Worthwhile Reads: Another Brave Review

Brave Princesses, Avatars in Refrigerators, and the Trouble with Tomboys

Here’s the problem. The kyriarchy tells us that there are two gendered sets of virtues, and that masculine virtues are better than feminine virtues. For example:

  • Masculine: Strength, Courage, Honor, Determination, Combat Skills
  • Feminine: Compassion, Prudence, Negotiation, Calm, Emotional Intelligence, Domestic Skills

Ultimately, Merida very slightly for one moment adopts a couple of “feminine” virtues to resolve the main subplot, but the climax of the movie entails Elinor needing to take on and learn to appreciate “masculine” virtues in herself and her daughter, and the ending shows Elinor embracing and joining in Merida’s wilderness romps. Which is fine and all, but it’s still saying that the “masculine” virtues are better than the feminine virtues. It’s not saying “Be yourself,” it’s saying “Be yourself as long as you display traditionally masculine virtues; if you have traditionally feminine virtues, change.”

How did I not even notice this?

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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.

  • Contrarian

    I would like to reject the patriarchal dichotomy between “masculine” and “feminine” virtues. Merida’s virtues were her own, period. Elinor’s virtues were her own, period. I would characterize the whole plot of the story was Merida and Elinor learning to understand and embrace each other’s virtues, toward everyone’s benefit.

    I know lots of people still think in terms of “masculine” and “feminine” virtues, and they’ll interpret the movie through that lens, but the more people who reject the very notions of “masculine” and “feminine,” the further from patriarchy we move.

    • http://phoenixandolivebranch.wordpress.com Sierra

      I agree.

      I think defining certain characteristics (as the author says, “Strength, Courage, Honor, Determination, Combat Skills”) as masculine only reinforces the gender binary that tells women who possess these traits more strongly than others that they aren’t really women, or are “pretending to be men.” The truth is, women have always possessed all of the above. I think we need to reclaim them – they’re as feminine as they are masculine.

      • Contrarian

        Hah, bet you thought I wasn’t capable of this argument :P

  • Besomyka

    I think it’s tricky, because if Merida went the other way and found more value in traditionally feminine virtues, then we’d still have a problem. The thing is that both characters learned to appreciate the other aspects of each other, and I disagree that Elinor went farther in that regard. I think the review is downplaying the peacemaking, negotiation, and compassion that Merida found in herself.

    The important thing as that each character remained true to who they were in a fundamental way, and I would argue that neither was put on a pedestal as the ideal of female virtue. They just learned to appreciate and come to terms with their whole selves and each other.

    But I do think I need to think about it a bit more :)

  • jemand

    I think I’m mostly just terribly pleased that in a pretty short period of time, we’ve had, Tangled AND Brave, and in the non-animated sphere, the Hunger Games.

    I think having so many strong female leads is so tremendously powerful, and at the end of the day it’s just true that nobody can be completely free from upholding some aspects of the status quo– which means that no matter how feminist, everyone’s life will entail some elements that can be discussed as not-necessarily-feminist, possibly even counter-feminist, even if, as a whole, they are helping to tear down such assumptions and leave society a little freer.

    I guess… I’m just so happy we can even be *HAVING* this conversation about whether these pretty-awesome-sounding movies with powerful-female-leads have problematic submessages as well.

    One, *big* message I see being portrayed is, women and girl’s stories are worth telling on the big screen, and I think that’s just awesome.

    • Froborr

      I wish I had a Like button for this comment. It’s so very very true.

  • http://www.queereka.com Yessenia

    I agree with the division of masculine and feminine traits, but the reasoning in the quote is only one interpretation of it. It’s one I saw thrown around a lot after True Grit, and it’s one I strongly disagree with.

    Sure, one possibility is that the “masculine” traits are only considered better because they’re identified as masculine. The feminine traits are equally valuable, and therefore should get equal play as being important.

    But I tend to thing the values our culture independently identifies as more valuable just get the ‘maculine’ label slapped on them. So movies like Brave aren’t telling us that we should embrace these qualities because they’re masculine and therefore better, but at the same time, an inescapable inference of an audience living in a sexist culture is that they’re better and therefore masculine. Some compelling evidence for this is that cultures will have wildly varying ideas of what’s a good trait to have – bravery? compassion? leadership? Emotional skill? – but will invariably label the ones considered better AS masculine.

    Another thing to consider is that the same traits will often have competing words; the one that’s positively connoted will be masculine, and the one negatively connoted will be associated with women. A man is strong; a woman is resilient. A man is intelligent; a woman is intuitive. A man is courageous; a woman is impetuous.

    The difference between these two explanations is that the former would decry Brave for not depicting an entirely different character, for suggesting the only way the leader could be accepted was to be masculine; the second would celebrate Brave as rejecting the theory that the best qualities in a person belong to men and unabashedly arguing that women can be full people, equally embodying the character traits most highly valued in this culture.

  • RowanVT

    I don’t see it that way at all. A lot of my personality is traditionally more ‘masculine’, though biologically and mentally I identify as female. The traditional ‘feminine’ role simply bores the ever loving bejeebus out of me. It’s not *me*. I don’t consider gossiping or shopping to be ‘fun’! I want to dig in the dirt, climb trees and fight with swords. Not because it’s a male thing to do, but because I find many ‘female’ things to be utterly boring.
    I very much identify with Merida. I want to do what I like, not be forced into some preconceived notion of what is, and isn’t, feminine. And there are some ‘feminine’ pursuits that I do enjoy. Like sewing. Or carding and spinning wool. Or cooking. But that’s *me* enjoying those things because I’m *me*, not because I was born with lady bits.

  • Nenya

    You have a point, but after all the princesses whose strengths were singing and looking beautiful, and perhaps being clever now and then, it’s fan-flippin-tastic to get one who’s unabashedly allowed to run around and be a hero. What did we have for Disney princesses before? Mulan? Who was awesome, but had to pretend to be a boy most of the time. And apparently Merida isn’t defined by who she dates or marries, either.

    Note: I haven’t seen the movie yet. But I’m so *excited* to see a film about a redhaired tomboy (like me!) and I am sad that people are finding things Wrong With It before I’ve even had a chance to go see it. :( (Maybe I shouldn’t read spoilers then, eh. But still.)

    • Besomyka

      I suspect that you’ll enjoy it. Even having seen the movie already, I still get emotional thinking about a few of the scenes and a big part of that is knowing that it wasn’t just something only in my head, but something that is out there in the world. Seeing something that I identify with rather closely portrayed on the screen and celebrated is incredibly validating.

      I hadn’t really expected that sort of reaction from myself, but… yeah. I think you’ll like it. The plot can’t spoil the validation.

  • Froborr

    Whoa. I think this is the first time something I wrote has ever been linked by someone I read regularly. (That I’m aware of, anyway; I don’t know how to get trackbacks (if Blogger even can) so it’s possible I’ve been linked without knowing it.) Thank you!

    I tried in the piece, and maybe I could have done a better job of it, to clarify that the distinction between masculine and feminine virtues is an invention of the kyriarchy; it has no bearing on reality. I’m well aware of this, since I identify as male and am male biologically, but possess none of the masculine virtues I listed and most of the feminine. I said that in my first draft of the article, but cut it because saying what virtues I think I have felt like bragging; maybe I should have left it in.

    Part of the problem–and I definitely should have explained this more in the piece, and may write a follow-up in which I do–is that the gendered virtues are presented as a binary. *Because* Merida has “masculine” virtues, she must also therefore (in the kyriarchical pseudologic of the movie) struggle with the “feminine” virtues. It’s one or the other; you can’t have a mix. You can’t be brave and strong and honorable and good at sewing; if you like climbing cliffs and archery* you must therefore dislike sewing. That’s what leads me to think the movie is endorsing the gender binary (which I want to die in a fire) and gendering virtue.

    That said, I’m a firm believer that meaning is constructed in the mind of the viewer. I like Rowan’s comment about two ways of viewing it–but as I said in my article, this is Pixar’s first attempt at trying to do something even remotely sort-of feminist-ish, so they have not earned the benefit of the doubt.

    *Random aside: What is up with all the archery lately? There’s two main characters specializing in bows in Young Justice, plus their mentor (caveat: I have not finished the first season or seen any of the second season), there’s Katniss, Hawkeye, Merida… Has the Fletchers’ Association started putting money in product placement or something?

    • Besomyka

      I think the non-overlapping nature that reinforces the binary is something I could agree with, but I also think the movie is a transitional argument against that binary. Although it starts with those things in opposition, the movie as a whole is an effort to show that it’s wrong.

      I also don’t think the movie did anything to label Merida’s nature as masculine. Both sets of virtues, although non-overlapping, are possessed by strong-willed women — and in the Queen’s case, a rather competent leader to boot! There’s no male influence saying how the women should act either. The King doesn’t expect the Queen to act how she does, nor does he chide Merida for her actions. Her brothers have no comment, the household staff never bat an eye. Even the other clan leaders seemed more occupied with the politics than the social implications. No one tells their son that Merida needs to be tamed, for instance.

      The argument is entirely a female generational issue and, to my mind, it is a third-wave feminist movie. It’s about showing how different women can be and still be women, and breaking down that binary. Being a modern woman doesn’t mean that you need to reject the virtues of your parents, but it also doesn’t mean giving up what makes you unique.

      Also, I have to say, I think Elinor has a knife up her sleeve or slipped into the waste-band of her dress. There is something heroic about her; she showed that she did know how to fight, and I suspect she may have been more like Merida in her youth that she lets on (minus the wilderness survival stuff, she clearly was out of place there, heh).