A Review of Pixar's Brave

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


July 15, 2012

A Review of Pixar's Brave

Pixar is incredibly well-regarded, particularly among white middle class progressive voters, and deservedly so. They produce work that has everything that we want in popular entertainment – smart, compelling, meaningful films with artistic merit that can be enjoyed by adults as well as children – and their enormous success gives us a little hope that popular culture can be more than just empty, superficial pleasures that pander to our basest instincts.

But I’m not a Pixar fan. Although I enjoy watching the films and I guess I’m glad they’re making pop culture a little more meaningful, I’m troubled by what those meanings are. When they’re not promoting Objectivism and turning equality into a villian (The Incredibles), they’re subtly stigmatizing the working class (Toy Story) or overtly blaming them for environmental problems (Wall-E). They have a tendency to provide ideological support for inequality, a fact that has apparently gone unnoticed by a large number of ostensibly liberal progressive viewers.

So as a cultural phenomenon, Pixar is uniquely interesting. When talking about how inequality is justified, we almost always focus on right-wing bromides, like how poor people are supposedly lazy or stupid. But the myths that well-meaning, Obama-voting progressives believe are more far-reaching and pernicious because they are universally accepted, rising to the level of ideology in the Althusserian definition of the word of common-sense, unquestioned givens (which is, in a way, the opposite of how it is normally used.)

This is what I was thinking walking into the theatre to see Brave today. Expectations on the internet have been running high: it’s Pixar’s first real female lead, and their (to me, baffling) reputation as a progressive film studio created a lot of excitement. Now, even if I put aside my general skepticism, this seems unrealistic to me. Precisely because they are telling a story with a strong female lead and want it to have wide appeal, they will almost certainly approach the possibility that it would be read as a partisan, political, feminist film with great caution – ironic, considering the title.

And this is what they did. The story centers on the wild, energetic teenage princess, Merida, who chafes under the tutelage of her prim and elegant mother Queen Elinor, who is attempting to train her to become a lady. The tension explodes when Merida’s father informs her that she is to be betrothed to the first-born son of one of the three clans ruled by her father chosen by feats of skill in the Highland Games.

The main difficulty with reading the film as a feminist allegory is that Queen Elinor, represents civilization and the social order, while the father, Fergus is a simple, good-natured, innocently-violent man-child, who just loves telling stories and carousing with his war buddies. Arranged marriage stands for the burden of the patriarchy on women, but the film makes a point of showing how awkwardly and reluctantly he announces the plan, casting glances at his wife as if to say “Do we really have to do this to her?” while she eggs him on.

Later we see Fergus stammer his way through a speech before the assembled clans, and Elinor quietly saves him by giving him the words to say. Both of these scenes reveal that she is ultimately the woman behind the throne. The film hints that Fergus, like Merida, also endures Elinor’s civilizing lessons. The connections between father and daughter don’t stop there. Both have fiery red hair and a wild, fun-loving, independent spirit. Merida’s beloved bow is a gift from Fergus that Elinor feels is inappropriate for a princess. Her skill at archery enables her to symbolically reject her arranged marriage by winning the archery contest among her suitors that is intended to determine her future husband. This is the result of Fergus’ influence and training.

The message is that Father is the avatar of unlimited freedom and fun, and Mother represents duty, oppressive restrictions and limitation. If we read Merida as a younger, female extension of Fergus, then Elinor is the regressive, anti-feminist figure of the emasculating, castrating woman, a connection that the film mystifies by making her target a girl. In a way, the film is structurally anti-feminist, and superficially covers this up by having a girl play the “victim.” This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Elinor is portrayed as well-intentioned but misguided who needs to learn balance, rather than an outright villian.

Elinor does not accept Merida winning her own hand in marriage, and continues to insist that an arranged marriage will go ahead. Merida, furious, runs into the forest and discovers a witch’s hut, who she asks for a spell that would change her mother and her fate. The spell turns Elinor into a bear, an event which has several functions. It serves as an ironic punishment for her excesses and inflexibility, a prim lady being reduced to an animal. Elinor becomes an object of audience amusement and ridicule, as she is shown flailing around the castle as a bear destroying everything in her wake, and later in the forest, attempting to have breakfast with proper table manners.

But there is a deeper, but also ambiguous and confusing symbolism around the transformation of a human into a bear. In trying to persuade Merida to accept the arranged marriage, Elinor recounts the story of a prince who refused his fate of sharing his kingdom with his three brothers, but tried to rule over them. As a result, the whole kingdom was destroyed. After Elinor’s transformation, the witch explains that it had happened before: the spell was also given to the prince in the story, and transformed him into the bear Mor’du.

So the transformation into a bear symbolizes the dangers of hubris and of wanting to change your fate. This raises a question: if it is Merida who wants to change her fate and choose her own husband, why is Elinor punished by becoming a bear? Merida obviously feels remorseful about having done this to her mother, and restoring her to human form is a catalyst for repairing their frayed relationship.

But one can’t help noting the similarity between the prince trying to rule over his three brothers and Elinor’s project of making her husband into a king over the other three clans. We can conclude that Elinor is ultimately punished for her political ambition which has turned her into a figure of castration to her husband and daughter.

Since this is a children’s movie, she gets away with a light slap on the wrist and no permanent harm is done. The spell is broken, and in the final scenes, she gallops ecstatically through the woods alongside her daughter, cured of her chronic uptightness.

In this interpretation, Elinor is the central character of this story, where she is torn between her political amibition and her relationship with her daughter, and punished for making what is supposed to be the wrong choice. This goes against the obvious reading of the story with Merida as the main character, but she never really encounters any difficult choices. The film certainly sets up a seemingly classic tension: Merida faced with the impossible choice between her freedom and her social obligations.

The problem is that for Merida, this isn’t a problem at all. She just refuses her social obligations without so much as batting an eyelash. Ordinarily, a situation like that puts her between a rock and a hard place, where either choice is catastrophic. This is not her situation. The king himself is not enthusiastic about the arranged marriage—he’s reluctant to even bring it up, and during the competition, he and Merida make jokes together at the expense of the pathetic first-born sons.

One would think that the princess refusing to marry one of her suitors would throw the kingdom into crisis, but in Brave, this is not the case. Just the opposite, in fact. Elinor’s plan to have the clans compete for Merida’s hand in marriage sets them against each other, and threatens to tear their fragile alliance apart, and Merida’s announcement that she will choose her husband out of love unifies them again. The problem of an arranged marriage is supposed to create a tension between what the individual wants and what society wants, but this is all sidestepped. Merida’s preferences conveniently and perfectly align with the political problem of keeping the clans together.

The only person who doesn’t see this is Elinor, and the story of Brave is her coming to realize it. The whole point of all that princess training was to force Merida to continue her mother’s political goals, but as Merida’s impassioned speech before the clan leaders reveals, it was unnecessary because she’s already committed to her mother’s goals. On hearing the speech, Elinor immediately abandons her plans for an arranged marriage and allows Merida to announce that she will choose a husband out of love.

The original tension between mother and daughter turns out to have been based on a misunderstanding, and the tension between Merida and her society is also fleeting. This is a cheap way out. Maybe that’s acceptable for a children’s movie, but it doesn’t tell us anything about what to do when those problems are real.

For Elinor, the lesson is profoundly conservative: don’t play too much in the male world of politics and forget your role as mother, or you will be turned into a bear. There are several scenes in the film where Elinor the bear briefly loses touch with her humanity. Her eyes change from human-like colored irises surrounded by white, to the total blackness of a bear’s eyes. In these moments, she suddenly forgets who she is, and attacks her daughter as an enemy. These are powerful scenes, but also deeply manipulative, playing upon a nightmare scenario for any parent, that they would no longer recognize their own child and cause them harm. This is the warning that Brave tries to send to mothers.

To further understand the political meaning of this film, we should note the differences between Elinor and Fergus. Elinor is a figure of discipline, restraint and prohibition, while Fergus revels in enjoyment of all kinds. As Elinor walks into a room, the clansmen are awed by her regal presence. Fergus, although he is the king, is also one of the guys, and thinks nothing of diving into a melee with everyone else. Between these two figures, we have what Lacanians call the society of prohibition, the old world of duty and sacrifice, and the new neoliberal consumer society of mandatory enjoyment that bombards us with demands to express ourselves, seek our own enjoyment, throw off all inhibitions and so on.

Brave makes clear that a critique of the society of prohibition can quite easily be made extremely anti-feminist. But one redeeming feature of the film is that it is set in a time period that is transitioning out of what metaphorically stands for today’s capitalist society, and doesn’t completely reject this change. Even while it resists it, it seems to concede that it is inevitable.