A Brave Review: My baggage gets in the way

I watched the new Disney/Pixar movie Brave over the weekend. I was hoping to like it and even identify with it as much as I had liked Tangled. In the end, I was disappointed, but still slightly conflicted. The entire second half of the movie had me cringing. And then smiling. And then cringing.

I find more and more that my background affects how I view a movie. I cried through Tangled because I saw myself in it, and this has happened for other movies as well. It’s the reason I can’t watch Fiddler on the Roof any longer. But I honestly think that my background in some sense got in the way of letting me truly enjoy Brave. Let me see if I can explain. (Caution: Spoilers!)

The Good

The two main characters in Brave are female: Merida, a Scottish princess, and her mother, the queen, Elinor. What I found interesting about the pair of them is that they were both strong and outspoken women – but in very different ways. Merida can ride, climb, and shoot – and she’d rather be doing those things than living the life of a princess. In contrast, her mother Elinor essentially runs the kingdom single handedly, albeit ostensibly in the name of the king. I actually like this combo, because it points out that there is more than one way to be a strong woman.

Next, what you have here is a coming of age story involving a mother and a daughter, and a story in which neither is perfect and both learn and grow. I like that. At the beginning, Merida doesn’t really understand or try to get to know her mother, seeing her only as a demanding authority figure, and Merida’s mother never tries to understand Merida, seeing her only as a rebellious teen. The result is yelling, using hurtful words, and breaking things. And then disaster strikes. As a result, mother and daughter get to know each other for the first time while working to end the disaster. In the end, mother and daughter finally understand each other and have a healthy relationship.

In fact, one thing I really liked about this whole aspect of the movie was seeing both mother and daughter start to see the world through the other’s eyes. As a parent, I strive to always remember Sally’s perspective rather than just seeing disputes or disagreements through my own perspective, so I really appreciate this.

In some sense, Brave is several things at once – a story about individuality, a coming-of-age tale, and a story about parenting – and as each the movie works wonderfully.

The Bad

But as a daughter of Christian Patriarchy, I noticed other themes as well, themes that hit close to home. The movie starts with the Scottish princess Merida, who would rather ride her horse and practice archery than sit through her mother’s lessons on how to be a queen. While I myself wanted to be the perfect quiverfull mother – and took my mother’s version of “queen lessons” – learning to sew, can, and care for small children – very seriously and completely willingly – other girls in the Christian Patriarchy movement, in contrast, were tomboys and like Merida hated being stuck inside for these sorts of tasks.

Then Merida’s mother announces that she is to marry one of the sons of the kingdom’s clan lords, who will come to the castle to compete for her hand. Once again I was drawing on my past experiences as I processed the movie. Some daughters in Christian Patriarchy families don’t even know a young man is interested in them until their father announces that he has approved the courtship. The daughter is allowed to turn it down, but that can only go on for so long. I never experienced this myself, but I definitely saw similarities in Merida’s situation.

But this section is about more than just Merida’s impending marriage; it’s about her stepping into her mother’s life. And this is where it really hit me.

“I’d rather die than be you!” Merida yells at her mother.

I’ve longed to, like Merida, tell my mother that while she may have chosen her life but it’s not the life I want. She can’t understand that because (a) she thinks its the life I’m supposed to lead and (b) she can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t want it. Merida’s mother seems to be operating under the exact same premises, and she, like my mother, refuses to bend. Merida must marry, and Merida must become a queen a la her mother. Interestingly, I have never come right out and told my mother that I don’t want her life, and the reason is that I don’t think she would see my rejection of her life as anything other than a rejection of her. And this seems to be how Merida’s mother interprets the situation as well.

And it is at this point that things start to go horribly, horribly wrong. Merida runs off into the woods, meets a witch, and buys a potion to “change” her mother. When she returns to the castle Merida’s mother apologizes for being so angry before but tells Merida that she still must go through with a marriage. Merida therefore feeds the potion, disguised as a pie, to her mother. Bad idea. The potion turns her mother into a bear. Because Merida’s father views bears as simply beasts to be exterminated, Merida faces not only the loss of her mother but also the breakup of her family.

When I rejected my father’s authority over me and struck out on my own, I faced the loss of my family as well. And so, this is where things really started to bother me. Merida is willing to do anything to restore her mother and repair the rift she used, even if that means she has to assent to the arranged marriage. I, in contrast? I have refused to do that. I have let the rift go on for years. Why? Because my freedom was more important to me than being on good terms with my parents.

The Ugly

After her mother turns into a bear, Merida immediately goes back to the witch in her desire to make things right and is told to “mend the bond, torn by pride.” Symbolically, this ends up meaning that she must repair the gash she cut in her mother’s tapestry, a gap she cut between the needlepoint figures representing herself and her mother.

Merida and Merida alone is told to “mend the bond.” Why did she break the bond? Because her mother was forcing her into a marriage against her will. Sure, Merida messed up when she fed her mother the potion, but because she has no guarantee that her mother will change her mind on the betrothal issue, setting mending the bond means that she may well have to go back to being forced into a marriage. And Merida knows this.

When Merida returns to the castle after her second visit to the witch, she has to create a distraction so that, ultimately, she can secret the tapestry out of the castle and mend it. To create that distraction she walks into the throne room and speaks to her father and the clan lords – and when she walks into that room, she knows she is walking in to submit to her betrothal, knows that that is what she must do to set things right. Merida’s mother intervenes, however. Merida’s mother has had a change in heart and signals Merida to let her know that she does not have to submit to a betrothal. Merida therefore makes a speech about letting young people follow their hearts and choose their own spouses – but this does not change the fact that Merida was originally going to submit to the abhorred betrothal and that only her mother’s signaled permission lets her off the hook.

And here is where I have a problem with Brave. Merida is told to “mend the bond,” and she and she alone is tasked with that. She must mend the bond whether her parents change their minds or not, and even if mending it means being forced into an unwanted marriage and leading a life that sounds to her like a prison. Sure, her mother comes around and starts to understand her and lets her off the hook when it comes to the arranged marriage, but Merida had no way of knowing that that would happen, and there was no guarantee that it would.

Perhaps I am giving the movie the short shrift. Perhaps when the witch told Merida to “mend the bond that was broken” she was intending to speak to Merida’s mother as well, though there is no indication that that is the case. Perhaps when Merida went into the throne room to assent to the marriage she was doing so because she had realized that the kingdom might be thrown into war if she didn’t, though the message I got was that even if the peace of the kingdom was in her mind she also realized that assenting to the betrothal was necessary to “mend the bond.”

It’s just that for me to “mend the bond” with my own family – a bond I tore by saying “no” to the life they had planned for me and choosing another instead – I would have to acknowledge that I should have let my father control my beliefs, my relationships, my life. I would have to say I had been wrong to assert my independence as an adult, and to assent to their views of gender rules. And, if I were not now married, I would have to go back to letting them control my life.

For a daughter of Christian Patriarchy, “mending the bond” is not something we can just do – at least, not without sacrificing our freedom. And it wasn’t something Merida could do without facing the very real possibility of sacrificing her freedom either. And I think that’s why Brave bothered me so much.

Conclusion

What would I have had Merida do, then? She did feed her mother the potion which was wrong of her. So, was assenting to the abhorred marriage simply something she had to do in recompense? It seems to me that Merida got herself stuck. The only way to undo the wrong the potion had done involved the distinct possibility of having to assent to the arranged marriage, a possibility only removed by her mother’s change of heart – a change of heart she could never have known would take place.

Perhaps instead Merida should have gotten on her horse and tracked the witch down, forcing her at arrow-point to undo the incantation. Or perhaps, rather than feeding her mother the potion, Merida should have simply left her parents’ home, forging a new life and only returning once she was independent. Or perhaps, rather than leaving at all, she could have stood up to her parents and refused to assent to the marriage, come what may.

I think I would have enjoyed Brave more without all of my baggage, to be perfectly honest. I love the focus on the mother/daughter relationship, and I love how much both Merida and Elinor grow through the movie. I love how Merida matures and how Elinor becomes a better parent. And of course, the whole movie was breathtakingly beautiful.

Note: Sierra also reviewed Brave, and her outlook differs from mine. Head right over and have a look!

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://politicsproseotherthings.blogspot.com/ Nathaniel

    While I understand your perspective, let me offer mine.

    First off, this entire situation is complicated by concerns that most modern people don’t have to consider. While your family may have a rift in it now, your refusal to adhere to your parent’s wishes didn’t have the possibility of causing a clan war.

    Another good example of modern values intersecting with the setting is your feeling that Elinor, like your mother, cannot see why anyone wouldn’t want her life. To my eyes at least, Elinor regarded wanting and happiness beside the point. It was about duty, and what the clan needed of their ruling family. Motherhood and the female role was obligated not because of Quiverfull conviction that every woman secretly wants and needs it, but because that was what society and tradition mandated.

    And it wasn’t just Merida who had to compromise. There were many times in the movie where Bear Elinor had to acknowledge the value of the skills and knowledge her daughter had developed in her years as a woodswoman.

    The tapestry wasn’t enough to save her mother. It was Merida crying out in desperation and acknowledging she still needed Elinor that did it. And I’m convinced that if Elinor hadn’t given Merida an out for the marriage, she would have stayed a bear forever.

  • cass_m

    I agree with Nathaniel that simply sewing back the tapestry would not have broken the curse had there not been a true change of heart on Merida’s part. That change of heart wouldn’t have happened had Elinor not changed as well.

    Also, in my mind, Merida didn’t just give her mom a potion, she took her mother’s life from her, including the love of her husband and the triplets and made her a target for every hunter. When you think of it in those terms then it is more than responsible to accede to an unwanted marriage.

  • shadowspring

    Eh, all metaphors fall apart at some point.

    I am thinking of going to see the movie with my adult daughter. I love and respect her immensely, but still struggle with the shame and blame of her making choices of which “the clan” strongly disapproves. At the same time, I am in awe of her strength of character to follow her own heart and dreams even though she knows our relations will be scandalized.

  • Didaktylos

    Libby Anne – have you ever read any of the late Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series? I suspect that Dragonsong, in particular, would strike a chord with you.

  • http://www.freeratio.org/ Brian63

    “I’ve longed to, like Merida, tell my mother that while she may have chosen her life but it’s not the life I want. She can’t understand that because (a) she thinks its the life I’m supposed to lead and (b) she can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t want it…Interestingly, I have never come right out and told my mother that I don’t want her life, and the reason is that I don’t think she would see my rejection of her life as anything other than a rejection of her. And this seems to be how Merida’s mother interprets the situation as well.”

    There is another possible layer in all this that I would like to offer for consideration. Perhaps your own mother wants the life that you have (or at least parts of it, like the freedom you have taken for yourself) and is jealous of you for having it when she does not. She feels bad about making the bad choices that led her to this lifestyle of subservience and authoritarianism. She has all this pain that she is bearing, but it ironically feels like she can offload some of that pain if she makes others suffer through it too. It is not any malicious intent from her, but just a psychological way of relieving her own burdens, if she can dump some of them onto others (like her own daughters). Just imagine if you yourself are a mother in a very hyper-religious household and you had fixed gender roles of which you are not allowed to deviate, and you have children who are becoming more independent with their lives than you are with your own. Can you see yourself starting to harbor some jealousy, bitterness, and resentment towards them?

    Brian

  • Bix

    Hi Libby Anne, I’ve been reading for awhile but haven’t commented much. This film has certainly generated a lot of analysis and I think your background brings an interesting perspective. I actually thought it was very archetypal and followed the conventions of a heroine’s journey from older fairy tales and myths. Those old tales were meant to help girls come to grips with sexuality, marriage, childbirth, and motherhood, and frequently featured a protagonist who felt she wasn’t yet ready for adulthood, or needed to escape an arranged marriage (both the case for Merida, I think). The heroine strikes out on her own physical and/or psychological journey, and eventually chooses her own mate or repairs her broken family (many stories even feature family members turned into animals). Along the way they gain practical skills and mature womanly or queenly knowledge, which they use to determine their own fate and become wise mothers/queens in their own right. In the end, Merida gets to use all her qualities–her courage and daring, but also diplomacy and refinement, like her mother taught her.

    I found this interesting because it seems that for a period in the 20th century we abandoned those kinds of tales–the Disney princesses of the past (Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) were ready for their prince to come, they didn’t struggle with fears over sex (not that Merida explicitly does, but I think it’s implied via archetype), and they didn’t grapple with their relationships with their mothers or their own potential imperfections in motherhood. As cultural mythology, they pretty soundly failed. No wonder Judy Blume was so popular–she talked to girls about what they needed to talk about.

    Sorry, this is really long, but I actually wrote a blog post myself right after seeing it, if anyone wants to check it out, I’m kind of new to the blogging thing…

    http://ripeningreason.blogspot.com/2012/06/brave-spoiler-alert-i-just-went-to-see.html

  • Rosie

    I think I’m with Libby Anne on this one. I’ve read a lot of stories that ended this way, and every one bothered me, though when I was a child and before I actually went and began to my own life I couldn’t say why. Now I think it’s because these stories and archetypes were developed *to help girls live within patriarchy*, and I have no interest in doing that. I don’t want to come to terms with childbirth or motherhood; I want to not have children. I don’t want to come to terms with a patriarchal marriage; I want to create an egalitarian partnership. I don’t want to come to terms with sexuality being forbidden outside of marriage and required within it; I want to find out what my own sexuality looks like. I don’t want to come to terms with a culture that tells me my place is to be nurturing; I want to learn carpentry, butchering, shearing, and all kinds of “ungentle” arts (and have my husband put dinner on the table when I come home late and tired). Where are the archtypes for the girls who refuse to be reconciled to the system, who work to change it for the better? Maybe I should read Judy Blume; she was all but forbidden to me as a teenager.

    • Bix

      Hi Rosie, I didn’t mean to suggest archetypes shouldn’t be questioned, just that Brave is part of a much older lineage than we might think. The old archetypes definitely fit into a patriarchal system, but I think many of the old fairy tales are still a sight bit better than the Disney versions where the ‘protagonists’ are completely passive! And while there were many authors in the 20th century and today who wrote much better material for girls, I think the old Disney movies failed terribly at addressing concerns girls have about growing up–which was the original point of the fairy tales they watered down and mucked around with (the original European version of Cinderella, for example, is pretty violent).

      Unfortunately the old archetypes mostly dealt with marriage and motherhood, but that’s where people like Judy Blume come in, not that I’ve read her in awhile. I know she was banned for addressing such controversial topics as *gasp* menstruation, which most all girls have to deal with at some point, regardless of their future childbearing plans.

      • Bix

        This got me thinking about books I enjoyed when I was a kid. If you want a girl dealing with puberty and sexuality while bucking patriarchal tradition and learning to be an awesome swordswoman, I’d recommend Tamora Pierce’s Lioness series. I also remember really liking Patricia Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons books and Sherwood Smith’s Wren series, although I haven’t read them recently with a critical eye.

      • Rosie

        That’s true, Bix. I didn’t see much Disney as a kid either. I’ve never heard of the series you recommend, so I think I’ll check them out. While I’m far from being a child myself these days, my oldest nieces are just hitting their teens….

  • Effie

    Much appreciate the review, Libby Anne. I was going to see this movie, but I think I’ll skip it, after all. Like you, I have a lot of baggage over parental relationships. My own mother was horribly spiritually abusive to me all through childhood and adolescence. We had no relationship to speak of; she would go months without even acknowledging my presence. I do believe she hated me for not living up to her expectations and making her look bad to her church friends. After I ran away from home to join the military to escape that arranged marriage that was waiting for me, only then did she decide that it was her business to care about what happened to me. Sadly, her idea of caring involved calling me to scream at me and tell me how much my choices had hurt her.

    I haven’t spoken to either parent in over three years now, and likely never will again. They do not love me; they love a fantasy of me in which I am quiet, submissive, and obedient to their wishes and the wishes of the husband they choose for me. Unlike Merida’s mother, they will not grow or change or accept their daughter for herself. Heaven knows I gave them 31 years to try to love me for me before realizing it was futile and I was wasting my energy and my time. Elinor asks Merida if she’s willing to pay the price her freedom will cost. For me, my freedom was sweeter than the cost was sour. It was not a cost to lose my family, but shaking off dead weight and flying free.

  • Beguine

    My mom wasn’t quiverful, but she is far more controlling than she realizes and pathologically sensitive to anything she sees as rejection, so a lot of what you and the other ex-quiverful daughters write about resonates with me. Now I have a vague story idea kicking around in my head for a story about a mother who inadvertently loses her daughter when she makes a deal with the devil/a witch/baddie-to -be -determined to change her daughter back into the ‘perfect little princess’ she was when she was little, and what happens after. We’ll see if anything comes of it.

  • Froborr

    Interesting. I’ve read (and written) criticisms of the film from a feminist perspective (the general consensus seems to be that Pixar is trying, because they’re vaguely aware that being a feminist is seen as a good thing, but they have absolutely no idea what they’re doing), but this is a perspective I haven’t seen before. You’re absolutely right, of course; both here and on the feminist front, the movie wants to be seen as challenging authority and siding with the oppressed, but ultimately reaffirms traditional authority.

  • Pingback: Libby Anne reviews Brave, and comes to different conclusions « The Phoenix and Olive Branch

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  • http://www.moeysmusicparty.com Nora

    Great review of Brave! I thought you’d appreciate the girl power spirit in Moey’s Music Party’s new CD, Princess Revolution! Princess Revolution is a rocking celebration that encourages girls to see themselves as helpful heros – not helpless maidens ;) The New York Post calls Moey, “The Pied Piper in Pink!” Bloomingdale’s just threw a Moey princess ball! We’d love to send you a CD to review! Here’s a fun video so you can see what we’re about! http://bit.ly/MoeysPrincessBallNYJrLeague

    Looking forward to hearing from you!

    Nora


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