Saturday, June 30, 2012

Brave: Pixar’s Cowardly Movie

According to my American Heritage Dictionary, “Brave” is defined as:
  • Possessing or displaying courage; valiant
  • Making a fine display; impressive or showy
  • Excellent; great
  • To undergo or face courageously

I have told my daughters many times that bravery is being afraid, but doing it anyway.

Here’s what “Brave” isn’t: being a petulant teenager who almost ends your mother’s life because you’re being forced to do something you don’t want to do.

Granted, the stakes for Merida – the hero in Disney Pixar’s new movie “Brave” – are higher than being allowed to stay out after curfew or wear torn jeans. Merida’s mother, the queen, sticks steadfastly to social norms and traditions. From the beginning of the film, she is constantly telling her daughter what “ladies” don’t do., presenting herself as the very model of “ladylike” behavior.

Merida is portrayed as an extraordinarily gifted tomboy who can scale rocks as tall as buildings in a single bound, shoot arrows with pinpoint accuracy while riding a horse at high speed, and fight like...well...a boy – at least how boys are defined in her mother’s world.

Which is why it’s scary and appalling when the queen tells Merida she must marry – and presents her with suitors who don’t begin to match Merida’s fearlessness and skill.

I, too, would balk at having to put myself away to please and be subservient to a husband. I, too, would fight what Merida labels as “becoming my mother” – or, rather, adhering to limited views of what women are or can be embodied in my mother’s generation.

In fact, I did balk at that. Thirty years ago. And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with the movie “Brave.” It makes epic promises about Pixar’s first female heroine who must save her country, evoking thoughts of “Braveheart” or “Star Wars” or even “Norma Rae.” What we got instead was “Mary Tyler Moore” – a story that would have been groundbreaking  at a time when women couldn’t open checking accounts on their own, that now seems backwards in its view of women and the roadblocks women and girls must overcome.

The smallness of the story is what bothers me. Luke Skywalker is a boy from a remote, tiny village who doesn’t realize the power he has, but who finds himself fighting to save the universe. Erin Brockovich is a woman who doesn’t realize how smart she is, but ends up almost single-handedly triumphing over corporate cruelty and greed. Gandhi is a man who finds power in stillness, and ends up taking down a nation.

Merida is a girl who is trying to get her mother to be less uptight.

What makes it more egregious is that Merida’s “bravery” is really displayed as petulance. And her mother – who has dedicated her life to constricting herself by what she is supposed to do – comes off as wise.

Because, you know, only petulant, self-centered girls forge their own paths in life.

I can’t help thinking that if the main character in “Brave” had been a boy, his prodigious skill would have been enlisted to save his country. Or he would have struck out on his own, leaving expectations behind, stumbling into and foiling a plot that would have destroyed the kingdom. He would have been asked to shoulder responsibilities beyond his years – to be afraid, but to do it anyway.

For Merida, the roadblocks she has to overcome are of her own making, and they’re made with a rashness that plays into both the stereotype of an hysterical woman and the stereotype of a fiery redhead. The choices she makes are not brave, they are stupid, and the movie is really about how she scrambles to dig herself out of the holes she’s dug.

Because, you know, that’s really all that women can do.

At its heart, “Brave” is a relationship movie, a chick flick. As she tries to solve the problem she’s created, Merida comes to see that her mother really does love her. As her mother watches (and helps) Merida try to solve the problem, she comes to a better understanding of how powerful and fierce her daughter is. And somehow she comes to appreciate it, without seeing that fierceness as a repudiation of her own choices.

I suppose that’s an OK message for middle class America, where so many women still are tempted to mold their daughters based on the limitations of society. But it leaves out so many mothers and daughters for whom this is not the norm.

Wouldn’t it have been better to write a film script without those limitations, to show how truly powerful women and girls can be? Wouldn’t that have been a great message for mothers and daughters to take out of the theatre?

This movie is billed as a movie about bravery. It’s billed as a movie about going out into the world. It’s billed as a movie about saving the kingdom. And I’m afraid that for so many little girls – and misguided mothers who want to limit them – the smallness of scope of “Brave” will only send the message that women really shouldn’t try saving the kingdom – or even running it.

Four years ago, our country almost had a female presidential candidate. It’s very likely we’ll have a female president within the decade. And when we elect her, I’m not going to care how she got along with her mother, or whether she’d be willing to marry a suitor from another kingdom. I’m going to care about whether or not she can save the world – or at least run one country.

Where’s the movie that will inspire little girls to want that?

I put out a call to my Facebook friends to come up with titles of epic movies in which the hero saves something larger than him or herself. What interested me was the range of answers to this question. Following, in the order I received them, are the answers that were posted (some by the same people):



The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Pan's Laberinth


The Alien Trilogy

A Civil Action

The Marathon Man

The Verdict

12 Angry Men

Erin Brockovich

The Accused


Lorenzo's Oil


Superman. Spiderman.

All the President's Men


‎Two very different Tom Hanks films: Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan

Three Days of the Condor

The Insider

Blue Velvet

Gideon's Trumpet — a made for TV movie with Henry Fonda. Clarence Gideon is one of the most unlikely heroes in American history.

Schindler's List

Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae

Star Wars

The Crucible and To Kill a Mockingbird

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Wizard of Oz

Lawrence of Arabia. Bridge on the River Kwai.

First Knight. A Knight's Tale. The Patriot. The Expendables.

The Shawshank Redemption

We Were Soldiers Once. Robin Hood (any version). Excalibur. Master and Commander. Peter Pan. Count of Monte Cristo.

Finding Nemo

The Unforgiven

The Last Starfighter

The Dirty Dozen

The Great Escape

Hunger Games