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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Are the “Princess Wars” the new “Mommy Wars”?

A couple of weeks ago, Stephanie Hanes of the Christian Science Monitor called me. She had seen my post asking studios like Disney and Dreamworks to let princesses dare to dream of more, and she wanted to hear more of my princess-related thoughts. Lucky for her, I have many of them!

ImageToday, Ms. Hanes referenced me in a Christian Science Monitor blog post called “The Disney Princess Divide: The New Mommy Wars?” You see, for about a year now, I’ve been interviewing parents and educators about their thoughts on the Disney Princess phenomenon. I’ve learned that young girls’ princess obsessions have become incredibly controversial in parenting circles, where questions about how to handle girls’ princess obsessions abound:

  • Should parents let girls enjoy princesses because they’re harmless?
  • Should they give girls only moderate access to the princesses because they’re harmful?
  • Or are princesses so bad for girls, and so all-consuming, that parents should shield them from the princesses altogether?

This debate is so intense that, as one of my interviewees told me, “The Princess Wars are the new Mommy Wars.” Her pithy summary of the situation really struck a chord: Reading just the comments on blogs like Princess-Free Zone, Pigtail Pals, and Peggy Orenstein’s blog, as well as Stephanie Hanes’ Christian Science Monitor magazine cover story on the “Disney Princess Effect,” it’s clear that tensions run high among readers about princess culture. On both sides, there’s a lot of judging going on–and unlike Cinderella, it’s not pretty.

Parents: What are your thoughts on the princess phenomenon? Is it harmless fun for your daughter, or a force to be reckoned with? Or maybe some of both?

Also, for my research on this topic, I am looking for a few more parents who are willing to share their princess-parenting experiences with me. If you’re interested, please email me at princessresearch@gmail.com, and we can set up a time to talk. Thanks!

Also of possible interest:

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Katniss Everdeen: The First Post-Girl Power Hero

When I saw The Hunger Games on its opening weekend, I was really struck by something:

Although the sexualization of girls and women is rampant in the media, Katniss Everdeen is not sexualized. Not at all.

Take a look at these images from the film: The fact that Katniss is presented as heroic and strong without being made sexy is a big deal. Previous mainstream girl heroes have been defined by their sexiness. Consider the heroes of girl power, on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed. With dedicated fans of both sexes, their producers seemed intent on making the girls’ strength less threatening by presenting them as sexy and sexually available. Here are a few images from such shows, featuring heroines who–unlike Katniss–are impeccably coiffed and revealingly dressed:

In my analysis, the concept of “girl power” seemed to hinge upon the idea that girls could be strong AND pretty at the same time. It broke the binary that suggested “strong female” is an oxymoron, almost normalizing the idea that being girly doesn’t equal being weak.

But.

Girl power media targeting audiences of teens and adults presented strong-and-pretty as strong-and-sexy, with “sexy” narrowly defined (as illustrated by the above images). This link was so constant that it seemed you couldn’t have strength without sexiness, and that sexiness came to seem a natural part of being a strong female character on screen.

When Katniss appears in The Hunger Games in fancier, more feminine, more revealing attire, she looks uncomfortable. The performance of normative femininity is completely unnatural to her. It is an act, something she is forced to do–not a choice, and certainly not something she finds empowering:

This is probably why Hunger Games critics and fans have complained that Jennifer Lawrence is too “fat” for the role of Katniss. Because, seriously, by no stretch of the imagination is the woman shown above fat. She’s not as thin as Sarah Michelle Gellar or Alyssa Milano, but she’s nowhere close to being overweight.

No, they’re just not used to female lead characters who aren’t dished up to titillate a male gaze. If she’s not scantily clad in a super-sexy way, then she’s not attractive, which means she’s fat. Sigh.

In short, Katniss Everdeen is arguably the first post-girl power hero to grace the screen. Her presentation as a strong character who is not defined by her sex, and who is not sexualized, is a nice contrast to the message that “girls can be strong AND pretty/sexy,” in which pretty/sexy is ultimately obligatory.

Katniss Everdeen is a girl, and she is strong. But not in a girl power way.

And that’s a good thing.

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Order my book, Growing Up With Girl Power, today!

I’m delighted that my book, Growing Up With Girl Power: Girlhood On Screen and in Everyday Life, is now available from my publisher, Peter Lang Press! Won’t you buy a copy?

You can order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or directly from PeterLang.com. Orders placed now should arrive by the end of February.

Here’s a synopsis:

For more than a decade, girl power has been a cultural barometer, reflecting girlhood’s everchanging meanings. How did girl power evolve from a subcultural rallying cry to a mainstream catchphrase, and what meaning did young girls find in its pop culture forms? From the riot grrrls to the Spice Girls to The Powerpuff Girls, and influenced by books like Reviving Ophelia and movements like Take Our Daughters to Work Day, Growing Up With Girl Power charts this history. It considers how real girls who grew up with girl power interpreted its messages about empowerment, girlhood, strength, femininity, race, and more, and suggests that for young girls, commercialized girl power had real strengths and limitations–sometimes in fascinating, unexpected ways. Encompassing issues of preadolescent body image, gender identity, sexism, and racism, Growing Up With Girl Power underscores the importance of talking with young girls, and is a compelling addition to the literature on girls, media, and culture.

Professors: Are you considering assigning Growing Up With Girl Power in one of your classes? Request a free desk copy here, and check out my book’s companion website–it’s full of great content to prompt class discussion. If you adopt it for your course, I would be glad to visit or chat with your class via Skype. Email me for details!