Friday, May 24, 2013

Merida's Makeover and Violent Masculinity in Disney's BRAVE

Last week, the feminist blogosphere was alight with celebration at the apparent triumph of public activism against sexist marketing to young girls. In anticipation of her ascension into the pantheon of Disney Princesses, Merida, the star of Disney's animated film Brave, had been given a makeover by Disney Consumer Products, a makeover that replaced her bow and arrows with a sash, transformed her wildly springy hair into touch-me flowing locks, and endowed her with hips and a bust worthy of Barbie. Many Merida fans, who had embraced the unconventional princess as the first feminist Disney heroine, were outraged by Disney's marketing changes. A petition started on by "A Mighty Girl," a female empowerment website, asked others to join it in objecting to the makeover, arguing that because Merida "speaks to girls' capacity to be change agents in the world rather than just trophies to be admired," such a sexualized makeover was a "disservice to the millions of children for whom Merida is an empowering role model." Soon after, the glammed-up Merida disappear from Disney's web site, which led some news outlets and bloggers to praise Disney for acknowledging its misstep and listening to consumer opinion.

For its part, Disney claims that it had never intended the sexed-up version of Merida to replace the original; as reported on the pro-Disney web site Inside the Magic on May 15, Disney claims that this 2-D version had been created only on a "limited line of products" as a one-time "stylized version." Though the new-look Merida is gone from Disney's web site, she still graces Target's, as well as merchandise sold at Target stores (wouldn't you like to see the marketing information that drove that decision?).

I remember watching Brave with my early adolescent daughter and both appreciating how different Merida was from many of her passive princess forbearers and feeling uncomfortable with the widespread praise of Merida as a feminist role model. In the face of this most recent brouhaha, I decided to re-watch the film, looking more closely at its feminist (and anti-feminist?) themes and messages. 

On the plus side:

• Rather than waiting passively for her prince to come, as did many of the most popular Disney princesses before her, Merida actively resists the finding-a-prince = happily-ever-after trajectory of the majority of Disney films aimed at girls. 

• Merida, a la Atalanta in Betty Miles' retelling of the myth for the 1970s feminist Free to Be You and Me record and television show, responds to becoming the prize for which men compete by entering the competition herself, and winning it.

• The witch of the piece is far from the typical sexy-terrifying temptress common to most Disney films. But she's not a sweet goody-two-shoes, either. Instead, we're given a portrait of a witch of many dimensions—equal parts mysterious and silly, canny and conniving. 

• Merida doesn't end up married, or even in a romance, by the end of the film. When Merida's mother tells her the story of the other kingdom, the story of a prince who asked a witch for the strength of ten men in order to wrest the crown away from his three brothers, I thought for sure we were in for a Beauty and the Beast retelling. After the marauding bear Mor'du had been defeated, I was convinced we'd find ourselves with a chastened, but suitably appealing prince with whom Merida could fall in love. Instead, Mor'du's clearly older human spirit thanks mother and daughter for freeing his spirit from its animal entrapment, and wafts away.

• Merida's story focuses on a mother/daughter relationship, a rare theme in any film for young children, but especially in one created by Disney. The main quest of the film is not to win a princess or to defeat a villain, but to repair an estranged mother/daughter bond.

On the not so encouraging side:

• Would you want to marry any of Merida's suitors? Resisting marriage seems the only possible choice when you're presented with an inarticulate clod, a self-admiring whiner, and an awkward wimp, doesn't it?

• Why doesn't Merida want to marry? "I don't want my life to be over. I want my freedom," she cries, without ever saying why marriage would bring her life to an end, or restrict the little freedom she currently experiences. In fact, you might think Merida would look forward to marriage, if only to get away from the oppressive gender-role harping of her mother. None of the men in the film seem to care whether Merida rides a horse and carries a bow or not...

• And why is Mom, rather than patriarchy, the oppressive force insisting that Merida must conform to strict gender roles? "A princess doesn't...", "A princess never...", "A princess must...", we hear over and over from the queen, but are given no explanation for why she's so insistent on embracing a restrictive vision of femininity, particularly when there seems no pressure from anyone else for her to maintain it. Perhaps Disney is suggesting that for young viewers, a parent's rules appear to be completely arbitrary. And it is certainly true that women contribute to socializing younger girls into gender conformity. But with the only other adult female in the film used solely as comic relief, the impression viewers are left with is that gender policing only occurs because adult women enforce it, for no logical reason.

• The film constructs feminism in a very second-wave way. Merida's feminism consists primarily in her rejection of stereotypically feminine activities, and embrace of masculine ones.  Merida doesn't like to play music, or sew; she likes to shoot her bow, she likes to ride out on her horse and explore, she likes to climb mountains: "I will fly, chase the wind, and touch the sky" the background music declares during her solitary nature jaunt at the beginning of the film.

• Once she's inadvertently turned her mother into a bear, Merida can't get mom out of the castle herself; she needs the help of her annoying little brothers to do so.

• The film's messages about self-determination are muddy, to say the least. Both Merida and the Prince/Mordu actively work to change their fates. But because their reasons for doing so are selfish, the film suggests, their actions are wrong: "I know how one selfish act can turn the fate of a kingdom," and "I've been selfish," Merida proclaims during the first reconciliation scene between mother and daughter. "Mend the bond / torn by pride," the witch declares. Was Merida's resistance to marriage selfish? An act of unacceptable pride? If she had found a different way to object, would her attempt to change her fate have been acceptable? "Our fate lives within us. You only have to be brave enough to see it," Merida's voice-over says at the film's conclusion, a suitably uplifting but rather confusing statement; in what way has Merida "seen" her fate?

• Is the film's message, then, less about self-determination, and more about accepting personal responsibility? "It's not my fault," Merida continually cries after her mother is transformed into a bear. Even taking up the feminine task of "mending the bond" by sewing back together the family portrait tapestry Merida had ripped is not enough to undo the transformation. Only after she acknowledges responsibility for her act—"I'm sorry. This is all my fault. I did this to you. To us."—does the spell begin to unravel. But it does not disappear until Merida recants her earlier mother-bashing does it completely lose its hold: "You've always been there for me. You've never given up on me. I just want you back." Mother-bashing, rather than denying personal responsibility, is the ultimate sin, a rather invidious message for a film that actively sets its viewers up to regard the mother up as the villain of the piece.

Watching the film this time through, I was struck by this image, of Mor'du about to ravage (ravish?) Merida. If you dig past the usual Disney bromides and think about what is happening on a symbolic level, this picture gives you a much clearer sense of why a girl might not want to get married. Early in the film, the queen acknowledges, "even I had reservations when I faced betrothal," an admission that's a bit hard to understand, given the far from fearful (in fact, quite bumbling) vision of masculinity the film has presented to that point. and continues to present in its depiction of the other clan leaders, their sons, and Merida's own brothers. But in Mor'du, we have a darker, more violent vision of masculinity, a selfish, sexual masculinity that threatens not only to take away a woman's freedom, but her very life. That the queen rescues her daughter not once, but twice from such masculinity, and Merida in turn rescues her mother when her father turns that portion of his masculinity on his queen, suggests a quite feminist underlying subtext: that only by protecting one another, and working together, can women keep violent, aggressive masculinity from destroying their lives.

Girl power indeed.

Photo/Illustration credits:
Merida before and after:
Brave photographs:
Merida comic: Dork Tower

Next time on RNFF:
Romance and childhood sexual abuse


  1. I read this post last year, "Just Another Disney Princess" (, and I thought it was absolutely fantastic. Probably more than anything else I read in 2012 it made me rethink how I wanted to interact with feminism in my novels.

    It's been a while since I've read it, but I think the main takeaway for me was that empowered women don't happen in a vacuum. The fully expressed, kick-ass heroine is an aspiration and a role-model, but not necessarily something women in everyday contexts know how to be - or at least not something it's easy to be, without facing the context we're living in.

    I love the reviewer's take on the moment when Merida wins the tournament - and she's greeted with an awkward silence. The real world rarely erupts into cheering encouragement when women take on and conquer a field they're not "supposed to".

    Great insight into the confrontation with Mor'Du!

    1. "The fully expressed, kick-ass heroine is an aspiration and a role-model, but not necessarily something women in everyday contexts know how to be - or at least not something it's easy to be, without facing the context we're living in."

      As I read this I began thinking of the three women who intervened in the murder of the young soldier in London. None of them were 'kick ass' all of them were ordinary. One spoke at length with the perpetrators reasoning if they were focussed on her others would be safe from harm. A mother and daughter went to the soldier and realising he was dead stayed with the body to offer respect and protection from further indignity. The perpetrators were both armed and literally bloody handed as the women spoke with them and calmly stayed with the soldier.

      I think in our focus on 'kick ass' and agency we risk preferring stories that have heroines acting as if they were males and/or defining heroism and agency quite narrowly. We risk and devalue the agency and choice and courage of women as ordinary not especial women. The caring these women enacted in this case was an act of agency and courage - a real choice. These women literally and in a moment, chose to put their lives on the line. They were in their everyday context of walking down the street or riding the bus. In being who they were as women and where they were in time and space, they were what that awful situation needed - heroines.

      I think we have lost sight in our PNR and UF stories particularly, that there are lots of different ways of being heroic and of making a difference. These women offered the perpetrators a non-aggressive resistance which was purposeful and firm in principal that caring is important – actually a life and death matter. This highlights for me how often a PNR or UF heroine reacts to people and events, leaving me at times lost for assurance that there is anything coherent in their purpose and actions - apart from the bad-guy-is-bad-cos-bad-guys-are-bad and must therefore be opposed.

      I am pleading for ‘doing feminism in our romancelandia stories’ to mean engaging with all sorts of women with the agency to act and react in all sorts of ways and for this to matter. There is great power in action that does not give or come from power over others. I also think that these women’s actions highlighted the power of individual actions making something bigger as they take place in a larger situation. This is a major contrast with our lonely story book heroines whose actions are supposed to be the sole deciders of outcomes.

    2. I agree, Merrian: I think too often heroism and power are defined in terms of the ability to use weapons and, frankly, that's not something to which I aspire. I used to go to the Feministe website, but I found it really troubling that the graphic they'd chosen for the site was a young woman/girl holding a large gun. That wasn't the only reason I stopped visiting the site, but it was something which made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome there.

    3. I agree! The article I cited read Brave as feminist in that Merida didn't (contrary to appearances) become heroic by conquering the world of men with her weapons, but by engaging with her mother in a more complex world where everyone is responsible for everyone else.

    4. Thanks, Anna, for the pointer to that article. A far more in-depth look at the innovativeness of the film than I accounted for in my post. I especially appreciate the way the author writes abou the ways mothers and adolescent daughters turn each other into monsters, and the way we might make that a stage in our relationships rather than an ending point, a fate.

      Perhaps it is asking too much of Pixar/Disney to make Merida embody ALL of our feminist hopes. Some us clearly admire the aspects of the film that embrace non-violent, community-building femininity. And others (Kimberley below) really like the kick-ass, bow-wielding, horse-riding aspects of Merida as a character. When we have a broader range of princesses/heroines from which to choose, perhaps Merida and Mulan won't have to bear the burden of every women's different needs.

  2. I think I would also add if I can think it through properly something about the actions of the three women re-constituting community and social order in the face of the perpetrators breaking community and order. I suppose I'm thinking of Pamela Regis' eight stages of the romance story here ending with the community re-constituted and thinking that a reductive focus on security alone without considering what will build our communities alongside security issues and choices can only atomise community. Is this also the failing of PNR and UF stories and may be romantic suspense stories too? They don't engage with the reconstitution of social connections? A lone hero or heroine can't do this - at the least they need a Scooby gang.

  3. "Was Merida's resistance to marriage selfish? An act of unacceptable pride?"

    No. The point was clearly that she was selfish in putting her mother's life in danger in order to push her own goals. And that was selfish, even if her goals were in and of themselves laudable. She didn't think through the witch's offering: she saw an easy "fix" and ran with it. That's not very responsible, and she learned that lesson.

    ""Our fate lives within us. You only have to be brave enough to see it," Merida's voice-over says at the film's conclusion, a suitably uplifting but rather confusing statement; in what way has Merida "seen" her fate?"

    My daughter and I thought it was rather obvious that she has seen that her fate is in her hands but that she is still ultimately connected to others, and that it never works to push one sole agenda above all others. The point is that one doesn't have to give up autonomy in order to function within a thriving group.

    "Merida can't get mom out of the castle herself; she needs the help of her annoying little brothers to do so."

    Yes, in a story it is common for someone to need help from others. In fact I daresay that's echoing the overall point here: sometimes you can do things alone, other times you need other people, even if they're really annoying. That's actually a really important lesson for some young kids, like my daughter, who push themselves very hard and somehow get the message (quite likely from the too-oft used "strong female" trope of a girl who fixes everyone else's problems for them and is so ultra-independent as to almost never need help herself) that it's not okay to ask for help or that a victory doesn't count for you if anyone else was involved. And it's not like the brothers helped valiantly: they were clearly portrayed as using their annoying sides to her benefit in that small regard. The message is that we should accept people - particularly those close to us - for their strengths and faults and realize that those two things can overlap.

    These themes are echoed over and over again, that you can be a strong individual but still have flaws, that even what others see as flaws may have merit, and that nobody functions well as a rock unto themselves, even if they're very strong.

    "Mother-bashing, rather than denying personal responsibility, is the ultimate sin, a rather invidious message for a film that actively sets its viewers up to regard the mother up as the villain of the piece."

    No. That's not the message at all. In fact the movie made comedic light of the mother-bashing earlier several times. The message is that familial love matters, and it does. Further, the mother is not the villain. Both Merida and her mother are presented as having good points but flaws - you know, as humans. The juxtaposition is with the bear, and her mother becoming a bear, which is not human. The villainy in this is losing your humanity by failing to be part of a community whole. Again, even my seven year old daughter saw this. When I teased her after the movie that the moral was "Always listen to your mother" she immediately retorted, "No, it's be a good person whoever you are." She nailed it.


    1. continued...

      "only by protecting one another, and working together, can women keep violent, aggressive masculinity from destroying their lives."

      If you see that, we saw completely different films. That's a stretch upon a stretch and almost seems like you want to miss the point of the film in order to vilify it.

      I was very happy with this movie and was very pleased to take my daughter to it (along with Dad). We were relieved to see something smash the usual Disney tropes, portray the tomboyism that I and my daughter share as a positive (and we're not merely being subject to male memes, thank you very much, this is WHO WE ARE), and show a story about human beings learning to get along in complicated, multi-level relationships.

      I rewatched it recently with my brother in law because he wanted to evaluate for his daughter, since it's hard for him as a single dad to know what's good gender modelling in modern entertainment. He was delighted to have found something his daughter can watch that doesn't make the girl the prize, that says it's GENDER-EQUAL to be athletic, and otherwise finally gives us a heroine who is human and flawed but not passive and pathetic.

      Maybe some of us want to be kick-ass. Some of us think bows are cool. I wanted desperately to take archery as a teen and was told I couldn't, but then my younger brother was allowed to. My daughter loves her karate classes so much she gave up other extra-curriculars to go to karate more often. By saying that that these things are just a male subtype, you're the one limiting us, not the patriarchy, not men, not Disney. You. And I don't appreciate it, to be quite blunt.

    2. RNFF is limiting women more than patriarchy because she has a few criticisms of this film? Wow. Her review is overwhelmingly positive. You're the one who's vilifying.

      FWIW, I didn't like the movie at all. I went to see it with my daughters and my mother, who all loved it, and I felt bad about not being able to share the good feelings with them. I didn't understand Merida's reasons for not wanting to get married. She'd rather let her country go to WAR? She didn't strike me as brave so much as petulant and silly. I was disturbed by the poisoned pie she gave her mother. I found her hair and most of the animation annoying.

      Perhaps because of my reaction to the film, I can't drum up any outrage over the "sexy" makeover. The two images don't look that different to me. I thought the second was maybe an older, more mature Merida.

    3. It's not overwhelmingly positive. More points - and longer, more detailed ones - are made against. And the last statement is a snide attack on the film. This review is an overall negative.

      But that's not actually the point.

      I don't care if someone doesn't like a movie or book, but I have a big problem with anybody telling me that athleticism is a male domain. That's a severely patriarchal statement, and something my daughter and I have both been dealing with all of our lives. To hear it from a feminist is downright insulting. We're not faking being men because we like traditionally male-dominated things. We like what we like and it's high time our own side stop telling us off for it.

    4. I interpreted the last statement as a positive. As in, yay women helping each other. That supporting end note gave me the "overall good" impression. As far as male athleticism, are you referring to this?

      "Merida doesn't like to play music, or sew; she likes to shoot her bow..."

      Shooting a bow is a stereotypically masculine activity, isn't it? Maybe there's a point or comment I missed. I don't see any suggestion here that sports are for men only, unless it's being made by the film itself, because Merida is so BRAVE for disliking traditionally female hobbies.

    5. It's actually the sentence before that: "Merida's feminism consists primarily in her rejection of stereotypically feminine activities, and embrace of masculine ones." And that is listed in the negatives. It also relates to a few sentences up with "None of the men in the film seem to care whether Merida rides a horse and carries a bow or not..." which is a) factually wrong since her father totally digs that she has a bow and argues with the mother to allow it, and b) emphasizing that the othering going on is because she's doing "male" stuff instead of applauding that she's doing things she likes which happen to be traditionally male-dominated (which is obviously the whole reason she does the contest).

      When critiques complain that women are merely some more archival type of feminist for having a female character embrace male-dominated interests, it tells those of us who share those interests that our feminism is also relegated to a previous generation and thus not current and accepted.

      That kind of attitude is why my daughter gets othered all the time by boys and girls alike at school for liking super heroes, science fiction, fantasy, karate, and other male-dominated areas. Her sensei is a woman who gets this kind of crap all the time as well.

      I expect better of a feminist blog than to relegate a character interested in archery to being insufficiently feminist.

    6. Huh, I took the criticism, "The film constructs feminism in a very second-wave way. Merida's feminism consists primarily in her rejection of stereotypically feminine activities, and embrace of masculine ones" as a rejection of some of the common tenets of second-wave feminism, not as an endorsement of athleticism as somehow inherently non-feminine. I probably interpreted it this way because I tend to have a problem with second-wave feminism because it rejects stereotypically feminine pursuits (homemaking, fashion, etc) as somehow being inherently non-feminist and that in order to achieve equality women must ditch the feminine and pursue the stereotypically masculine (career, sports etc) regardless of their own wants, needs and desires. I think the omission of “stereotypically” in front of “masculine ones” in that quote could be the issue here. Could be wrong, tho.

      I was excited to see Brave when it first came out because I heard such positive things, but after seeing it I was disappointed and it's been so long I can’t recall exactly why. Agree that second version of Merida is way sexed-up, which is not in keeping with the character.

    7. Interesting, Kimberly, that we could have such different takes on the film. I can see the points you make, particularly about Merida's selfishness being not in her anti-marriage stance, but in the way she goes about trying to achieve it, and your points about not having to give up autonomy within community.

      I still do think, though, that the words Merida speaks to change her mother back from being a bear are significant. "Villain" is perhaps too strong a word for Elinor, but I don't think any viewer would argue we're supposed to embrace Elinor's point of view about the need for Merida to marry. "You've always been there for me. You've never given up on me. I just want you back," Merida cries at the pivotal moment, words that reassure all mothers that their angry daughters really do love them, deep down, but that do little to resolve the differences between mother and daughter that inspired the film's conflict in the first place.


    8. And so sorry that you felt I was telling women who embrace activities and interests that have been traditionally associated with masculinity that they are not "feminist." This was not my intent in the least. I was trying to object to the overly easy way the film can signal "feminist" just by having its heroine embrace traditionally masculine pursuits. There's more to being a feminist than taking up such pursuits, but it doesn't follow that women who do embrace such pursuits are not feminists.

      When I remarked on how none of the men in the film seem to care if Merida rides a horse or wields a bow, I meant to call attention to how little negative reaction there is among the men of the castle to Merida's gender-bending behavior. If none of the men found it a problem, why should it bother her mother so?

      The end of the review was not intended to be snarky or snide, but to appreciate an aspect of it that I did find feminist. The visual subtext of the Mor'du scenes strike me as feminist in an intriguing way, one quite different from other feminist discourses in the film.

      Few books or films are completely without things to praise; even fewer are free of problematic elements. I like to write about both, not in order to vilify but to understand.

  4. I don't think an interest in archery has anything do with feminism. Which is why it's listed in negatives, as in not compelling evidence to support Merida as a feminist character. "None of the men seem to care" means none of them objected.

    Maybe you saw a completely different movie AND read a completely different post? Many of your comments sound like the same points being made here, and the objections seem to be in response to issues not raised at all. I'm not familiar with first wave, second wave feminism etc. so it's possible that the tension you're picking up on is invisible to me.

  5. I think Laura Vivanco also has an interesting post about female heroes and their exceptionalism's impact on how other women are seen

  6. One of the problems with the film is that the makers assumed that an American audience would be able to grasp without being hit over the head with it just how serious the business of being royal is. Children certainly aren't going to understand that Merida has a *duty* to behave a certain way, and that said duty is imposed on both genders. It irked me that she was so dismissive of it

    (& it never occurred to me that the Bear might have turned into a prince, a la "Snow White & Rose Red", but, if it had happened, I wouldn't have been so upset, because then it would be a clear case of HER rescuing HIM. And, since she *will* HAVE to get married eventually (the whole "being royal" thing), that would be as good as husband as she's likely to get)