Brave Thoughts

Disney/Pixar All Rights Reserved

Disclosure: My husband works for Pixar, so of course I’m going to tell you to see Brave.  Also, here’s the warning for spoilers: Spoilers Ahead!

Because of my husband’s position at Pixar, he and I were able to see the special preview given to Pixar employees. Before the showing of the film, the producers, directors, and other big-name-people who worked on the film got a chance to make their, “I loved working on this project and am excited about it being done, but sad that we have to move on…” speeches. I’m an impatient and fidgety person, so I didn’t pay the closest attention to the speeches, but these speeches did bring out one thing that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

If you’ve seen Miss Representation, you’ll know at the end it asks the viewers to be more conscientious about the movies they see and to support movies made by women to encourage studios to support more women in the movie business. While the people high up in the ranks of Pixar are mostly male, the producer, Katharine Sarafian, and the original director and story-writer, Brenda Chapman, are women. Chapman was there with her daughter, the inspiration for the story of Brave, and received the longest applause of the night.

I had previously been able to hear Brenda Chapman speak when I saw Miss Representation at a showing in Oakland. She was a panelist who took questions about women in the the animation industry. She has worked on many projects, from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, to The Prince of Egypt (for which she was the first woman director for an animated film), to Brave, and even getting a special thanks in the credits of Shrek. Her experience with multiple studios gave her a special perspective into the animation industry. She gave one anecdote of suggesting a character be female and being met with, “Why?” and being asked to justify making a character female, when there needed no justification for assuming a character to be male. She was careful in this story to not name the project she was working on (could be Pixar, could be Dreamworks, etc), but I think it’s telling of the sort of sexism in the animation and movie industries in general.

Because of that story, I have been extra aware of characters in film and questioning, “Did that character need to be male, or could a female have worked just as well?” and vice versa. When the short film, La Luna, started, I immediately wondered how the story might have changed if one or two or all three of the characters were female. Was the maleness of the characters (a grandfather, father, and son) important for character development or plot or story telling? How would I have felt or reacted if the grandfather was really a grandmother? Or the child a daughter? La Luna is a beautiful short film. I personally don’t feel like the characters needed to be male for the story and feel a little saddened that Pixar missed a chance to give more screen time for the stories of women and girls.

But onto Brave! There is a lot of hype of Brave being Pixar’s first movie with a female protagonist and also Pixar’s first fairy tale. There has been some criticism about making Merida a princess and framing the beginning of the film in a getting-married-off conflict. Yes, it’s frustrating to see that once again, that biggest event in a woman’s life is marriage, but historically, that’s pretty accurate. Marriage has been and still is one of the most economically and socially defining decisions of a woman’s life. It actually is kind of a big deal.

My first feminist frustration happened in the first 20 minutes. In the story, it was announced that the clans will be coming together and presenting suitors for Merida. My brain immediately thought, “Oh clans! Lots of people! This will be fun!” and then I was disappointed that the boats full of people were full of solely male people. Do these prospective suitors not have mothers or sisters with an invested interested in their sons’ or brothers’ marriage possibilities? Why were the women all left at home?

And while the story is predominantly a mother/daughter love story, you can see that in the background, fairytale Scotland is lacking in women. I can count 4 women with names/titles: Merida, Elinor, Maudie (the hysterical- in all meanings of that word- comedic relief), and the Witch. The only other women seen in the background are the women who swooned over Young Macintosh in the games and a couple of nameless maids who worked with Maudie. As far as men with names/titles, you have King Fergus, the leaders of the clans, their sons, and the triplets Harris, Hubert, and Hamish. And plenty of background men. I’m pretty sure clans need to be about 1:1 in the male:female ratio in order to survive, but the movie wasn’t quite there.

There has been some criticism that Brave depicts all men as bumbling idiots and comic relief. Yes, there was some of that. But I do think that the men stepped up when needed. King Fergus, while not completely on top of the politics of his kingdom, did sincerely care about Elinor and Merida’s relationship and wanted to help them out. When he found Elinor missing, the funny antics stopped and he went into serious urgency mode. The young suitors for Merida were very much like Merida in that they were playing out the stories they had been given, but when time came to speak against those stories, they did speak out in favor of change and were not bumbling at all about that. And their fathers didn’t just write them off as foolish youths, but listened to the concerns of their children. You can’t fully develop every secondary and tertiary character, but I would argue that the men in Brave are not fully bumbling idiots.

As a story, I loved that there wasn’t a “bad guy.” The witch wasn’t out to get Merida or destroy the kingdom with the spell. In fact, she gave lots of warnings and was even thoughtful enough to leave measures telling Merida how to reverse the spell. The demon bear, Mordu, was ultimately a character in need of redemption. He’s relatable; we all make mistakes that sometimes permanently harm ourselves and our relationships. In Mordu’s story, Merida and Elinor take on the Christ-role of granting atonement.

The meat of Brave is the relationship between Merida and Elinor. It’s a straight forward reconciliation: at first they are both presented to be at odds with each other, but the things that originally cause conflict, bring them together. Merida’s transformation to an adult accepting responsibilities is lovely, but I particularly loved Elinor’s journey. We are never too old to learn understanding.

Both Elinor and Merida get the chance to practice loving unconditionally, without expectations. Many reviews are giving this movie kudos for not having Merida end up with a suitor. While it’s wonderful that Merida doesn’t need a man at the end to be whole, it even goes further: Merida might not get married at all. This is a huge change from most other princess stories out there.

Other highlights of Brave included the flirting between Elinor and Fergus. I loved the goosing and the sly looks at each other. It was fun and we don’t often get to see a happily married couple flirting in an animated movie.

One warning for parents: this movie is rated PG for a reason. A lot of the story happens at night, the scenery is dark, there is a bear that attacks people, and the music is often ominous. In a theater, that can be very overwhelming for a small child. There is comic relief, but not enough to make it feel like Monster’s Inc or Finding Nemo. While I’d love for you to see it in the theaters, waiting for a DVD and playing it on a smaller screen without loud surround sound, might be better for the little ones.

Have you seen Brave? What were your thoughts?


TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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27 Responses

  1. Jessica F says:

    I really liked the movie. I agree with your perceptions. They probably would have brought women with the council, even if to cook 🙂 I really liked that there was no savior who came in on his white horse. I thought it was a great movie for my kids and I think they were not aware of the lack of women in other parts of the movie, and I hope that they movie industry changes that before too long. I really want my girls to have better role models.

  2. Megan says:

    I enjoyed it thoroughly. I REALLY liked that the love story was between mother and daughter – particularly as there was a moment where I (having NOT been spoiled with plot hints) could see where the film might have followed a more traditional route of handsome-prince/feisty-princess.

    I admit I hadn’t noticed the essential male-ness of the clans who gathered and thinking about it now I’m bothered not as much from a feminist view but from an historic view. There WOULD have been women there – women were important and not relegated to silent roles of breeding and support. The powerful women in the clans would have been meeting with Elinor and Merida and would most definitely have had something to say about a young woman who wasn’t living up to their standards and norms.

    But I see the narrative drive for not including those women, and honestly I kind of applaud it. Having the all-male background heightens Merida’s independence and makes her fight for her own voice more poignant. It also puts Elinor in a more interesting position of being a lone woman who has taken the more traditional route to power but who is certainly not passive in her role. Having multiple women in a similar position would have diluted the tension of the relationship between Merida and her mother. It was necessary for Merida to struggle against not only the norms of her culture but against the (singular) representative of those norms in her mother.

    What’s interesting is that by limiting the named female roles, Elinor is actually significantly increased in authority. She alone has the ability to give Merida her freedom (and she alone does – Fergus is a passive observer in all of that and simply goes along with what his wife says). It is HER absence that causes the near clan war – the clan leaders holler for the queen, ignoring the king who is with them. She is the person who is able to stop the silly squabbling that breaks out; it is to her that they humble themselves when they step out of line. Pixar actually gave Elinor a far greater scope and power than they gave all of the males in the film.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that I feel that in this film simply doing a head-count of female vs male characters is an over simplification. Instead, actually analyzing the position those characters are placed in and the ways in which those positions are explored and developed gives a greater feel for the dynamics of female vs male. The film not only looks at [genuine] female authority within a traditional framework, it plays out the idea that it is that same female authority that allows for breaking the framework itself. In the film, the woman doesn’t just exploit her traditional role, she has the ability to transcend it.

    Aside – fantastic animation on the animals I thought (loved the transitions between [SPOILER!!! LOOK ASIDE NOW] Elinor-bear and animal-bear), and personally I was charmed by the visual references to genuine Scottish artifacts such as the Lewis chessmen.

    • TopHat says:

      I don’t know if other clan matriarchs would have stolen the stage/power Elinor had, but I suppose it could have. There were a lot of background men in the clans and I think that could have been a little more even. And having other clan lords didn’t take away from Fergus’ kingship. But having to develop a lot more characters might take away from the storytelling.

      • Megan says:

        Fair enough – maybe having some women making snide comments or even just pulling disapproving faces?

        I suppose I jibe against including ANYONE for the sake of making a non-narrative point and I can see a genuinely defensible purpose to keeping the background all-male.

        Does your husband have any insight into the thought process? ‘Cause THAT would be a cool thing to know!

      • TopHat says:

        I’ll ask. He’s a software engineer, so he’s not involved in story, but he might know a little. We’re at a family reunion right now, so it might be a little before he can show up here.

  3. Kristen SaysNo says:

    Ok, (I haven’t seen it), but my sister’s perspective was that her 8 year old daughter wasn’t mature enough to see the reconciliation between mother and daughter — just saw the daughter smarting off to her mother. From the previews, from my perspective, it looks like just another daughter-throws-off-the-shackles-of-ignorance-by-ignoring-her-stupid-mother-and-following-her-own-heart film….and I don’t know if I want my 7 year old daughter to see that. Can you address this? I’m not looking for a fight; I’m really torn about my daughter seeing this.

    The truth is, even if it gets resolved beautifully, I’m nervous because there seems to be an endless supply of either mother/daughter conflict stories, or mother is absent (usually dead) stories. What I’d really like to see is a story about healthy intergenerational female relationships.

    • TopHat says:

      Ithink there is disrespect on both ends, but there are times of gentleness and understanding. I thought it was pretty realistic: they would be angry one moment and then after cooling off, would have a sweet moment. Once the main conflict and goal is set in place, they mostly work together, though Elinor doesn’t get a lot of speaking lines in at that point. I definitely understand worrying that kids will only pick up on conflict and not on healthy communication skills: I have a list of shows my 4 year old isn’t allowed to watch until she is older and can discuss those sorts of issues with me. I didn’t think the teenage angst is particularly overwhelming, though some of the lines are pretty eye-rollingly said by almost every angry teen character to their parents.

    • Annie B. says:

      I took my 8 year old daughter to see it and we both loved it. I thought the mother/daughter relationship was very true to life in that both the mother and daughter made mistakes, and both had to overcome those and reconcile those. I thought that was actually really refreshing since I grew up in a home where parents rarely if ever apologized for losing their temper or making a mistake that directly affected the kids. In parenting my own daughter I make a point to apologize when I lose my temper and I have been so happy to see that she is also quick to apologize and consider my feelings after she’s had a come-apart. So yeah, I didn’t even consider any of Merida’s lines to really even qualify as mouthing off, just more sticking up for herself, which I would expect and hope for my own daughter to do, even if it means sticking up to me or her dad.

  4. TopHat says:

    I wanted to make another note: I saw Brave again (3rd time!) last night and there are a few women in the background at the games and a few Scottish dancers. Also I forgot to note, the two male “guards” have names in the credits. Forgot to include them in my count.

  5. Katrina says:

    Great review! I went into the theater trying to keep my expectations low because I had heard it didn’t quite live up to the feminist hype. Well I was more than pleasantly surprised. I LOVED it! I love that it was primarily about the mother/daughter relationship. And I loved that she didn’t end up with a man. Those two things alone are a HUGE step forward.

  6. Haven’t seen the movie, but I’m fascinated with the question: Could a character just as well have been female instead of male?

    In a recent film of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Helen Mirrin plays Prospero, the magician, as Prospera. For me having a woman instead of a man thrust from power and a mother instead of a father protecting her daughter worked beautifully. I hope a few more remakes of old classics will ask that question and make interesting characters female if there’s no compelling reason for them to be male.

    • DefyGravity says:

      I loved that production of the Tempest, and agree that having a mother-daughter relationship was wonderful. It turned from one women being protected by her father until she could be protected by her husband to two women standing with and taking care of each other.

  7. griffin says:

    I Loved the movie.
    Finn wasnt scared at all and loved the whole thing.

    With regard to the clans arriving with a male only presence, I wonder if there is any historical accuracy to that?

    The story seemed to be far richer than any other disney fairy tale I have seen. This was only augmented by the visuals.

  8. Even with the spoilers, I’m just wanting to more and more see the film. Maybe for a date night/afternoon, when we can get a sitter for the li’l ‘uns. I’m wondering what my own beloved’s take on the mother/daughter dynamics will be, since between her relationships with her mother and daughter, its often on her mind.

    (Course, I’m also super jealous of your husband working for Pixar. I’m also a dev, but I know its several years yet before we can move out of Utah)

  9. anita says:

    I have to say, I really disliked this movie. Being a redhead myself, I’m quite partial to redheaded heroines (Annie, Ariel, etc) and had high expectations. Went with my four kids, including two teenage daughters, and it was too much true to life teenage drama and not at all what I expected. I thought from the previews she was going to save the kingdom, and instead she makes foolish choices (what’s with following the will-o-wisps even though they don’t lead to good destinations?), and acts immature. No clever lines or songs, not a heroine I admired or a movie I wanted to see again (as opposed to other Pixar and Disney films I have loved). Sorry to be the dissenting voice, but I felt like it was a real disappointment.

    • Annie B. says:

      That’s sad you didn’t like it. I hate being let down by a movie. I confess I was disappointed in Merida’s choice to give her mom the cake from the witch. I did think it smart of the script-writers to have Merida giver her mother every chance to change her mind though, and I can kind of understand Merida doing what she did, since I view the old custom of parents forcing their daughters into arranged marriages as not much better than parents selling their daughters into sexual slavery. I think Merida was desperate and knew she deserved to have her agency, especially on such a huge matter as marriage, and that was the only way she could think of to get her agency back. But yeah, I was really sad and worried for the mom. I think my daughter was smart enough to get how dire of a situation that was for the mom though and “get” that it was a huge mistake on Merida’s part, just like by the end of the movie the mother “got” that it was a huge mistake to force her daughter into an arranged marriage.

  10. DefyGravity says:

    In general I really liked Brave. What I really loved was the bookending of the film. Near the beginning, there is a scene where Merida is out on her horse, riding as fast as she can, loving that she is free for the day from her mother’s expectations. She comes home and is excited to tell her mother about it, but her mom isn’t listening. She’s too wound up in responsibilities of the kingdom and picking up the slack for her daughter. But at the end of the film, both women are riding as fast as they can. Elinor has let her hair down (literally), and they are enjoying freedom together. That was powerful to me; they met in the middle, and no longer had to battle or compensate for the other, and both felt they had a right to freedom.

  11. Miri says:

    Your timing is great, TopHat, as I just saw Brave last night! And I really loved it. I’d also heard that it didn’t live up to the feminist hype, so I went in slightly apprehensive, but I thought the relationship between Elinor and Merida was just beautiful.

    I’m sad to say I didn’t even think about the all-male La Luna (which was lovely, and now that I think about it, would have been even more lovely with a grandmother or daughter included, or all three female for that matter). But I had the same thought you did about there being no females in the clans. During the scene of the games, there’s a shot where it pans across a stage where three girls are dancing, and that shot was when I noticed that they were the only females I’d seen besides Merida, her mother, and the maid. I’m so happy to see another Smurfette movie (/snark). I also really love the story you shared about asking whether a character needs to be male, and having to justify making a character female. The fact that this kind of thing is being pointed out… Well, it’s happening much too slowly, but the change is happening and that’s something.

    Kristen, I usually think about that too, especially with Disney Channel shows (which I pretty much just despise all around). I feel like it’s hard to use that standard with movies like this, because Merida’s issues with her mother are a thousand times more significant than the issues modern kids have. I mean, if your parents were trying to marry you off, I think teenage attitude would be pretty appropriate. Maybe there’s something you can do before taking your kids to see the movie, like giving them a summary of the conflict? Something like, “A long time ago, or in other cultures, parents would decide who their children married, even if the children didn’t like it. Now we don’t do that because we don’t think it’s right, but this movie is about a time when they still did that.” I don’t know how old a child would need to be to understand, but that might help separate the conflict so it’s not just about a typical teenager fighting her parents, but about a cultural system that we don’t agree with.

  12. Jessawhy says:

    Fabulous review! I’m excited to take my boys to see it 😉

    They definitely don’t see enough movies with girls and women.

  13. Annie B. says:

    I loved the movie too! It didn’t really bother me that the clans were represented by males, I was just enjoying everything else too much. Plus, I think with the three major plot movers being female (Merida, Elinor, the witch), I think it didn’t hurt the rest of the movie to have an abundance of male-ness to even things out. I loved Merida’s relationship with her mother, and I loved Merida’s relationship with her father as well. I thought the whole family dynamic was beautiful.

    When I read where you mentioned the female producer at one time in her past having to justify a charachter being female it made me think of last week when I was watching the special features on my Avatar: The Last Airbender DVD. There’s a segment that talks about all the women in the series, and the writers were discussing how one of the really tough female characters named Toph came about, and how one person on the project insisted the character should be a girl while others needed to be convinced. One of the writers also said he was surprised later when people commented about how pleased they were that there were so many great female characters in the series, and he shrugged and said something about how in real life it’s not just all men walking around making the world work, why should it be any different in this story? I loved it. Avatar: The Last Airbender, and it’s sequel series Avatar: The Legend of Korra are two great series with wonderful strong female characters by the way. I highly recommend them.

    • Megan says:

      Love, love, love Avatar (and for those who haven’t seen it – IGNORE the foul movie adaptation)! It has fantastic characters, excellent story telling and really beautiful animation.

      • Annie B. says:

        Agreed, the movie was visually cool, but totally unnecessary and butchered the humor and story. The animated series is so good that it stands on it’s own, and visually is still pretty awesome even though it’s a cartoon.

  14. Rachel says:

    TopHat, I am curious to learn if you have read this review:

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, and still would like to. I only ask because my brother posted the review after taking his three very small daughters to see it. Apparently he read it right before he went, so thinks it may have colored his experience a bit.

    If you don’t have time to read the whole article, it suggests that the film is not actually a very feminist film, even though the main character is a woman. It did take great issue with the initial controversy being over a daughter being placed in an arranged marriage, as that is a very legitimate thing to be concerned over. The writer also talks about the original female director, but wonders about her not being able (or allowed) to finish it. The author sensed that the story was inspired by the original director (perhaps a personal relationship with the director’s own mother/daughter) but that the subsequent director did not share the same vision, so the story became muddled and less personal. He also felt that it is not that appropriate to pay tribute to this film as the first (or one of the firsts) with a female director if she was not actually given the opportunity to finish it. Do you know anything about the reasons for the change, or how much of this author’s feelings are valid?


    • anita says:

      a warning, if you haven’t seen it–be careful taking young children–my niece is now having nightmares about bears, and stuffed teddy bears are setting off daytime panic attacks as well.

  15. TopHat says:

    Brenda Chapman, the original director and story-writer, did say it was inspired by her daughter. I have not heard her say why she fidn’t finish the project out (it started back in 2006) and I know that she was asked about it at the Miss Representation panel, but she didn’t give any details about the change in directors. Mark Andrews, the director for the past year has said that they did cut out parts for speed issues and clarity, but I don’t know what parts. I also know sections were added later, for example, when practice audiences saw it, the witch part was confusing, and I believed they fleshed that out more and added to that part of the story .

    I’m on my phone, so I can’t go over to that other review, but that’s what I know, have heard, and havrn’t heard details on.

  16. Mommie Dearest says:

    I saw Brave recently, and read through the post and comments, which I avoided till after I saw it. My thoughts while watching the movie: (WARNING: SPOILERS)

    First, it passes the Bechdel test many times over, from beginning to end.

    Even though the two lead characters are female, there are very few female “extras” among the supporting cast or people in the background. It was quite noticeable, so much that I started watching for women, and there was a huge and disparate ratio with way fewer female to male characters. In the scene where the clans are fighting in the great hall, there are no women present at all until Merida and her “mom” enter. I didn’t find it annoying, just noticeable. It seemed to be deliberate, and in wondering why, I concluded that the action was, after all, taking place in a man’s world; the world of Scottish clans and kingdoms. They made a point of showing how uncivilized the men and boys behaved without women among them; it all changed when the women showed up and got involved. Perhaps it was an obvious tip of the hat towards egalitarian filmmaking. Plus, it boosted the plot.

    Thinking about it afterward, it doesn’t surprise me or even bother me that the movie would take place in a man’s world. It’s quite natural since almost all movies reflect the male-based world we live in: Everything that takes place in “public” (even the private stuff that we have any public discourse about) reflect a male outlook; it barely even registers in our conscious thinking that in almost every instance, in cinema at least, the norm is defined with a male POV. I can’t even think of any movies that unapologetically reflect or explore a purely female outlook. (Maybe “Babette’s Feast” which few people have ever seen.) Perhaps there needs to be a companion test, along with the Bechdel test, that assesses this aspect of a movie. But it’s hard to discuss with most people without first launching an explanation of terms and meanings and debate over what’s the norm, and such.

    The other thing that I noted was that the animators gave the male characters much greater diversity from type than they did the female characters. The animators deliberately tried to create characters that departed from and took liberties with male stereotypical norms, and they definitely had a lot of fun with it. It was delightful, and and the plot benefitted from it. I also noticed that, even though the male characters were mostly way out in the goofy range, they were still allowed a certain measure of attractiveness. The female characters were too few for such fun experiments, and they tended to line up with some well-worn female animation stereotypes. (i.e. sexy babe, motherly servant, crone)

    These are just thoughts, I’m not intending to be especially critical. I saw the movie with my dh and dd, and we all enjoyed it, though it didn’t generate any heavy philosophical discussions after. Then again, my dh and dd don’t do philosophical that much.

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