Brave (2012), a Disney / Pixar animated film directed by Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews, takes a semi-radical approach towards the depiction of gender roles, especially when compared to previous Disney animated princess tales. One of the main differences between those films and Brave is the lack of a romantic interest for protagonist Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald). Some critics have argued that Merida exhibits more agency than previous Disney princesses—her story, for example, does not involve being rescued by a prince (Nowlan and Finch, 127). Brave directly acknowledges strictly defined gender roles while also challenging them.
The opening scene of Brave introduces several of the film's central themes—Merida as an active and therefore nontraditional princess, her family dynamic as a representation of, and challenge to, the gendered expectations of medieval Scotland, and the truths behind legends.The film begins with a scene from Merida’s childhood—as a birthday gift, her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), presents her with a bow. Archery is Merida’s greatest joy and talent, although it is a sport associated with male medieval characters like Robin Hood rather than princesses. The Queen (Emma Thompson), who has spent her life adhering to the expectations placed on royal women, chides her husband for this unladylike gift. This scene from Merida’s childhood also features the evil bear Mer’du, who attempts to attack the young Princess and her mother. King Fergus fights off the bear but loses a leg in the process, a story that becomes legend. The importance of legends in Brave is reminiscent of the heroic epics and Arthurian myths of medieval literature, and within this context Meridacan be seen as the protagonist in a role that has often been masculine-dominated.
Some years later, Merida grudgingly participates in the tasks expected of a princess, showing that her life's purpose has been dictated by her sex and status and with little regard for her interests or skills. She is shown under the close guidance of her mother practicing careful pronunciation, learning the geography of her kingdom, and playing the lyre. The Queen outlines the traits her daughter must strive for, expectations which were undoubtedly imparted upon herself as a young girl. She explains that a princess “rises early, is compassionate, patient, cautious, clean, and above all, a princess strives for, well, perfection.” This expectation of perfection is contrasted sharply against Merida’s unruly hair and the things her mother scolds her for—her doodling, chortling, and dinner etiquette. It is never perfection Merida craves, but freedom. What Merida truly loves is represented by what she does on her day off, which she spends riding through the glen on her horse, shooting her bow, climbing, and enjoying nature. Merida feels her younger brothers are able to get away with anything, while she is restricted by the expectations her mother has of her and her daily princess duties. The rigid confines of Merida's everyday life compared to the activities she enjoys during her rare free time, and her jealousy of the freedom so often enjoyed by her brothers, illustrate that Merida is yearning to break free from the expectations to which she is strictly bound.
The main conflict of the film is between Princess Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor, which characterizes Elinor not as a kind of wicked stepmother, but as someone who has internalized the expectations imposed upon her as a noblewoman. Although Elinor loves her daughter, she lacks understanding. She expects Merida to behave like a princess, but her expectations are contrary to Merida’s very nature. When Queen Elinor informs Merida that the lords of the three clans of the kingdom will present suitors to compete for Merida’s hand in marriage, Merida expresses extreme anxiety at the prospect of losing her freedom. Elinor uses chess pieces to warn Merida of the dangers of following one’s own path, retelling the legend of a great king who divided his kingdom among his four sons. The eldest son became selfish and his quest for power led to the destruction of the kingdom. Elinor uses this legend as a lesson against selfishness—it suggests that Merida’s opposition to her betrothal is selfish, and her refusal to marry a politically beneficial suitor will have ramifications on the peace of the kingdom. Elinor recalls her own betrothal to the king when she dismisses Merida's anxieties as mere reservations, demonstrating that she has internalized the notion that political strategy takes precedence over a noblewoman’s choice in marriage.
For men, too, gender norms are strictly defined in the film, although they are challenged at times. Merida’s father, king and warrior, epitomizes common conceptions of masculinity, but he displays a soft spot for his daughter and relies frequently on his wife. It is partially due to the king’s jovial personality that Merida is not strictly bound to the rigid expectations of a princess. A man’s worth in this warrior society is determined by his strength and proficiency in battle—when the gathering of the clans begins, the suitors are made to prove their worth through physical challenges. Despite the suitors’ impressive reputations, however, their behavior is often silly and childish during the competition. When Merida finds out that those eligible for her hand in marriage are restricted to the first-born of the clan leaders, she selects archery as the challenge. After the poor performances of the suitors, Merida announces that she will be competing for her own hand, and in a physical representation of her breaking free from the confines of her role as a princess, she rips the seams of her dress and hits every target with her bow. Because Merida was once given a bow as a gift, a rare opportunity for a girl, she was able to become an exceptionally skilled archer, illustrating the capability of women to thrive in activities typically exclusive to men when given the opportunity.
Elements of magic, central to Disney princess tales, are employed to draw attention to the reassessment of gender roles in Brave. Like most fairy tales, Brave features a witch. In this case, Merida is led by a will-o’-the-wisp to the old woman’s cottage in the woods after a fierce confrontation with her mother over her behavior at the gathering. Even the witch in Brave challenges the traditional gender tropes of other fairy tale films. Sheis not the traditional wicked witch—in fact, she is not wicked at all. She initially rebukes Merida’s request for a spell to change her mother, citing her past troubles with unsatisfied customers. Although she does relent, the spell itself and its reversal are also geared towards reconciliation between Merida and the Queen. Merida is shocked to find the spell physically transform her mother into a bear—Elinor’s bear form is contrasted sharply against the image of perfect composure she presented throughout the beginning of the film. Although Merida and Elinor are distressed, the two bond in what seems like the first time in a long while. In this way, the mended bond between mother and daughter is the love story of the film. Positive relationships between women, and the use of magic by a sorceress in a benevolent way, are major departures from traditional princess tales, and in light of these departures, Brave can be viewed as a distinctly feminist film.
Overall, the film is in many ways a breakthrough for the representation of gender roles and relations in fairy tales. By adapting classic elements of fairy tales and overtly addressing gender expectations in princess stories and the medieval world, Brave challenges these historically rooted notions. The film represents the potential for fairy tale films going forward, with protagonists, like Merida, that offer young audiences more to aspire than the “traditional” gendered ideals in the vast majority of fairy tales.
Buchanan, Jason. "Brave (2012)." AllMovie.com. (Accessed March 04, 2018).
Lussier, Germain. "11 Things Weve Learned About Pixars Brave [D23 Expo]." /Film. August 22, 2011. (Accessed March 03, 2018).
Nowlan, Bob, and Zach Finch. Directory of World Cinema: Scotland. Bristol: Intellect, 2015.
Pixar Animation Studios
Pixar Animation Studios
Early Middle Ages (c. 500-1000)