Twenty years ago, our mother walked down the Walmart Pink Isle, past all the Disney-heroine Barbies, Disney-movie-inspired vanity playsets, sequined polyester fish-tail skirts with seashells, and itchy yellow off-shoulder Belle dresses, and decided, “Not for my daughters.”
We were 4 and 6, and like most little girls, were each on our quest for the holy grail of femininity, the all-inspiring vision of who to be when we grew up. Like many mothers, Mom realized that the entire panoply of Disney “woman” options, from Snow White to Ariel and Belle, were not it. Unlike many mothers, she ditched the entire franchise, tossed Barbie, and made us beautiful cloth dolls based on our intrepid Swedish-immigrant great-grandmothers, and taught us how to make clothes for them ourselves.
Seven years ago, Disney-Pixar also saw a problem with their insipid line of princesses. “I love fairy tales, but I am tired of the message of waiting around for your prince to show up and you’ll live happily ever after,” said Brenda Chapman, writer and co-director of Disney-Pixar’s newest movie. “[M]y goal was to offer up a different kind of princess — a stronger princess that both mothers and daughters could relate to, so mothers wouldn’t be pulling their hair out when their little girls were trying to dress or act like this princess. Instead they’d be like, ‘Yeah, you go girl!’”
So last week they unveiled…
…Princess Merida of “Brave,” a fiery-haired, fiery-tempered, arrow-shooting, teenaged tomboy, who doesn’t want to get married, doesn’t want to mind her manners, and hates being a princess. She takes after her boorish warrior father instead of her polished power-woman mother, who tries in vain to shape her into a responsible and proper future queen. Merida’s head-butting with her mother turns into all-out war when she’s faced with an forced marriage to her choice of three slobbering buffoons in order to keep the kingdom’s peace.
To make a long and rather weak story short (you can read our brother Isaac’s analysis of it here and here), Merida strikes a spiteful and reckless bargain with a witch to fix her mother-problems, which endangers her mother’s life and causes a national crisis. She then has to fix her mistake, which involves reconciling with her mother, and the two then overrule the kingdom’s tradition together in perfect, heartwarming mother-daughter harmony.
This spunky new princess is supposedly breaking all kinds of stereotypes, and presenting a brave new kind of role model for America’s daughters. But is she really?
Let’s first ask why this even matters, as some might complain, “Merida is just pretend,” “’Brave‘ is just a movie,” or “It’s just entertainment.” Disney knows better. Interviews with any of the writers, directors, or producer make it clear that their goal was not to entertain girls. They wanted to inspire them. Nor did they ever mean for “Brave” to be just a movie. “Brave” is an advertisement. It’s trying to sell something, and we’re not just talking about billions of dollars’ worth of Merida merchandise. What it’s offering is a new product in Disney’s catalog of personalities, attitudes, and identities. If you didn’t want to be the singing scullerymaid, the vapid plot-vehicle, the defiant teenaged mermaid, or the daydreaming bookworm — now you can be the Amazonian spitfire!
Analyzing Merida matters because she was designed specifically to be a model for others to follow, by people who know girls will. So what did they put into the package, and how brave is it really? Let’s examine Merida’s example.
• Whining for time off from responsibility, rules, expectations, and having to be a role model: not all that brave.
• Resisting self-discipline, education, and training for the future in favor of outdoorsy hobbies: not all that brave.
• Defying parents (while freeloading off of them): not all that brave.
• Refusing to follow basic rules of manners: not all that brave.
• “Making things happen” in your life (instead of sitting around) by causing mayhem in others’: not all that brave.
• Fighting for your own way over anything else: not all that brave.
• Confessing and actually repenting for her catastrophic mistake at the end: very brave.
• Realizing that her mother was a person too, who could be terribly hurt by her daughter’s selfishness: extremely brave, for a kids’ movie about parent-child conflict.
• Refusing to marry any of her suitors: Sorry, we’re saving our thoughts on this one for the next post.
Yes, there were some points to her example that we were happy to see, but honestly, doing no more than owning up to and fixing the mistakes she herself made hardly makes her a hero. We’ve seen little toasters braver than this.
Nor does her example rise above stereotypes of femininity – it just creates one new one (which isn’t even that new). Not only is Merida not as brave as a toaster; she can’t even make toast. That is to say, she’s yet another heroine with excellent motor skills in the woods but who’s totally incompetent indoors. She can sit the trot, but not sit up straight in her chair at royal functions (nor walk without lumbering, eat without gobbling, and so forth.) How are all these socially and domestically challenged heroines who swing swords but fumble with teapots broadening society’s expectations for what a girl can do? How is this a more empowering womanhood?
Full-orbed biblical womanhood should involve more than pouring tea or singing with forest creatures, of course – but should also involve more than spending all day shooting arrows into nothing (which is maybe why our mother used to buy us tea sets and bows and arrows.) The helpless someday-my-prince-will-come vision and the autonomous barbaric tomboy vision are both narrow, unhealthy, and most of all, unbiblical. In other words, “Brave” can just join the roundup of usual suspects for creating unhealthy stereotypes for girls, along with Queen Victoria, Aristotle, June Cleaver, Rousseau, Rosie the Riveter, and Barbie. And like our mother, we can just say “no” to all of them, because they’re all inventions of man and they’re all wrong.
There is a vision out there that is bigger, better, and braver, and it is because it’s God’s.
It requires a lot more than being the kind of “heroine” that “girls [can] look at and not feel inadequate” (the goal of Merida’s creator Brenda Chapman), because it was designed by a God Who wants us to become more than we are. We all start out immature, foolish, weak, clumsy, and yes, inadequate, but He calls us as women to move on and develop courage, compassion, wisdom, knowledge, strength, dignity, discretion, diligence, gentleness, resourcefulness, entrepreneurship, generosity, submission to authority, and sacrifice for others.
The Bible tells tales of women who were intelligent, brave, beautiful, and who acted like women instead of little barbarians. Of women who didn’t fit inside personality-type clichés like “the lovable klutz,” “the beautiful bimbo,” “the steely battle-ax,” “the mealy-mouthed Mary Sue,” “the defiant teen,” “the snarky geek,” or “the tomboyish wildcat.” The godly deeds of these heroines never included teen rebellion, ruling over men, or “following their hearts,” though they did include a lot of things that would have shocked Queen Victoria.
Of course, our culture will keep trying to give us new “role models” to expand our catalog of options, but the spread is still too small, and always will be until the Bible becomes the basis for a new vision of femininity.
Now, as soon as Disney gives us a princess who can put tent pegs through enemy generals’ heads, hurl millstones at invading armies, defy pharaohs, shelter spies, rebuild walls, work in the fields, water camels, and risk her life for her people, as well as sew and cook and raise a family — then we’ll call that a brave princess.
A Biblical Worldview for Film
What Hollywood Knows that You Don’t, and What You Know that Hollywood Doesn’t
Walt Disney: A Christian Critique
True Beauty: Cultivating Christ-Centered Father-Daughter Relationships