As we pointed out in our last post, Princess Merida is a pretty conventional tomboy. However, “Brave” does not present a conventional happily-ever-after: its Disney princess is the first ever to not get a prince. From the beginning to the end, she is all the man she needs. …Which is handy, because in her world, there aren’t any others she can turn to.
Merida may not have been a particularly brave new kind of princess, but we believe that “Brave” presented the newest and bravest fairytale world in Disney princess history. Castles and tiaras notwithstanding, this brave new world is actually a lot more like ours, for two reasons.
For one thing, this fairytale kingdom is not a medieval patriarchy: It’s a modern matriarchy. Despite whatever clichés and tropes you might have been expecting (as we were), this is not actually another story about a progressive, free-spirited heroine kicking against old fogey men’s ideas about woman’s role. It’s a story of 3rd wave feminism kicking against 2nd wave feminism: the daughter’s rebellious, no-cause-but-myself girl-power versus her mother’s more self-sacrificing, cause-driven, authoritative woman-power; a girl who would rather be a bohemian than undergo training to be an educated, powerful future ruler.
This film is about “contemporary, modern women,” said co-director Brenda Chapman, pinpointing what few critics picked up on, “a contemporary kind of family set in an old world fairy tale.” Producer Katherine Sarafian points out, “Both the female leads are headstrong women. The princess is rebellious and yearns for things to change and the Queen is a working mother, a professional running the kingdom.”
Merida is supposed to be learning how to run the kingdom, from the only person in the kingdom who can.
The second reason is the realistic outgrowth of the first. True to a real feminist society, there are no real men in this movie.
Merida’s father and the rest of the clan leaders are rowdy, buffoonish children who have to be shushed, scolded, and dragged around by the ears by the queen. The suitors are all such that Merida’s clearly better off without one. And that makes her the first Disney princess who doesn’t want a prince, and who doesn’t get one.
This point got half-hearted “yay”s from critics trying to be consistently supportive of feminism’s a-woman-needs-a-man-like-a-fish-needs-a-bicycle ideals. “You’ll be relieved after you see her choices for prince,” wrote one reviewer. “However, I felt something was missing when she became the first independent princess……and, for the life of me, I can’t believe I feel that way.” We can. And there’s a world full of young women who are not excited to find that the feminist landscape they’ve inherited means they get to make the same choice Merida did.
The catalyst of the movie comes when Merida’s mother tells her that, for political reasons, her three horrifying suitor options are IT and she needs to choose one of them NOW. The situation explodes into a catfight that eventually ends happily, with the two feminist views reconciling, the mother happily continuing to rule the realm (essentially) alone, and the daughter happily pursuing single independence. It’s the kind of “happy” ending that a lot of women would dutifully applaud… but few truly want to live.
Unfortunately, it’s a premise a lot of girls watching feel like they themselves have to look forward to – no men leading, little fatherly guidance, no suitable suitors, and people still trying to pressure them into getting married faster.
We might all see Merida’s reactions to these crises as childish (which they were), but then we’re left with the question, “What would we do in her shoes?” One of the great things about movies is how they can give us practice analyzing scenarios we might have to deal with ourselves one day. So how should we respond if, for instance, we feel like: “I’m being pressured to marry someone I don’t like!”?
Hints from well-meaning friends, probing questions from relatives, introductions from prospective in-laws, or nudges from parents could all be scary if any of these people had the biblical prerogative to force you into marriage against your will, but guess what? They don’t.
Theologians believe Scripture sets a precedent for the daughter’s consent being necessary for marriage (Gen. 24:57,58). We also see that the very essence of a covenant is that there are two parties entering into it of their own volition, and the covenant has to be between the two parties who have to keep it (the parents, siblings, or dog of one involved party can’t enter into it for them.) Even if you were told to take your pick of three slobbering buffoons (as Merida was), you could still, on biblical grounds, choose none of them. Remember, doing the right thing is always one of your options, even if it didn’t seem to be on the ballot. (Hint: Resisting by way of a magic potion, a temper tantrum, or a plan to publicly humiliate parents and suitors alike would not count as “the right thing.”)
Next, how should a girl respond to the fear that “None of the young men my age are mature/godly/serious enough to get married!”?
“Should I a) keep sitting around waiting for my prince to come (Old Disney Princess style), or b) decide that I don’t need a man anyway (New Disney Princess style)?”
How about neither of the above?
“Brave” critics were delighted that Merida made things happen for herself instead of waiting around for her prince to show up, and we had mixed feelings about that. Sitting around waiting for our ship to come in, our prince to come, or some outside force to get our lives started for us (sometimes called “Cinderella Syndrome”) should have no place in biblical womanhood (or, we would argue, princess movies). But neither should defiant, misandristic autonomy – “Yeah! Who needs men anyway?!”
We need to use this time of life actively, not passively; to bless and serve others rather than to complain and freeload; to be loving, edifying sisters to those fellows and not cold, critical harpies. After all, your “ever after” doesn’t start after you get married – it started the day you were born. Whether it’s happy or not is up to you.
But how should we respond to the fear, “There are no real men leading in the world!”?
As mentioned, this film has several elements of grim reality to it, but one of the most profoundly truthful is this: Whenever you see crude boy-men like King Fergus and the clansmen, you’re going to see women like Queen Elinor and Princess Merida right next to them – dragging them around by the ears, doing all their talking for them, beating them at their own game, making their decisions for them, treating them like four-year-olds, and scolding them when they act like males.
“Brave” is a very accurate snapshot of the symbiotic relationship between feminists and perpetual frat-boys, and why it’s in both of their “best” (and worst) interests to keep the cycle going. For as long as the men keep playing, the women can keep running things… and as long as the women keep running things, the men can keep playing.
This might sound hopeless, but should actually give us hope – and the answer to the problem of “no” real men leading in the world. When there aren’t many real men in the world, that means that there aren’t many real women in the world either. It means that most of us have been, in small ways or large, part of the problem. And it means we can now be part of the solution. We can become the women that the men around us need us to be – not the men we wish they were.
And then maybe we can help forge a happier ever after for everyone.