Brave: Gender, Bias, and Expectations
Pixar’s Brave, long-anticipated (at least in some circles), was released to surprisingly lukewarm reviews. As of the writing, it holds 77% on Rotten Tomatoes (edging out Cars, at 74%) and an average score of just 6.8/10 (actually surpassed by Cars, with 6.9). Now, lest we lose perspective, 77% is a perfectly good score. Brave is ahead of Madagascar 3, Prometheus, Ted, and many other current releases. But for a Pixar film, such a score still ranks it as a major disappointment: the next lowest-rated Pixar film, A Bug’s Life, comes in at a whopping 92%. So why is Brave, by comparison, getting such a poor reception? Warning: Spoilers follow.
The obvious factor is expectations. Given Pixar’s track record, a good movie isn’t enough from them: Every production of theirs is expected to be a great movie. The Newark Star-Ledger review typically opines, “the Pixar name used to mean something. And it never quite meant pleasantly safe, safely forgettable movies like this.” This is unfair on many levels. First, some of Pixar’s early productions rode a wave of early-CGI fame and are not, in and of themselves, exceptionally good movies; one wonders what kind of reception A Bug’s Life would receive if it were released (with modern-quality graphics) today. Second, a good-but-not great movie is still good and merits a positive review, but one in four reviewers actually gave Brave negative reviews, apparently grading on a curve and awarding it an objectively bad score for being, in Pixar terms, a relatively weak movie.
Brave also suffers from a contextual double whammy. Released the year after Cars 2, the studio’s first bona fide flop (and first undeniable placement of commercialization ahead of artistic integrity), it was expected to not only be Pixar-quality, but the top of Pixar quality, in order for the studio to redeem itself. Thus, it may be receiving lower reviews from people who suspect that Pixar is simply losing its touch. And then there’s the Disney factor. Pixar’s first original work to begin production after its acquisition by Disney stars a princess? The Slate review notes the problem: “If Brave were a straight-up Disney release, people would be hailing it, at the very least, as an end to the princess movie as we know it. Because it’s Pixar, they get to whine, ‘What? Princesses again?'”
Since original concepts are the hallmark that sets Pixar apart from other studios, it’s an understandable complaint, but princess movies are still receiving unfairly harsh treatment. Zombie movies, an offshoot from the arguably already-hackneyed survival horror genre, get treated as their own subgenre; critics rarely slam zombie movies for their overdone concept, but rather review them as zombie movies, the logic being that, if you (like me) don’t like the subgenre, you simply won’t see the movie, and the review is therefore not geared toward you. Princess movies do not receive this dispensation. “Do we really need another princess?” is a common complaint*. I don’t know why princess movies are never regarded as their own subgenre; they are too kid-oriented, perhaps, and–sigh–too girly.
Which brings us to the real point of contention: The gender issue. Most reviewers would rather dance around it because it calls their judgment into question, but it remains that this is Pixar’s first female protagonist and one of their lowest-rated films. Coincidence? Let’s look at the reviews. Practically all bring up gender somewhere (in prerelease reviews, it was often to question whether boys could relate to the female main characters, an unflattering referendum on the male sex).
Roger Ebert, who gave 3 1/2 stars to 2012, has reached the point in his life where those who care about him ought to be surreptitiously pulling him out of the spotlight, but he’s influential enough and bullheaded enough to serve as a sort of barometer of cinematic wrongheadedness: Where he goes astray, others will, too. Let’s look at his take on Brave.
First comes the claim of Disneyfication and the classifying of princess stories as cliché. Curiously, he later calls Merida’s brothers an “inspiration,” as though troublemaking younger multiples (twins, usually, rather than triplets) were not themselves common in children’s media.
“We get a spunky princess; her mum, the queen; her dad, the gruff king, an old witch who lives in the woods, and so on,” he says. A cookie to whoever spots the mistake. If you pointed to “her mum, the queen,” you win! Mothers aren’t a cliché part of the princess mythos; they’re virtually always absent. Among Disney princesses, only Aurora and Mulan have both parents–and Aurora’s mother has only two lines and no given name. Tiana has a mother but no father; still, her relationship with her father is more important to the story than that with her mother. So, despite later praising the Merida-Elinor relationship, Ebert has already written off a very unusual element as a stock type.
Meanwhile, Ebert–and every other review I’ve read–ignores where Brave radically departs from the princess formula**: There is no love interest! The handsome prince is almost as integral to princess movies as the princess herself, and even Pixar films include a stock love interest (Bo Peep, Celia) as often as not. This aversion is actively surprising: By the time the witch mentions previously casting a spell for a handsome prince, it seems foregone that he’ll show up in the third act as the true love for whom Merida needs to break off her arranged betrothal. The counterspell she uses on her mother will also end up curing Mor’Du, his ancient clan will fit into the marriage tradition, and so on. Nope! When Merida says “I don’t want to get married,” she means “I don’t want to get married,” not “I want to get married, but only to the perfect handsome prince.” Big difference: One of these is an empowering message. The other is not.
And then there’s the last sentence: “‘Brave’ seems at a loss to deal with [Merida] as a girl and makes her a sort of honorary boy.”
Aside from making no damn sense (the rebellious princess archetype doesn’t even have a male counterpart), Ebert is outright accepting a “male until proven female” paradigm, wherein all characters are expected to be male unless there’s an exceptionally good reason why they can’t be. You may take a moment to check your calendar (should Merida prove her gender by donning heels and pearls?). While insulting to, well, everyone, this view is particularly harmful to real girls who don’t display feminine characteristics. Is Ebert saying that they shouldn’t exist, or merely that they shouldn’t have any onscreen role models?
Ebert’s review demonstrates that Brave‘s female protagonist does indeed lead to criticisms that would not have been leveled against a spear counterpart. Still, it’s impossible to extrapolate from a single data point how the gender factor, separate from the Disney factor, the Cars 2 factor, etc, has actually affected Brave‘s ratings. Pixar needs to produce a film that both showcases its trademark ingenuity and stars a female character.
If its 12-to-1 ratio holds, though, we may be waiting a while.
* “Does Pixar’s first female character need to be a princess?” is a much more pertinent question, but “Did Pixar’s first 12 films all need to star men?” is equally valid. Why, for instance, couldn’t Finding Nemo have been about a mother fish searching for her lost daughter?
** Some other ways that Brave breaks formula:
- Merida has an accent. It’s very common for animated protagonists (Hiccup, Fievel, Linguini, Aladdin, etc) to sound American even while surrounded by a supporting cast with accents appropriate to the location, the unfortunate implication being that nobody could empathize with protagonists who Sound Foreign.
- A woman gets transfigured. While Disney characters get involuntarily turned into animals (including bears) all the time, the transformed are usually men (Tiana only gets transformed because she gets mixed up with a man who had already been transformed).
- The lessons are subtly, but markedly, different. Rebellious princesses and, indeed, most Disney-style protagonists learn lessons like “stand up for yourself” and “follow your heart.” Merida has no problem standing up for herself; the lessons she needs to learn are that leadership involves sacrifice and compromise, that her mother really does care about her, and that you have to listen to understand someone.