There, I said it.
Some months back, watching the previews for Brave, I thought to myself, “Christ, another Dreamworks moneygrab.” I was shocked to learn that this is Pixar’s doing.
I’m a big Pixar fan: I was a boy when Toy Story came out and was hooked. I’ve watched most of their offerings and been blown away by most (Wall-E being one of my favourites). A lot of times when (bad looking) movies come out, they’re advertised as being “fun for the whole family”, and typically that’s code for “jokes crude enough to make adults laugh but subtle enough kids won’t get them”. Pixar had managed to make genuinely good “family” films. I’m not going to lie, I teared up like a little baby watching Toy Story 3, and I swear to God, was seconds away from genuinely crying. That’s how good I felt Toy Story 3 was.
But there is something I don’t like about what I’m seeing in Brave. I mean, it’s got the crude humour you’ve come to expect from a kid’s movie (but not a Pixar film, I think), and that’s already a turn-off for me. What really bugs me is the “girl empowerment” theme coming from it.
Before moving on, I should clarify: I think women are just as capable as men in almost all areas of life, and vice versa. While I don’t play with Barbies or wear nail polish, it is odd that society deems those two activities as being “lady-like”, and that playing football or video games is a manly activity. I don’t think that there are activities that are, one way or the other, girly or manly. I would argue that men and women certainly think differently and are, due to physiology, better inclined to certain activities (and I would argue that different ways of thinking, for example, are not entirely due to societal constraints), because anyone who tells you men and women are equal are oversimplifying a very complex point. All that said, I don’t need a movie to tell me that girls can do anything boys can do.
And that seems to be the central storyline of Brave. Sure, there’s a witch’s curse (or witches’s? I don’t know how many witches are involved) involved, probably very Macbeth and everything. But the crux of the story seems to be that there’s this girl, destined to be princess, who is fighting societal constraints. She wants to be a warrior, an archer, and not a princess. And maybe marketing is to blame, but it seems like becoming a warrior means giving up her princessiness.
So it feels like we can expect the typical, “oh archery? You’re a girl, girls can’t fire arrows” banter that has come to typify movies about women “breaking out” of their societal constraints. And sure, Brave is a fairy-tale story, so we can assume that where she’s from, they’re not quite as modern in their ways of thinking about women. I get that. But it’s old, overused, and at its core, sexist.
I was discussing this with Tea Leaves and Dog Ears and she pointed out that, at it’s core, saying that there are, activites that are boyish or girly or that one is “breaking” out of these societal norms is in fact, reinforcing them. She’s absolutely right, of course. When a man does something manly, it isn’t exceptional (unless it’s super badass). Only when that act can be classified as girly or wimpy or whatever, is it worth mentioning. The same applies to women. Male actors can have “strong performances”, but never classified as being “strong male leads”. When a woman is a “strong female lead”, it typically means she is not an agent being acted upon but is an actor in the truest sense of the word. She gets shit done, in essence.
But again, this classification implies there is something exceptional about that. And that implies that by being a strong female lead, that actor/character is not being an ordinary female lead, which would be a woman who does womanly things. As long as that classification exists, as long as a woman can “break out” of societal constraints, those societal constraints will continue to exist and if we try to pretend to be enlightened by saying, “oh, there’s nothing wrong with a woman doing manly things” (ie, by continuing to have the term tomboy), we’re just reinforcing the notion that there are womanly things and that there are manly things, when, in truth, there are and should just be, things that people do. As long as Princess Meridia of Brave defies her royal upbringing by doing something that no princess should do (and, let’s face it, in typical storytelling fashion a princess is the epitome of young lady-hood), the story won’t be exceptional or liberating or anything like that. It will just be a story about a woman doing guy things, with the notion that women can do guy things and it’s ok, when the idea should be that anyone can do anything and that tagging a gender stereotype onto an action or lifestyle or whatever is doing as much harm as socially restricting individuals into roles based on their gender.
I will write myself an out, though: Pixar has been able to surprise me just about every time around. Maybe Walt-Disney, best known for reinforcing the princess stereotype (until recently, maybe? I don’t know, to be honest), marketed the movie in an attempt to appear non-sexist and modern. Maybe that’s their target demographic. Or maybe Brave truly is a kid’s movie. I don’t know. The trailers imply what I’ve written and any write-ups I’ve read (and I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen a negative write-up; Brave has made many a “most anticipated movie of 2012” list) seem to follow that too. Maybe, hopefully, Pixar will prove me wrong. Time will tell, I guess.