Friday, August 03, 2012

They're Also Brave Who Work Inside the Gate

I don't often see movies in the theater anymore, but I made a point of seeing "Brave" shortly after it was released. After all, it was the much-heralded, long-awaited first Pixar movie with a female lead--and a quasi-Scottish medieval setting as a bonus. I enjoyed "Brave," but most people seem to have a vague sense that it lacks something: heart, or unity, or the courage of its convictions, or...convictions. There is a lot to like about a movie that focuses on a girl, explores the mother-daughter relationship, and doesn't end with a wedding or even the promise of one; but within those promising parameters a problem developed. It's a so-old-it's-new "problem without a name" that increasingly concerns me, and it happens to be the same problem I had with the Atlantic's most-read article ever, which came out at about the same time.


We first meet Merida, the heroine of "Brave," as a little girl enjoying a birthday picnic with her family, receiving her very own bow and arrow. When a bear threatens them, her mother escapes on horseback with Merida while her father stays and fights. So far, so good; everyone in this scenario is being brave. In the next scene, years have passed and Merida is a young woman with three little brothers who run wild while she is constantly exhorted to behave herself and learn the many skills and accomplishments expected from a young woman of noble birth and high position. Her mother is the bad cop in this scenario, and her precepts keep Merida from doing what she wants to do, which is run wild herself, i.e. ride her horse through the woods outside their castle walls and shoot arrows with pinpoint accuracy. Worse yet, Merida learns that three suitors from loosely allied clans will soon arrive and engage in a competition, and she is expected to marry the winner.

Side note: this post is about sex, not class, but I just want to mention that while Merida is pitching a fit about this situation, her family is being served at table by a woman who brings tons of food to the table which was presumably prepared by a substantial kitchen staff, and will be cleaned up by servants, etc. Leaving the anachronistic questions of arranged/political marriage and women as chattel aside for the moment, I kept hoping that Elinor would explain to her daughter that her extreme privilege came with a duty to all the people who work her father's land and fight in her armies, but that was silly of me.

When the suitors arrive, Merida chooses archery as the determining event, and then on the day of competition announces that she also will compete (shades of Atalanta); of course she wins and throws everything into chaos. When her mother yanks her inside to remonstrate, she picks up a sword and makes a cut through her mother's prized possession, a tapestry-in-progress depicting their family. Merida figuratively cuts herself out of the picture and then literally leaves the house for her beloved woods, where she meets a witch. Merida asks the witch for a spell that will change Elinor, which she believes will then change her own fate. I was terrified that Elinor would die, but instead she just got transformed into a bear. Then she did almost die because her husband, and the assembled representatives of four clans worth of crazy Scots, were determined to kill her: remember from the beginning, a bear represents THE threat to this society's security.

At this moment the story had a lot of promise, and a lot was squandered. Merida smuggles Bear-Elinor out of the castle and into the woods. They spend a night sleeping rough, and when Merida wakes up her mother has already, with her clumsy bear claws, prepared a foraged meal and set a table complete with makeshift twig forks. "GREAT!" I thought. "Changing Elinor's form doesn't change her, and she has standards that won't be compromised by misfortune or changing circumstances. She will create a home and maintain civilization wherever she is, because it is important." But, no: this was just an opportunity for some comedy, because outside is Merida's domain--dumb old Elinor picked poison berries, and the water is full of creepy-crawlies. Merida teaches Elinor to fish, because foraging is dumb old women's work anyhow, and hunting and fishing are cool.

So now I've tipped my hand. Why, for a woman to be a heroine, does she have to reject traditionally feminine values? Why are we so excited about Katniss, who is not only an accomplished archer/murderess but also, if you read the books, has an emotional IQ around 50?

Merida does meet her mother in the middle, somewhere. She ends up having to exercise some wisdom and diplomacy to fix the political disaster she herself engendered back at the castle, and in the process she learns that her mother's job is harder and more complicated than it looks, and that her father depends on her mother in many ways (although the hapless, hopeless dad is another problem trope, and luckily for me one that many others have already addressed). Elinor sees that her daughter is turning out okay, and agrees that they can indeed change her "fate" of early strategic marriage. That's all great, and I applaud the message that mothers and daughters should respect each other, listen to each other, and be flexible about the future and what life holds.

BUT in the last scene, Merida and Elinor are out together on horseback, which suggests to me that Merida is supposed to have, in some sense, "won." Elinor's domain is the castle, civilized society, the enclosure: Merida has rescued her, taken her out into the open air, away from that pesky tapestry project (which, I forgot to mention, Merida had to mend in order to break the spell, and despite what must have been at least 12 years of oppressive training had little clue how to do it) and into the wild. No matter that Elinor may enjoy creating--what's valuable is to shoot, which is (in however small a sense, as the arrow hits its precise mark) to destroy. And the HAIR!

Merida, of course, has the much-vaunted red, curly, untameable hair. For most of the movie Elinor's dark hair is in a long, sleek, thick braid. When Merida meets her suitors her hair is stuffed into a suffocating wimple attached to a tight white dress, which is stupid, by the way--my impression from my extensive reading of historical fiction, which I know is no substitute for historical research, is that young maidens in medieval times showed their hair and married women covered it up. At the end, Elinor's hair is loose, blowing in the wind. I bring some personal baggage to this image. I cannot stand having my hair touch my face--a sensory integration issue, no doubt. If I know my hair is going to be blown by the wind I take extra precautions--a braid and a headband, perhaps a hat. So seeing that just set my teeth on edge, because being forced to set your hair free is no better than being forced to keep it under control.

And one more thing: in the first scene, Merida sees will o' the wisps. Elinor tells her that some legends hold that the little lights lead travelers to their fate, and her father scoffs. It is the wisps that lead her to the witch. Women hold the magic in this movie, and that's because women's traditional domain is magical. Cooking is magic that turns ingredients into sustenance; babies are magic in so many ways; needlework turns fiber into art. Home is a repetitive, predictable place where we renew ourselves and from which we draw our power; but the theme drops, bounces and fades away.

I know that a feature-length movie about the adventures of creating a peaceful and beautiful home wouldn't make it even on the indie circuit. But we should all think about the consequences of privileging the world over the domestic sphere, public over private, action over contemplation, and destruction over creation in so many of our narratives.

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