I’ve posted my feelings about Pixar’s seventeen-year run of male protagonists before. Basic summary: my love of Pixar and my huge frustration with Pixar’s apparent inability to write female characters who are not relegated to secondary roles have been at war with each other for the last decade or so. The frustration peaked around about the time of Ratatouille and Up, both of which I adored and both of which could easily–easily–have been written with female leads. The writers wouldn’t have had to change anything but the pronouns. As far as I am concerned, the substitution of female characters here wouldn’t have affected the meaning of either film at all, but (as I am sure everybody is tired of hearing me reiterate) we have this maddening way of seeing “male” as the default and “female” as a special category that automatically limits a work to a special audience.
Oh, Pixar, I do love you so. I appreciate your fresh, innovative, character-driven plots; I delight in the way you surprise me almost every time (the Cars franchise doesn’t count). I’m just kind of tired of the dudes. I realise that all of you are dudes, but if you genuinely believe that you are incapable of writing female characters, even though I fail to see why this is the case because women are, in fact, human beings too, you do have the power to hire female writers. It isn’t hard. Do you know how many female writers would gnaw off their own limbs to have a chance to work for Pixar? Would you like my freaking phone number?
At any rate, Pixar has, at long last, produced a film with a female protagonist. It actually has more than one prominent female character and is probably the second Pixar film to pass the Bechdel Test (with The Incredibles being the first). I recall reading something somewhere on the Internet about men complaining that Brave relegates the male characters to the background. Welcome to our world, gentlemen.
Brave has been treated quite harshly by critics, who usually fall over themselves to praise Pixar films.* When I say “treated quite harshly,” I mean that it’s at 77% on Rotten Tomatoes instead of Pixar’s usual twenty kazillion percent. Personally, I really enjoyed it. Sure, Pixar has chosen to make its first female protagonist a damn princess. Sure, the film offers us the tired old “I’m a tomboy who just wants to be as good as a man!” theme. Yet it manages both these elements well. Merida is, to my absolute delight, a fallible character who creates her own dilemma and takes the bulk of the film to realise that what has happened is, in fact, her fault. This may seem a strange thing to be delighted over, but let me explain.
There is a fundamental difference between a “strong person” and a “strong character.” Some writers and filmmakers set on creating strong female characters–not all, but a good portion–apparently subscribe to the belief that strength is equivalent to an absence of all but the most superficial faults. Last year, for instance, I read a young-adult novel that I won’t name because I really don’t want to go around slagging it without doing so in a proper review. The female protagonist is beautiful, kind, and intelligent; she also has magical powers. A hunky young man is in love with her, and her only fault seems to be that she doesn’t realise this until he spells it out for her. She ends up in terrible danger through no fault of her own. Frankly, she’s boring as hell. I’ve already forgotten her name. The beauty, kindness, intelligence, and magical powers serve only to make her appear fundamentally unreal.
Merida’s faults seem, at first, a little too typical of a teenage girl as imagined by Hollywood. However, then they land her in hot water, and instead of instantly learning her lesson and vowing to change, she just keeps on screwing up in the same way. She’s appealing not because she’s a woman fighting to belong in a man’s world but because she’s an individual, a smart kid who does stupid things sometimes. Her main conflict is not with some sneering baddie–unlike Ariel from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, whose arc is also predicated on a boneheaded choice–but with her mother, who is neither saintly nor villainous but just as stubborn as Merida, and just as in need of a shift in perspective.
Brave is not Pixar’s best film. It’s less original than many of its predecessors, and it lacks my favourite Pixar ingredient: those heart-smashing moments of silence in which character development happens without a word being spoken. However, I can forgive it its lack of originality because it takes its atmosphere from fairy tales, which do not need to be original to be meaningful. In fact, it’s in the lack of originality that a fairy tale’s meaning is often found. The familiar motifs of Brave raise echoes, especially in the treatment of otherworldly spaces not as realms of evil (as in some Disney films) but as places in which both danger and knowledge can be found, sometimes simultaneously. I won’t tell you about my favourite bit player, as that would be a major spoiler, but let’s just say that this bit player does an excellent job of embodying what the Other World means.
All in all, then, I am happy with Brave; I don’t agree with a certain friend of mine who places it just above Cars 2, which he hasn’t seen, on the Pixar spectrum. I would say it’s quite respectably situated.
Now that Pixar’s got its feet wet, however, I hope it will consider creating a film in which the whole point is not that OH MY GOD, SHE’S A GIRL. Just give us a character who happens to be female and is allowed, in true Pixar fashion, to be not a type but a unique individual trying to make her way in the world.
*Let us just take it as a given that when I say nice things about Pixar, I am never ever ever including Cars or Cars 2.