“Brave” afraid of women

I can’t think of one good male role model in Disney/Pixar’s “Brave.” Nor does it treat its female characters very well, either, although the full explanation requires a spoiler alert. Not that we don’t expect there to be a happy ending, but I was slightly surprised by *how* we get through the middle of the film. So I’ll leave that to later.

All the male characters–including and especially the King, who is our titular heroine Merida’s father–are ineffectual braggarts and buffoons. The King relies on the Queen to handle virtually every difficult situation. All he and the other clan leaders (and their sons and followers) do is fight, and they don’t even do that very well. None of these “warriors” would last a day in the world of Game of Thrones. Princess Merida’s little triplet brothers do assist her a couple times, but only after they’re bribed to do so, or see a chance for mischief-making.

**spoiler alert **

Directors (and authors) Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman (along with another “co-director”/author and a fourth author, whose names we’ll omit out of charity) do not treat their women very well. For a story that is supposed to be about female empowerment, the film’s ending completely undercuts its message. Yes, we see Merida become a skilled archer; and she appears to know something about living in the forest. A tomboy, she chafes under her mother’s tutelage about all the things that Princesses do or do not do. And (no, this isn’t the spoiler) she and her mother do eventually come to terms, with each giving a little toward the other’s position.

What really floored me, in a scene that isn’t even necessary to the plot, in the very last couple minutes, the Queen, who is wrapped in a large tapestry, reveals to her husband that she is naked under those yards and yards of fabric. King Fergus panics, and tells all the men around him to avert their eyes out of “respect.”

Earlier in the film, we saw at least four adult male bare butts, unabashedly marching through the castle courtyard. That’s eight cheeks, minimum; probably more. We know several other companions must also be nude from the waste down.

But the merest possibility that we might see any nude female flesh is a cause for concern and distress. Unlike the male nudity, we don’t actually see *any* female skin–possibly one shoulder, that’s all. But female nakedness is so powerful that the slightest hint of it sends everyone into a tizzy.

The message is clear: female bodies, and feminine sexuality, is dangerous. It is to be hidden or controlled at all costs. It is not really a surprise that a movie from our culture would fear women (look at almost any legislature these days), but to find it in a movie that bills itself as a *feminist* fable is appalling.

The movie does offer an excellent opportunity to talk about our society’s fear of female sexuality, but if you don’t want to have that conversation, to undo the unconscious damage of the film, then I recommend skipping it entirely.

P.S. Like “Hunger Games,” “Brave” is another film that does *not* know how archers actually shoot arrows from bows.

8 comments to “Brave” afraid of women

  • Scott Gerard Prinster

    Interesting. In movies for adults, it’s usually female nudity that’s gratuitous, and male nudity that’s too threatening to show. Why would Disney and Pixar break this pattern — is it because it’s a children’s movie?

  • Kele

    I didn’t get that from the ending. Earlier in the film, the Queen is embarrassed by her nude state (when Merida explains why it doesn’t matter). I took from the ending that it was more about the Queen’s own sense of modesty than any fears of nudity. I know plenty of strong, feminist women who would turn beet red if they were caught in anything more revealing than a one-piece.

  • Do role models have to be perfect? I mean Moms who are so concerned about their daughters’ futures that they forget who their daughters are, teenagers who impulsively fuck up because they feel like their problems are much more important than they are and Dads who are more interested in being friends than parents aren’t ideals, but you do see people who make those mistakes all the time.

    And yeah, I kinda like it that it was the heroines who kept their clothes on for once.

    It wasn’t a great movie by Pixar standards, but your reasons for finding it objectionable don’t really ring true for me.

  • Amy Peterson Derrick

    I remember watching movies with my mom as a kid and her always getting on her always getting about how women’s nudity is the standard in movies and there is never any male nudity. As if that was the only way a woman could be included in a movie is if she had a “purpose” for the male characters. Her point was that women are very rarely shown to have any other qualities other than looks, and just seem to be present to fulfill some other male character’s fantasy. Men are never depicted in such a way; even when a man is shown nude or as sexual in a movie, it seems that it makes him more powerful, not less so.
    I have to say that it brought a smile to my face when you said that there was only male nudity in this picture…but I also hear your point. Why is it that can’t women be sexual or even just nude without also losing their power? Without having seen the movie, I wonder if showing them without their clothing removed the power from their characters in the same way sexualizing women in films often removes their power.

  • Shannon

    Scott, tha male nudity, such as it was, was a buffonery and meant (to the degree it was meant for anythig beyond its slapstick value) to highlight and parody the fakse dignity of the men in the story.

  • Shannon

    Spoilers abound.

    I’d also like to expand on a couple of things I think are implicit in part of what Chip wrote: “All the male characters–including and especially the King, who is our titular heroine Merida’s father–are ineffectual braggarts and buffoons. The King relies on the Queen to handle virtually every difficult situation. All he and the other clan leaders (and their sons and followers) do is fight, and they don’t even do that very well. None of these “warriors” would last a day in the world of Game of Thrones.”

    As a light-hearted comment, I don’t think characters from Game of Thrones would last very long in the world of Brave, either. The world of Game of Thrones relies on the constant threat of violent death for oneself and ones family at the hands of lieges if pre-existing loyalty oaths aren’t followed through on because the network of loyalties among the major and minor houses exist not merely to mete out power. There are real and constant external threats to the civilization the houses have developed. That these external threats have been deemed of secondary importance by the Game of Throne’s contemporaries has not made the threats go away. Indeed, the network of loyalty, and in the desire to wield the necessary power to protect against those threats has (apparently, from viewing HBO series 1) weakened the structure of that protective power making it likely that those threats will have an opportunity to wreak havoc on the central realms.

    In Brave, there isn’t really an external threat (though I’ll get to it in the next comment). Without the external threat, the characters of Game of Thrones would be unable to exact the loyalty-for-protection oaths, and be unable to wield the threat of death for noncompliance. The means they use to power wouldn’t work in the Brave environment. There’s no fuel to drive the engine of ambition. Yet.

    I say yet because in Brave we’re looking, not at a pre-modern civilization (such as we see in Game of Thrones), but at a barbaric civilization by which I mean one which has not yet refined its institutions to a point where loyalties beyond the ad hoc or tactical are really implicit. The main drive of the story in Brave is Merida’s unwillingness to play the role her parents cast her in as a baby which is to marry one of the sons the other three clans in this four-clan world–the marriage was agreed on to keep the peace of a unified land.

    The Queen is the bringer of civilization in this story, and women are the guardians of civilization in the world of Brave. There’s the Queen, of course, refined and careful to make sure her daughter knows what she needs to know to keep the men from backsliding. There’s Merida who knows those things, but also knows about shootin and fighin and gettin things done, but who hasn’t really internalized the value of civilization. And there’s the crone, who warned the 4th Brother in the Bear Legend about the dangers of armed struggle. (The Game of Thrones characters would have had a field day in the world of the Bear Legend; and a case might be made that the four clans of the Brave story are actually descendents of the 4 Brothers, given that the ruined Kingdom is close enough to the clan’s lands to reach and return from–even if by magical means–in short order.)

    In the world of Brave, men cannot be trusted to preserve or even develop a functional civilized and institutional way of being in the world. They either grasp for power and tear it all down, becoming beasts in the wild, or they design forms “I’m King because I defeated the worst and unified the best,” or “Here’s an arranged marriage situation, but it’s going to involve a contest, too! Whee!”

    The women know better, and try their best to establish and maintain the underlying framework. The crone with her warnings and advice, and the Queen with her trainings. But in both instances what they do is not really enough. Neither really manages to transmit the idea that civilization has value and fragility in the channeling of power and authority. We see this in the sequences where Merida is bound in a corset, and then unbinds the corset in order to operate in the world. (The corset is also a means of control of the woman’s body, and I don’t mean to diminish that.)

    So anyway. This is probably too much already… I think, in addition to Chip’s point, that Brave has problems with the way women and men are portrayed concerning socially defined roles and individual autonomy generally.

  • MJG

    I think you’ve got it wrong about the female nakedness thing. Within the world of the story, it’s about respect. That’s why he says ‘show some respect’. Yes it may play into the view that men are rugged and can handle a bit of naked knocking around, while women are flowers and can’t, but it also sets up the extreme respect with which the queen is regarded. Also- this is comedy. Both scenes are played for laughs, in a world where its totally expected.

    To read too much into that re- male roles is a bit off, because this is a comedy, and its set in the kind of world where there’s a clear division in the roles men and women play.

    If you want to talk interesting sexual politics in how they represent that world, I’d recommend you look into the comedy. I think you’ll find that the men are the comedy and the fun, pretty exclusively, while the women are serious and earnest at all times. I don’t think Merida is ever funny. The queen isn’t, except by accident when she’s a bear.

  • At the end, the Queen could have raised her voice and said, “thank you all for helping to save me and my family. Now please return to the castle, and we will be along soon to join you.” Everyone there has already followed her orders at least once or twice. Instead, she meekly begs her husband for help. Evidently her nakedness has stolen all her power.

    No, our roles models don’t have to be perfect. Yes, they can be funny sometimes. I just wish they weren’t twisted out of recognition by the film makers in order to (perhaps unconsciously) preserve the dominant narrative of our culture.

    The Queen-as-bear is *not* naked, as Merida herself impatiently points out. It is only when the Queen notices her own human nakedness that she is robbed of her power. She forgets her ability to command, she forgets the lessons of poise and self-control she’s been trying to teach her daughter (indeed, which she has successfully taught her–witness the pride in the bear’s face as Merida commands the attention of the gathered tribes, allowing the bear to sneak by), she evidently forgets even her own ability to hold the tapestry around her, keeping herself completely covered.

    All the film allows the once-powerful, now-naked, Queen to do is beg her once-bumbling, now-powerful-if-only-by-comparison husband to rescue her from her shameful nudity. Up until the final few minutes of this movie, I loved it. If you just cut that last bit, it is a wonderful movie. If you show the entire film to your daughters, you are simply reinforcing the same mixed messages as does the rest of the culture.

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