If you could change your fate…would you? That’s the question posed by Merida in Brave, a movie that probably didn’t want the fate of being considered the runt of the recent Disney line-up of CGI animated princess films.
Disney princesses are practically their own genre. They’re role models for kids of varying ages. Their films combine a mixture of adventure, romance and just enough drama without getting too heavy. They’re often musicals, though not always. The formula is pretty tightly woven into Disney’s commercial fabric, so it’s really the smaller changes that separate them from one another. Merida is interesting because she’s neither the least popular (sorry, Pocahontas) nor the most iconic (hello, Ariel). She exists in this weird limbo between ‘oh, yeah, the one with the huge curly hair’ and ‘…who?’. Merida is a princess I find myself liking and not because I view her as some shining beacon of independence in a female character.
In fact, this is one of the most baffling interpretations I see made about her on the regular and one I want to take a deeper look at. Let’s start off with the checklist. She’s ‘tough’ (usually a shorthand for being physically active and/or able to throw a punch), is ‘independent’ (another shorthand for doing whatever one wants) and is basically a girl who’s got a brain and always speaks her mind. Basically, a stockpile of traits we’ve seen before. What makes Merida stand out is how she seems to be a critical eye on all of the above while remaining a flawed and dynamic character in her own right. In layman’s terms, a rich white kid whose rich white kid mannerisms aren’t cute or funny — they suck!
You see, Merida’s ‘tough and independent’ personality is what gets the kingdom in trouble and her mom turned into Baloo.
A quick overview for those who haven’t seen the film: Merida is a Scottish princess who’s starting to grow frustrated with her overbearing mother’s expectations for her future — she’d rather be riding horses (the 10th century version of joyriding, I guess) and climbing dangerous waterfalls than sitting through dull history lessons. When she finds out she’s to be betrothed against her will she seeks out the help of a witch to ‘change her fate’. Ignoring a million warning signs she feeds her mother an enchanted pastry and turns her into a bear. The film then proceeds to explore the bond between mother and daughter, themes about coming to terms with responsibility and an overall message of creating a better future for everyone involved.
You see…Merida’s kind of a prick and the film makes no bones about us learning this as soon as possible. The first song ‘Touch The Sky’ has her scampering around the castle and knocking shit over much to the visible consternation of the workers. She has a tendency to toss her trash onto the ground. A later pivotal scene where she finds out the witch’s magical pastry is ‘working’ by making Elinor incredibly, violently sick is one that made my own stomach churn. Your mother is all but ready to vomit because of something you fed her and you’re still yapping about the betrothal? I know you’re a kid, but come on! Rolling her eyes at her mother’s efforts to educate her, sneaking treats to her brothers behind her back, Merida brings her F-game right off the bat.
Now, it can be argued that turning one’s mother into a bear, however much by accident, isn’t something that’ll really hit home for most viewers (I won’t jump to conclusions). However, wanting to dilly-dally around practicing archery and swordfighting without any of the delegation, meetings or involved education that comes with the title? Particularly when those very clans your mother is trying to get you to learn about gave you the princess role in the first place? That makes Ariel dooming her entire kingdom for a pair of legs seem almost selfless! She displays the kind of arrogant, self-centered foolishness you’d only expect from someone who grew up in decadence, which makes this rather low point all the more engaging for its gradual process to something more noble.
In fact, it starts to beg the question: why aren’t more of the princesses jerks?
Disney princesses are often likeable, whether it’s from being relateable or just so cheeks-pinchingly sweet you can’t help but root for them. Cinderella is mild-mannered and compassionate, Mulan is dutiful and resourceful and Jasmine is a determined spitfire. The more modern ones have been emphasizing the ‘dorky’ and ‘klutzy’ traits to appeal to the presumably nerdy Millennial audience. Merida is a little more unique in this regard in that she starts off a lot lower on the likability spectrum than many. For all that she’s incredibly brave (spoilers!) and endlessly curious, she’s also impatient, arrogant and, perhaps worst of all, hates to admit to fault. Not only does she have to learn her actions have serious consequences, she has to fess up and admit she had a major hand in creating the mess in the first place.
I say ‘major hand’ because, yes, these actions were influenced by her mother bartering her off to the most eligible bachelor without her say so. Don’t…even get me started on the woefully underdeveloped analysis of systemic and internalized misogyny when it comes to Elinor’s character.
Now, her being a bold and outgoing kid aren’t unanimously bad traits. That they’re treated in a nuanced way is a mature message kids don’t get enough of in Western animated films. Even good traits can be harmful if unchecked or misplaced — there are times to be tough and times to be tender. There are times to be ‘independent’ (we’ll get into why that’s such a misused adjective later) and times to be selfless. Merida’s problem is that she’s inflexible and sees absolutely no reason to change in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary. Go figure: it’s something she clearly inherited from her mother. This is the heart of Brave‘s story and, for all its flaws, this is the element that really works.
I appreciate that the film doesn’t fall into the trap of lifting the tomboy over the girly-girl, either, even when it seems to skirt that route with Merida’s more stable relationship with her father and younger brothers. There’s wisdom in both her’s and Elinor’s perspectives and abilities, all of which is seen clearly over the course of the story. Merida learns the benefit of all those history and diplomacy lessons she was brought up with, while Elinor gets a few moments to use raw strength and aggression to keep her daughter safe. The moral of flexibility is shown clearly and makes for something that would’ve suffered greatly if it had gone strictly either way.
Of course, I won’t make any bones about the story still revolving around a very privileged class (and being able to ‘get away’ with messages that would be seen as unacceptable on almost anyone else), but it gets a few points because it takes the time to hold the main character up to a higher standard. Completely? Eh. You can tell the film had more to say but really didn’t devote the right amount of time to saying it. Elinor gets a one-off line where she mentions she wanted to give Merida ‘everything we never had’ (I said I wouldn’t complain about this!) and the father has a popular trailer moment where he makes light of Merida’s desire to fire arrows into the sunset with her hair blowing in the wind.
This is one of the many reasons the term ‘independent’ cramps my craw. I get the feeling one of Brave‘s biggest sticking points with audiences and why it didn’t have a major impact (aside from the fact it’s a rather rushed mess) was how it treated the princess role. The modern viewpoint of a monarchy is an idealized one, to be sure, all about the pretty outfits and romantic castles instead of the, er. Uglier aspects. The most Disney has done to really touch on these are that of marriage (when it’s not just using the ‘princess’ title as a generic moniker for their aforementioned animated formula). Merida? She has to learn the history of her kingdoms and the individual traits of their clans. Her mother emphasizes the importance of patience and grace. She has to learn how to speak to a crowd. She has to do things.
This narrative framing makes the overarching theme of responsibility stick that much stronger. It’s easy to look ‘independent’ when your entire life hinges on the ongoing efforts of a collective. She’s able to have fun shooting arrows and exploring mountain peaks because she has a whole damn castle, a bunch of servants and endless food waiting for her when she gets back. Frankly, I’d love it if Disney started stepping away from princesses for a while (or forever). But Brave, at least, treats it as more than fluff. Moana shows shades of this by going on an expedition to find out why her village is suffering from an environmental calamity and Tiana is well-known for working the most with the very least. With great power comes great responsibility, right?
Interestingly enough, Brave does take a few moments to illustrate how Clan Dunbroch even got to where it was in the first place. It’s a democratic monarchy, one that was recently elected by three clans through actual merit rather than bloodline. While Merida and her brothers are succeeding their parents in more monarchical fashion, Elinor goes to great pains to make damn sure her daughter doesn’t make light of it.
Let’s look at what other princesses did. Jasmine…got hitched? Rapunzel realized she’s a princess through some repressed memories and chalk drawings? Elsa, uh. Tells someone to close the gates in one scene. Merida has the entire film wagging one giant finger toward her rather self-centered desire to have all the upsides of the title with none of the downsides. Her wish to live a life free of Some Guy™ isn’t the issue — it’s her completely irresponsible and selfish method of going about it. Yeah, definitely not as high on the wish-fulfillment bar as Anna going on a royally consequence-free snow adventure with talking snowmen and rocks with ugly faces.
I like that the potential suitor is hardly more than detail in Elinor and Merida’s lives. You could replace him with just about anything and the story would still proceed unhindered on its themes of differences, family and responsibility. But, unfortunately, the whole issue with sexism still rears its ugly head. Elinor is still the domineering force in pushing her daughter to subscribe to limited ideals of what a girl can be, but we see jack shit from the men’s side. If anything, the men are either indifferent or flat-out supportive of Merida. Okay! When you remember the movie was handed over to a male director mid-production despite being based explicitly on the experiences of a single mother raising a daughter (and Pixar having a poor track record with female directors), some less-than-savory implications seep through.
So, you’d think I flat-out hate this character after giving her such a thorough moral pummeling, right? That’s exactly it — good narrative framing and organic character growth does wonders for leaving a positive impact. We get to see the flip-side to Merida’s stubbornness and arrogance, the continuation of a theme on how certain characteristics are neither unanimously good or bad. She never gives up on her mother. Even when things go to shit (and boy howdy, do they go to shit), she stares fear right in the face and never backs down in order to right her wrongs. She finally starts to absorb what she’s been taught outside brute strength, but doesn’t entirely ditch it either. I mean, the climax has her peacefully calming down a violent mob, engaging her father in a swordfight, attacking a demon bear and stitching together a tapestry on horseback at night. Now that’s what I call flexible!
Throughout the entire film Merida is juxtaposed against a cursed prince who made similar mistakes based on his own hubris. “Legends are lessons.” Merida quotes from an earlier lesson with her mother. “They ring with truths.” This movie could very well work as a lesson for other kids…or they could then find themselves in their own version of Brave should they choose to go Merida’s route and ignore the overarching message. Aren’t stories grand?
It’s not always easy to root for an unlikable character. You spend most of the time wanting them to get comeuppance than get what they actually want. Brave does a good job of pinpointing where Merida’s frustrating traits come from, sprinkling in enough humanity to still make you relate to her plight and showing her growth throughout the course of the story rather than tossing in a character-building throwaway line in the middle of the climax (hello, Ariel). By the end of the film I was thinking, “Damn. She’s changed a lot. I wonder where she’ll go from here?” Thanks to the somewhat lackluster mainstream response, we’re probably never going to get a sequel. There’s always Once Upon A Time.
If you could change your fate responsibly…would you?
‘A Character Study’ is an on-and-off series I’ll be doing where I analyze a character from a film, videogame, show, song or book.