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Mothers are Stupid Bears: A Review of Brave

June 27, 2012

[Spoiler Alert] Brave features an appealing young heroine, Merida, a teenage princess who rejects marriage for independence. That is all well and good — and it is why I was there. I had heard the buzz — strong heroine, female protagonist, a young girl who seizes control of her own life. But the villain is Merida’s mother, the queen; she bosses Merida around and tries to force her to get married. Merida rebels, finds a witch, asks for a spell that will “change her fate” and ends up turning her mother into a bear. Yes, a bear.

Besides the fact that this plot device derails the movie, the image of mother-as-bear is disturbing. The bear has the dumpy figure of a middle aged woman (big hips etc) and is foolish rather than scary; she cannot speak and does not know what to do. Thus Merida has to show her mother/bear how to take care of herself; she leads her through the forest and becomes the one in charge.

Although ultimately the mother/bear pulls it together and fights off an enemy bear; mother and daughter heal their rift and the mother/bear turns back into just a mother — the final kiss in the movie is between mother and daughter (I did like this) — the message of the movie is that mothers are stupid, dangerous, and controlling and need to learn their lesson. Merida appears to triumph, but her options are severely limited. She cannot grow older or she will become a middle aged woman and look how dumb they are. In addition, mothers are stupid, so she can’t be one of those either. Clearly, Pixar thinks that the only choice for a young girl heroine is to stay a young girl heroine. Granted, the father in the movie is a buffoon as well. So, maybe the movie is telling us that there are no grownups. The only person to be is a young rebel. So Merida is James Dean? But she isn’t. She is a heroine lost in a movie that gets confused when it is not heading toward a wedding.

And maybe this is the biggest problem of all. Without the marriage plot, Brave falls into chaos; the writers can’t seem to dream up another story for a heroine. Nemo’s father can search for his son. Buzz Lightyear and Woody can fight off the villain toy-killer. A rat chef can save a restaurant. But Brave gets muddled when Merida says she won’t get married. There is a strange confused subplot where Merida and her mother save the kingdom, but only sort of and this storyline seems like a last minute addition. Merida’s only goal is to reject a wedding — and so the movie ends with her back in the castle as a daughter again. A happy daughter, but a daughter all the same.

I wonder what would have happened if Pixar had not fired Brenda Chapman, the original director. But maybe it is a cultural problem: what can heroines do besides get married?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2012 1:19 pm

    Oooh no..I was planning on taking Lene to this, being pretty excited that there was an animated movie that at least pretends to be feminist when I am ready to test the movie theater waters… and now you have ruined my hopes….but. on the other hand…IT IS A GIGANTIC STEP AWAY FROM THE ANIMATED PRINCESS OUVRE IN THAT THE PRIMARY GOAL IS NOT TO GET MARRIED..OR DOES NOT END IN MARRIAGE..so I guess I am still okay taking my little Dragon Princess (some days) or King Lene (other days)..Other thoughts, I am okay with mother bears being stupid, as long as they are witches, dead, or twitty arm candy…Bears in our demographic (little girls, little little girls) are also funny, sweet, cuddly, strong, brave, etc..Witches are not cool. At all.
    After reading “cinderella ate my daughter”, I think the option of something less twitty is a huge step forward… but, I am also mostly hoping there is something in it that appeals to both of us, so we can take a break from Curious George 2.

  2. June 27, 2012 5:57 pm

    Charlotte, mothers have been written off as silly, controlling matchmakers ever since Jane Austen. Maybe it’s just a female version of the Oedipal story where the child has to achieve adult status by killing the same sex parent? Great fun to watch, if you are the child; rather less so if you are a mother.

  3. Jerica permalink
    July 10, 2012 11:55 am

    It isn’t about bears (and by extension mothers) being stupid or foolish, it’s about role-reversal, and what happens when both characters discover they don’t know everything about everything. Merida learns that she’s bitten off way more than she can chew and that her choices affect everyone she loves; her mother is shaken out of her comfortable routine and has to come to grips with a new reality. You overlook so much in these characters! Eleanor’s turning into a bear shows us MORE about the terror and joy of motherhood than her human form could have. We see her fear and confusion when she crashes through doors and doesn’t know what to eat or how this happened to her. We feel her desperation to protect her family and mend her mistakes. She is, in fact, more human in bear form, and while some of her struggles are played for laughs, I think the audience feels a constant tug of pity for her as well, with so much emotion on her eloquent ursine face. Real empathy for one’s parents might not be something every teenager has felt, and I think this movie does a remarkable job of bridging that gap.

  4. Sharon permalink
    July 16, 2012 8:47 pm

    I disagree somewhat, but not completely. Merida is, as Norrie Gall says, a huge step forward. But in many ways, so is Elinor.

    She spends the first part of the story training her daughter to function in the world as she (Elinor) knows it to be, but she doesn’t deny Merida her nature (notice how she never says “no weapons,” only “no weapons on the table”). She accepts Merida’s proclivities, even if she’s a little apprehensive about Merida’s safety with them–and by safety, I mean social safety more than physical safety. She does, after all, allow Merida to practice archery and to ride about the countryside without overbearing (ha) supervision.

    After she becomes (is turned into by Merida’s actions) a bear, Elinor is in a bind: she intends to behave humanly, but finds she is more comfortable behaving as a bear—as wild, as free. And it’s her daughter who teaches her to be free. Elinor accepts these lessons from her daughter. That in itself is a wonderful message to mothers—that we can learn from our daughters, that we are not the fonts of all knowledge in all areas of inquiry. (But be careful what you wish for, dear girl.)

    That said, I did find it somewhat disturbing when Elinor slipped into her bearness and became threatening to her daughter on a number of occasions. Yes, teenage daughters do see their mothers this way sometimes, especially when the mother insists on being a being with an agenda of her own. Elinor had no agenda of her own until she became (until her daughter turned her into) a bear, until she needed to find a way to feed and shelter herself. When Bear Elinor stops trying to be human and accepts that she’s a bear, all is well between parent and child. But when Bear Elinor goes too far into bearness, she is terrifying and threatening. What’s this message to moms? Embrace your own true nature and don’t let social conventions dictate your parenting. But don’t embrace that true nature too much, because then you’re a danger to your offspring. Apparently, either I can truly be myself, or I can be a mother. Not both at the same time, though.

    Anyway. I saw the movie with my 12-year-old girl, and at one point she whispered to me, “If you ever turn into a bear, promise me that you won’t try to eat me.”

    I whispered back, “Promise me that you won’t turn me into a bear in the first place.”

    It was all so metaphorical, right there in the multiplex.

    Overall, the theme that I came away with was that daughters need to listen to their mothers and to trust them, but that mothers need to listen to and trust their daughters, too. I know that have a lot to learn from my daughter, and not just about Nicki Minaj and how to use the PS3 to stream Netflix (although yes on both counts).

    As for the middle-age waddle thing: that only happens when Elinor is trying to be something that she’s not. That’s never a good look on anyone.

    Two more minor points:

    1) I loved the opening when the mother and the daughter were playing together (although Elinor does say to the baby Merida, “I could just eat you up!” That was a little heavy on the foreshadowing). But seriously: I can’t think of a single Disney/Pixar movie, or any other canonical story, really, in which a mother actually enjoys being with her daughter. Please correct me—please.

    2) Elinor is alive. Most Disney and/or fairy tale moms aren’t.

  5. July 18, 2012 9:08 pm

    Mother’s can be way too controlling. Here is a plot line alternative…maybe Merida could have the passion for archery be a career choice. We could have her cranking out bows and arrows to sell. She would be so passionate in this capitalist ambition that she has no time for marriage. I just saw it tonight. Enjoyed your review.

  6. Daina Eislers permalink
    September 3, 2012 8:13 am

    My daughters both loved this movie. Haven’t most girls had meddling mothers who want nothing more than to have grandchildren? A strong, smart heroine who is better than than the crappy matches that her parents try to make. A movie giving girls power! Loved it. And the message was to marry for love and marry for the right reason, not because of social pressures to get married.

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