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Archive for July 1st, 2012

Every Pixar movie since Toy Story 2 has had pressure to live up to the (commercial, if not always critical – ahem, Cars 2) success of its predecessor. Pixar’s most recent release, Brave, has the added pressure of featuring – gasp! – a female protagonist. The excitement over the prospect of a strong female character lasted until it was reveled that Merida, the primary character, happens to be a princess. Slate summarizes these reactions nicely:

The general disappointment with Pixar’s new movie Brave, which opens Friday, began long before even a trailer was released. The complaint was focused on the lead character Merida, who Pixar proudly announced would be its first girl heroine. After enduring some public and critical outcry over the lack of female leads, the company, known for daring to foist extreme dystopian landscapes and despot teddy bears on the world’s children, was now making its big feminist statement with a … princess. Peggy Orenstein was already mad about it in her 2011 book Cinderella Ate My Daughter and now she is even madder: “It still irritates me that a team as creative as Pixar’s, which has imagined so many extraordinary male characters, can’t imagine a female protagonist unless she’s a bloody princess” she wrote last week.

Now that the movie has actually been released, some of the reviewers have picked up on the fact that Brave is, at heart, a story about the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters (though they could also argue convincingly that it is about the complicated relationships between teenagers and parents generally). The review at Entertainment Weekly touches on this point, as does the review at Slate. Slate‘s XXfactor blog goes further, connecting Brave to a growing list of movies that deal with cultural issues of women and power, stating:

When the Queen explains to Merida why she can’t be rebellious she lists not just generic duties to the kingdom but personality traits which a proper princess should have: compassion, patience, caution, cleanliness, a yearning for perfection. This could very well describe the average ambitious college girl. People often ask why there aren’t more women in power. The real answer is that even though women are more successful than ever these days, we hold on to a cultural ambivalence about women with real power. Women can be competent, perfect, compassionate, but not quite dominant.

I think this is partly because we associate dominance with physical force. In the hunter/gatherer origin myth, men control the resources because they have more upper body strength. And even though upper body strength is irrelevant now, we haven’t been able to let go of the myth—until now, when it seems a shift is afoot. Pop culture is reflecting our anxieties about that shift, with ever more uncomfortable roles for women who fight and kill: Hanna, Salt, The Hunger Games, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and now Brave.

Some might point to movies like these and say that they are part of a larger solution to the problem of negative gender stereotypes more generally, but these depictions also demonstrate our society’s apparent inability to accept that a woman can be strong and powerful and emotional and normal. A blog entry at Entertainment Weekly asks, for example, “Could the heroine of Pixar’s Brave be gay?” The evidence in support of this question, which Stephen Colbert and others also commented on, is as follows:

But could Merida be gay? Absolutely. She bristles at the traditional gender roles that she’s expected to play: the demure daughter, the obedient fiancée. Her love of unprincess-like hobbies, including archery and rock-climbing, is sure to strike a chord with gay viewers who felt similarly “not like the other kids” growing up. And she hates the prospect of marriage — at least, to any of the three oafish clansmen that compete for her hand — enough to run away from home and put her own mother’s life at risk. She’s certainly not a swooning, boy-crazy Disney princess like The Little Mermaid’s Ariel or Snow White. In fact, Merida may be the first in that group to be completely romantically disinclined (even cross-dressing Mulan had a soft spot for Li Shang).

I should note that Merida is basically depicted as asexual – the “romantic” interests in the movie are in support of the story about her relationship with her parents, rather than the story itself. So we have apparently reached a point as a society at which depictions of strong female characters are becoming more common but are not so common that we can see them as normal rather than a sign that the characters in question are somehow different. As a doctor, I prescribe more strong female characters in media from all backgrounds and sexualities so that we can see that strength does not depend on one’s gender, background, or sexuality.

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