I always knew I’d end up revisiting the essay I wrote on Pixar and gender roles in 2009; it was always a matter of time. Their projected 2012 release, at the time titled The Bear and the Bow before the lauded studio cut the name down to Brave for those of us who appreciate brevity, caused something of a stir upon its announcement; “Pixar” and “princess movie” don’t seem to go together so harmoniously considering that the animation giants have spent so much time fashioning strong female characters for so many of their films. But this is a question of inevitability. When I published that piece two years ago, I knew Brave‘s marketing and ultimate release would either uphold my thoughts or prove them to be naive– so in the back of my mind I prepared to dredge up my work and re-examine my assumptions and conclusions.
Last Wednesday, Pixar released for our viewing pleasure the full Brave theatrical trailer to serve alongside the delightful and breathtaking teaser given us three months ago. Maybe I could stand to wait another six to reprocess my ideas and analysis, but despite having limited footage at our disposal the time nonetheless feels right. Partly, I’m impatient; mostly, I’m sure to have my hands full reviewing the film in earnest upon its release.
Largely, though, the trailer provides enough information to support some of the arguments I proposed in ’09– namely that Pixar appears to be using Brave to deconstruct princess movies directly. First, it should be said that I don’t think badly of the parties who took umbrage of any sort with the announcement that the film would revolve around a princess. Not at all. There’s reasoning within that camp that’s completely acceptable and even compelling, though I ultimately disagree with it; a princess film almost by its nature at least plays partially into the gender stereotypes that Pixar upends so well in so much of their résumé, and goes in the face of the company’s record of fashioning diverse protagonists for their audiences to follow along with as Disney has done princesses to death.
What causes the most concern, though, is that Brave‘s choice of protagonist cannot stand up to Pixar’s other protagonists in her unasked for but nonetheless bestowed position as a role model for young girls. She’s just a princess– not a cowboy or a jetpack-toting astronaut or a robot or a superhero or, come to that, even a talking car (or dog). Put plainly, Merida, the princess at the film’s heart, represents something of a failure on Pixar’s part to cater to the young girls in their audience and also to the rest of their viewers as well.
At least she did in 2009. With the release of the trailer, I don’t know if most of those suppositions can be easily made anymore. “But it’s a trailer!”, some of you may still be saying with fervor. I understand; it’s not the full movie, and the full movie could end for Merida in a way that traps her in princess film traditions instead of allowing her to totally tear them down. I fully allow for this possibility. But the likelihood of that happening is next to nil, because frankly, that would be false advertising.
If we can attribute any significant meaning to the trailer at all– and I’m of the mind that while trailers are trailers, it’s certainly possible to derive truth from them nonetheless– it’s that Merida’s not happy being a princess. In point of fact, she shows signs of outright rejecting it. True, her penchant for archery (an attribute mentioned in any plot synopsis you might find on IMDB or Wikipedia or, well, any other source) alone indicates something of a rebellion against her royal station, but in that two-minute frame of time Merida is depicted rebuff the trappings of her birthright head-on.
In doing so Merida by default challenges the station of “princess”, but there’s something to be said for outer appearances here, too. She doesn’t look the part at all. I would go so far as to argue that in mere image alone, Merida should appeal to all of the girls with Band-Aids on their knees out there. Tangled hair, bow and arrow and all, she’s clearly more the type to go exploring in creeks and woods than to relish in the ladies’ activities her mother admonishes her over early on in the full preview. Combining both image and action, though, and Merida to my eyes represents the sort of female character any girl can look up to– one who refuses to allow her gender to define her as a human being.
What does all of this say for Brave as a film and as progress in the outlining of gender roles? Maybe nothing. I’m completely willing to eat crow in June ’12 if Brave proves to even slightly uphold the promise shown in the film’s exciting, lovely to behold trailer (and maybe it’s a bit daft to take a critical eye to two minutes of footage from a film that could potentially run up to two hours). But I wouldn’t be writing any of this if I didn’t truly believe that Pixar had something to tell us in this preview. Whether the film is actually any good remains to be seen, of course, and yet there’s enough here to satisfy any concerns about the film’s intentions in altering perceptions of gender roles.
So– what do the rest of you think about the Brave trailer? Does it speak to you the way it speaks to me? If nothing else does it make you excited for the film’s release?
“Brave” looks incredible in terms of animation and action. I’m not sure they’re doing anything groundbreaking with the lead character, though. There have been many stories set in medieval times, whether historical fiction or fantasy, where a princess-type girl would rather be out fighting with the guys. Even “Lord of the Rings” used this trope. Yes, it’s quite different than the typical Disney princess story where there’s usually a hero that comes save the day, though “Mulan” did a pretty good job with the warrior princess motif.
Yeah, but I’m not talking about them doing anything groundbreaking. I’m talking about them giving a tired and archaic gender trope the Pixar treatment. There’s a definite family resemblance between this and Mulan, you’re 100% spot-on but this isn’t about Pixar getting there first so to speak, it’s about them just performing the deconstruction in the first place.
Which is important, because Pixar’s huge. When people think of animated films today, they probably think of Pixar first and foremost. So when the studio confronts princess films head-on, it becomes significant almost by default.
This is significant for Pixar simply because it’s the first female-driven movie they’ve done. However, they’re not going to give up their boyish adventure stories. It would really surprise me if they did a “Little Mermaid” type of film. Apparently, even Disney proper is following their lead based on “Tangled,” which was a spin on the typical princess story.
Oh, no doubt. Pixar will never stop making movies like Toy Story, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t make a movie with a similar bent that speaks directly to girls first.
Not to sound sexist, but I see that happening only if they bring in some female animators and writers. It seems that now (and I may be mistaken) it’s an all-boys club. It would actually be refreshing to see what a woman in their midst might be able to throw at them.
Actually, two women handled Brave‘s screenplay and if memory serves a woman produced it– not to mention that there are a handful of women working at Pixar studios. They’re still vastly outnumbered by men, but Pixar’s not all-boys, and the boys they have know how to write positive female characters to boot.
In the course of 11 feature films (counting the upcoming “Monsters University”), only one woman received screenwriting credit, Rita Hsiao for “Toy Story 2,” which had 4 screenwriters and 4 given story credit. Brenda Chapman received story credit on “Cars” while Bonnie Hunt was given “additional material” credit on it. A total of 14 people earned some sort of writing credit on that movie. Similarly, Kathy Greenberg and Emily Cook were given “additional material” credit on “Ratatouille” as part of 6 total writers. Finally, Jill Culton received story credit on “Monsters, Inc.” while 8 others also worked on the script in one way or another. In the grand scheme of things, the only female writer who contributed a major portion of any screenplay was Ms. Hsiao among a plethora of men.
No woman directed anything Pixar produced up to this point. There have been several women producers, but producers are not on the creative side of the fence. They handle the business end of the production and while they can contribute to the overall way the creative way the film is moving, it is up to the writers and directors for the storytelling.
It’s great that “Brave” finally has incorporated women into Pixar’s creative universe. One of the screenwriters, Brenda Chapman, is also listed as a co-director, so she is the first (she was also one of the directors on “Prince of Egypt” for Dreamworks). Perhaps Pixar is opening their doors a bit and allowing for a change.
Like I said, it’s still a male-dominated company, but I think it’s sort of inaccurate to simply call them a boys’ club. I with you 100%, though, that Brave embraces the studio’s female presence, and honestly I think that that can only signal good things for the company– the more diverse perspectives they have to call on for each of their movies, the better, I think.
The trailer looks pretty exciting to me, and since I’m a 32-year-old man, that probably is a good indication that it’s not too “Princessy”. Merida, from the little bit we’re able to see, leaves the same impression on me as she does on you; a hero and role model to the tomboys and any other girl who isn’t going to just sit there waiting for someone to come along and sweep her off her feet. And the personality’s the thing, not the position. Sure, her being a princess could, handled poorly, represent an unrealistic, unattainable goal for young girls. But it’s not like those girls could become a superhero, or robot, or car, or dog, either, and less than 1% have even a chance of becoming an astronaut. Even “cowgirl” is out of reach for most, as most farmhands and ranch hands essentially grow up in the roles. But all that is all right; a movie is seldom going to show the reality of the job, so the key in having a good role model isn’t the role so much as the personality. Looks like Merida is on the right track so far.
Lots of great points, Morgan, and I agree especially that personality’s the key here.
Sure, her being a princess could, handled poorly, represent an unrealistic, unattainable goal for young girls. But it’s not like those girls could become a superhero, or robot, or car, or dog, either, and less than 1% have even a chance of becoming an astronaut.
Exactly. And like you say, the focal point isn’t the title or the circumstance, it’s about the heart of both the character and the film. Merida could be a great role model for any girl despite being a princess just by virtue of her journey and her choice to forge her own path. The message is what matters.
I know I get excited about Pixar almost by default, since every single one (with the exception of Cars 2, which I haven’t seen and probably never will) speaks to me profoundly about some area or aspect of my life. Back when you made that first, tentative assessment of Brave, I was inclined to disagree with you that the princess thing was the right direction, but seeing the trailer makes me glad they chose it. I can’t point to any one thing unfortunately, because even though she is not a “typical” princess, the unwilling princess isn’t exactly new either. What I’m hoping for, what I caught a glimpse of that I think will make it a great movie if they grasp it just right, is WHY the princess thing is there in the first place. As a female viewer, what appeals to me about the princess type is not so much the lifestyle, the privileges, etc, but the feeling of being singled out, through no fault of your own, for better or for worse. What the more modern Disney princesses suggested and eventually lauded was how this is a man’s world and so on and so forth, and having to do what it takes to come into your own even though so many things have been imposed upon you before you even know who you really are shows an incredible strength. It’s hard to find the courage to do that under everyday circumstances, so to see someone who should have this amazing, comfortable life struggle through others’ projections, expectations, and take responsibility for oneself even when it feels so overwhelming, that’s what I and what I think other women/girls relate to. If they can get that, I really won’t care if she’s Ariel or Eowyn or the Last freaking Unicorn. That’s also why I was sorry to see the original director leave, since I believe she could have lent that special touch. But as always, I have high hopes, and it does look like a beautiful movie, simply aesthetically.
And that’s my two cents. Good day to you, sir!
I’m almost never let down by Pixar, though I wasn’t thrilled with Cars and skipped out on Cars 2. In the case of Brave, I’m willing to concede the possibility that I’m a little more excited than normal just because it happens to fall in the wake of the former sequel.
As far as princess films go, I imagine that that core characteristic– struggling to define yourself on your terms in a world that’s tailored around strict gender roles, to the effect of forcing you into submission– will be heavily in play in Brave. This is about a princess literally battling for her own destiny rather than the one that her parents seem to have (though interestingly I only get the sense that her mother, the Queen, finds Merida’s proclivities for male-oriented activities distasteful; if so that adds another layer to the story with its own subtext). I really strongly believe that Brave could be more about that struggle and personal journey than even other princess films of its sort.
You’re right, too, about how great the film looks. It’ll look pretty if nothing else.
Good to hear from you Kami. Drop a line more often, huh!