races is different from the way it was in Brave?”
- Teaching Children About Media Creation
We want to help our children become media literate by always reminding them that media are created by other people. People who make many big and small choices about what story to tell, who the characters are, and how to portray it. Brave is also a great chance to talk about the business of products based on media characters and the controversy generated by the sexualizing changes made to Merida when products were created and she was officially inducted into the Disney Princess product line.
- “How did the movie makers show us it was in Scotland in an old time at the very beginning?”
- “Do you know that this is the first Pixar movie with a main character who’s a girl? I was surprised to find that out and I wondered why.”
- “I also heard that the person who came up with the ideas for Brave and directed it for six years is a woman named Brenda Chapman. And she’s the first woman to do these things at Pixar.”
- “Are there things in the movie that you think might be different if a man had come up with the original ideas for it? What?”
- When movies are made, many scenes are created that don’t all end up in the final movie. See a cut scene from Brave here and talk about why it might have been cut: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmMPw49XwYk
- “When products are made about a movie character they can change the intention of the original creators. That happened with Brave. How would you feel if you made up a character and someone else changed it later on in ways you didn’t like? What would you do about it?”
- See a little about how Brenda Chapman felt in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6tw_KQOGSo
- Google “Merida Brave Controversy” to find more info about the protests about the changes and ask you child how they feel about this.
- Watch a short video about some of the steps and decisions behind the computer-generated animation of Brave at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tuw1_JCNBVs