Brave: Who Says a Princess Needs a Prince?

by July 2, 2012
filed under Activism, Entertainment

What makes a princess? According to the most authoritative source on the topic – Disney – princesses must have a number of qualifications:

So as you can see, being a princess is a tough job. Many will apply; few will be interviewed; one will be selected. And right now the position is filled by Kate Middleton, so the rest of you can try again in 30 years.

But in the fiction world, specifically in the medieval Scotland of Disney and Pixar’s Brave, those formerly rigid specifications are getting a little more wiggly.

Merida, Brave’s outspoken ginger protagonist, is being touted as a princess that bucks the norm: She’s a bit messy, she thinks for herself and above all, she doesn’t have her eye on any particular man.

But unlike many Disney princesses, Merida is still a child, and it’s understandable that she’s not interested in picking out a husband yet. Those irrational teenage hormones haven’t even started to kick in. Nor will they any time soon, given her sad saps of suitors: There’s the stringy young Braveheart-esque Macintosh, the weak-chinned and troll-haired Dingwall and the slow-witted MacGuffin.

Of course, each of them is still dazzled by her spirit and mane of voluptuous red curls, which make her look just unique enough while remaining safely within that white Anglo-Saxon Disney norm. She may not act the part, but to the rest of the cast, she is every inch a princess.

Women drive the plot of Brave. Without them, the castle quickly descends into chaos as its oafish male inhabitants drink and fight their way into orgies of slapstick. Does this mean that empowered female characters need to be contrasted by weakened males? Even though Merida’s father is ostensibly a bear-fighting patriarch, it’s clear that her mother, Queen Elinor, is the true decision maker of the two.

Elinor is really the most notable character in the film. Even though her complexion is flawless, a single streak of grey in her hair reminds us she is no longer 18 and that she had punched out four kids. It’s subtle, but it’s at least some indication that she’s being allowed to age gracefully.

In the traditional fairy tale world, female characters are only allowed to be “good” if they fall on the extreme ends of the age spectrum. Think of the other Disney women between 20 and 65: Cinderella’s stepmother, Ursula the Sea Witch and Snow White’s wicked queen. What do all these women have in common? They’re portrayed as being past their primes, envious of youth and bitterly lashing out against it. In short, they’re villains.

But Queen Elinor falls into none of these categories. While Merida sees her as domineering and unfeeling – just like most teenagers see their mothers – Elinor truly wants what’s best for her daughter, and she’s doing the best she can to get it.

A true sign of growing up – more than a white dress or a dreamy fiancé – is being able to see your parents as friends and equals, rather than dictators who constantly nag you about leaving your bow and arrows on the dinner table.

Brave is a female bonding story, which is sorely lacking in a fairy tale canon that generally puts women against each other. While Merida discovers that no matter how much she thinks she doesn’t, a girl still needs her mom… even if mom keeps nagging her about keeping her bow and arrows off the dinner table.

Brave may not reinvent the wheel, but why would it when the wheel has proven so profitable? Still, it takes the Prince Charming out of the princess equation, and replaces him with a more realistic and more lasting relationship: The bond between mother and daughter.

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