Merida and the Always Tricky Question of What Exactly Makes a Strong Woman

by - Friday, July 20, 2012

Last week we went to see Brave, the Pixar movie that was touted as the first one that was about girls. I can appreciate this, because Pixar in general has totally failed at giving women narrative arcs. Rather than the sort of beautiful courage and effortless they give their best storytelling (the beginning of Up, all of Wall-E, the first Toy Story movie), this film felt labored. It's main character was not as funny as pretty much all of the others have been (they do that thing movies do where women with character just means a little bit of uncouth behavior). It felt heavy-handed, like it was saying the whole time "Look! It's a movie about girls! And not typical Disney princess! Look at her do this totally non-princessy thing!" But what really bothered me about Merida is that they consistently hammered in all the things that she wasn't, but it was never narratively clear what she was or more importantly, what she wanted. She likes shooting arrows and going outside. So what are her actual dreams? Or motivations? She just doesn't want to be a princess, or marry suitors she can't pick (yet), or listen to her mom.
When the movie first came out, Entertainment Weekly wrote a blog post about how Merida could be the first lesbian Disney princess. At the time, I found this argument really discouraging, especially because their support was that she didn't want to marry any of her three (bad) choices and that she likes shooting arrows, because there are so many problematic assumptions tied into suggesting if a woman is strong, she must be a lesbian. There is nothing wrong with being a lesbian, but these assertions basically say that heterosexual (or asexual, pre-sexual, etc) women could not possibly be strong or like boy things. Now, I get where the desire to label her comes from. Because Merida's actual motivations are so vague, you can tie whatever business you want on to her. Does she want to shoot arrows, or does she enjoy aggression and conflict? (later she does not participate in the manly brawls in her home) All of her characteristics are shallow.

Actually Strong female characters actually are something and want something. You cannot just define a character by what they don’t want to do! That’s not a personality, it’s just petulance! You also cannot define a woman as being awesome by dumbing down literally everyone else around her, because women can only be powerful and intelligent by a very weak comparison. Of course, I recognize the challenge in writing good female characters, and this is still a step in the right direction, but I'll say it- I think Tangled was more successful in defining almost the SAME female character (crazy hair, mommy issues, desire for freedom). Rapunzel had a lot more actual characteristics and a much funnier "man being a princess is boring" number. But I find it discouraging that this is the only female archetype available, when it seems the types of women should be as rich and multiple as the types for men. Though there are parts of this movie I loved, they never dug in beyond this sort of self-congratulatory defiance of older tropes of femininity- it was a superficial appeasement instead of being as fun and rich as it could have been.

That being said, if you are putting it on a scale of whether it was a movie you would show your children, I definitely would. It does NOT pass the Bechtdel test for the great majority of the film (because "being a princess" always seemed to equal "getting married"), but once the big twist takes place, the dialogue shifts somewhat, and the movie becomes more about relationships between women (as opposed to Mulan, who is a great character, but never really gets to interact with other women). With a week to think about it, I am not convinced that this isn't just another movie that seems to be about a young woman, but is really about her mother (Hello, Mamma Mia!). If anyone is truly heroic and strong in the film, it is the figure of the queen, who pretty much is the toughest badass of anyone in the beginning of the film, and she is the only one who really learns/ changes in a productive way. Merida only learns that what she didn't want is actually not that bad, but you can see genuine heroicism and love from the Mom character. She also is in a functional and joyful adult relationship, which has to be a first for Disney movies. Anyway, it is still a great counterpoint to all of the movies where the boy gets to be the hero, and maybe the looseness of her character is actually a cool space for kids to fill with their own dreams and motivation.

So, as a movie I would give it a 3.5. It should have just been more fun. It also seemed to have very low stakes and the big reveal of the mystery didn't make much of a difference in any direction. The climax did make me tear up though, so it still did it's job. Merida, as a character for little girls to look up to, is probably a 3. So close, Pixar, but you can do better! Her hair is a 5 out of 5 though. And the settings are gorgeous. So a mixed bag for sure!

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  1. I've been waiting for you to respond to this film. Watching it made me want to revive the good woman blog.

    I had some problems with it as well. I'll pick two--

    1) What did the two women learn? The arc was clearly inplace for them to learn something via the old transformative odd couple road trip. To Pixar's credit, though this is a cliche, it is not a female-character cliche. But still-- what did their difficult time together cause them to learn? I swear Emperor's New Groove did this plot device better, and it wasn't even trying. I would agree that the lack of a direction for the main character adds to this particular problem.

    2) Can we call this a thing now? Female lead somehow requires a bunch of supporting wacky dimwitted buffoonish male characters? Mulan, Tangled, and now this. I can't think of any reverse-gender analog, and I'm kind of stumped about what it means-- writers think men have to be handicapped to keep them from taking over the story? writers think a woman can only excel if the men suck?

    It actually makes me love Beauty and the Beast a little more only because at least Gaston is capable enough to be taken seriously, and Mulan (yes, I said it) because the barely-human bad guys are credible threats. But seriously-- why the need to place strong female leads in a crowd of idiot men?

  2. It's because she's adolescent. She's building her personality. She just objects and confront as a way of breaking apart and know herself and feel free... She's clearly breaking a stage of her life. And in order to do so she needs to be true to herself. We don't know yet what she's going to be, or whats ahead...
    We know she breaks the mold and she learns stuff on the way (about her relationship with her family and her narcisism... she doesn't take responsability to her actions until the end, that's a brave thing to do)
    That make her interesting without being labeled. It hasnt have to say anything. Is just who she is in that stage of her life.
    And i think this movie its also an interpretation of teens of this generation too. We know she's confidence and brave. She is not just like her feminine mother or just her manly father. Shes a little bit of both. And that is what's distinguishly beautiful about her.