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 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.
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.
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.
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!