Sunday, June 24, 2012

Brave or Brat: Why I won't be seeing Brave in the theater


Over the past decades, Pixar has earned its reputation as the premier animation studio in the United States.  It took digital animation from being a quaint curiosity to being the most popular and accepted form of animation in the modern American cinema.  Rather than accepting animation as the realm of children and allowing it to fall into a simplistic, shoddy abyss, Pixar has fought to show that Walt Disney was right that animation was “the most versatile and explicit means of communication yet devised for quick mass appreciation.”  When other cartoons were focused on simplistic entertainment, Pixar took on society’s tendency to hate the exceptional with The Incredibles, the question of being human with WALL-E, and the question of true love, generative living, and adventure with Up

I am a huge Pixar fan.  Not all of Pixar’s films have resonated for me, but I find the studio’s handling of story and their dedication to deep literary and human themes admirable in an industry where pandering for profit far too often outweighs quality.  Because of that respect for Pixar and my unabashed love of princesses, fairy tales, and fantasy, I was giddy when I heard about Brave.  Pixar doing a princess fairy tale with a fantasized historical backdrop of Twelfth Century Scotland?  Oh yes, please! I’m a humanities teacher, so history is close to my heart, and I’ve taught courses on myth, fairy and folk tales. I’m familiar with the work of Propp, Bettelheim, Zipes, and Campbell, and I knew that with Pixar’s dedication to theme and detail they would be too.  I was psyched.

The initial marketing for the film fanned the flames of my enthusiasm.  Merida’s character design, with its moon-face and medusa hair didn’t thrill me, but the will-o-the wisp lights and the sweeping vistas promised wonder galore. And, of course, the tag line of changing your fate resonated – it fit in with the themes of classic myth and Campbell’s hero journey. 

Then I saw the archery trailer, and my hopes fell.  Where many other viewers thrilled to Merida as a strong, liberated heroine standing up against patriarchal values, I saw an homage to the increasingly accepted modern viewpoint that strong women have to be divas, brats or “bitches.”  It wasn’t Merida’s defiance; it wasn’t her desire to break free of her “princess” role; it was the fact that she chose to act publicly with open insolence against her mother in front of the whole kingdom.  It was a choice I saw not as being about liberation but about humiliation, and it made me lose a little respect for Merida.


Subsequent marketing did little to change my mind.  The highlighting of the bratty little brothers, celebrating their apparently accepted naughtiness and the portrayal of every man as a buffoon failed to reassure me.
So I decided to hold off on Brave, to see how the film’s reviewers portrayed it and find out if my preconceptions were the result of a marketing campaign that failed to reach me or if they were actually indicative of the content of the film.  Initial reviews left me hesitant, citing the film’s surprisingly small focus, attention to action over deeper character development and themes, and the crude humor that helped to earn a PG rating. 

And then I read Joanna Weiss’sanalysis of the film, and I knew I wouldn’t be seeing it in the theater.  Calling Merida a princess for the “modern girl,” Weiss characterizes her as an “impetuous teenager, sassy and sarcastic, obnoxious and sometimes hurtful,” determining that those characteristics, her “imperfections” are what make her great.  For me, that’s where the fairy tale ends. I fear that I find modern society’s acceptance of children’s (and teenager’s) bad behavior as a natural part of their character offensive.  Yes, children are naughty; teenagers are rebellious, but accepting and, at times, lauding that behavior is anathema to me…and to the fairy tale genre from which Brave is supposed to come.  The issue here is not with Merida’s defiance of her parent’s commands, what Vladimir Propp called “violation of the interdiction.” That violation is, in fact, vital to the structure of the fairy tale.  It is the perception and presentation in Brave that the public, humiliating violation of the interdiction is, rather than a problem, an act of feminine liberation that casts royal family and their society as the villains. 

Yes, I know that the story of Brave goes past that moment of defiance.  It follows Propp’s pattern of the villain learning about the hero and deceiving her/him to do harm to a member of the family (steps IV through VIII in Morpology of the Folk Tale). Merida makes a bad choice and then takes responsibility for her actions, embarking on a classic hero’s journey to reverse her error and growing up a bit in the process.  Yes, I know that the story is, as it has been characterized by reviewers “a love affair between a mother and daughter,” but why must that story center around denigrating grace, nurture, consideration for others, and falling in love?

From the branding of Bratz dolls over a decade ago to the pantheon of modern pop and reality show stars, society has increasingly created a sense that to be strong a woman has to be demanding, defiant, and, well, generally obnoxious to the males in her life (who are all idiots anyway).  For a wide range of women, heroines that take what they want with little consideration for those around them are envied and lauded, perhaps because their audiences subconsciously view them as surrogates for the actions they dare not take or because they associate with the fictional characters’ behavior.  Those standards seem to me to be bubbling up in Brave, hardly a stretch, for, as Jane Yolen reminds readers in Touch Magic, “The storyteller, the writer, is a human mind mired in society. The writer’s art represents the ideas and beliefs and prejudices of a particular society, preserving them like flies in amber.”

When Walt Disney began producing animated fairy tales in the early Twentieth Century, he pulled those tales far, far away from their roots, imbuing them with his values and the values of the society in which he and his viewers lived.  The fairy tale world of Disney films is far more sanitary and gentle than that of the stories from which the tales originate, a world rooted in its own time and place.  Whether princesses are rescued from spells and abuse by princes, rewarded for hard work and loyalty to family, or prized for innocence and beauty, they are the result of their culture.  With more recent Disney films, it seemed that the heroine had once again undergone a renovation.  In Tangled, and even Wall-E, the heroines could take care of themselves, but they discovered a need for something more, something worth sharing and nurturing: the power of love.  They were neither dominant nor submissive, but were partners in a relationship, able to nurture and find something emotionally deeper and more mature within themselves.

I won’t be seeing Brave in the theater because its promotion has made me view the film as a rejection of all of those ideas, glorifying another aspect of modern culture that, while definitely a mirror to society, is something I don’t want to support. Brenda Chapman, the film’s originator and original director, said her own relationship with a headstrong daughter made her want to write a story about a working mom and her defiant teenager.  That story, although certainly one that may resonate for modern mothers looking for hope that their diva daughters will eventually form a parental bond, 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? 

Until my viewpoint changes, Brave will remain a rental film for me. It doesn’t change my passion or respect for Pixar, but it is not a film I expect to really resonate for me.  A coming of age story focusing on family, there is no doubt that it will resonate with modern audiences, but its bratty heroine, buffoonish men, and small focus changed its fate for me…I’ll go watch Tangled again. 

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