Now, do I think Katara should fight for her right to fight? Sure. But it really bothered me that there was no vindication of what the women waterbenders traditionally do. There was no dialogue about how important or valuable healing is, no gratitude on Katara's part that she got to learn how to help people, not just hurt them. Katara is a powerful fighter, and I love seeing her skills grow throughout the series. But she also becomes a talented healer, and her abilities are invaluable more than once. Why, then, are women's traditions portrayed as something constricting and lame? It's an oversight not in keeping with the rest of the series.
When I first saw trailers for Brave, I felt the same disappointment. Here was Pixar's first movie with a female lead, and it seemed like it would just be another flick about a girl warrior shedding her feminine shackles and finding true happiness and value in doing what men do. Because obviously, only the things that men do are worthwhile. I didn't make a priority of seeing it, because I was sure Merida would just be fighting in some stupid battle to save her people, proving that every woman's tradition is worthless and every man's tradition is wonderful.
Thank heavens I was wrong, ohhhh so wrong. We finally made a family outing to see it a couple weeks ago, and I fell in love.
THERE ARE PLOT SPOILERS IN THE REST OF THE ENTRY. DON'T READ IT UNTIL YOU'VE SEEN THE MOVIE.
Unlike so many other empowered girl stories, Brave was not a rejection of femininity. Instead, it was a powerful mother-daughter story. A mother, Queen Elinor, who puts intense pressure on her daughter. A daughter, Merida, who is terrified of how her mother expects her to be perfect. Merida never feels like she gets any support or approval from her mother. Elinor never feels like she connects with Merida. Neither of them communicates the deep love they have for the other. The problem for Merida is her troubled relationship with her mom--not sewing lessons. Throughout the film, both of them come to embrace the womanhood of the other.
That's really what Merida's battle is--claiming womanhood for her own. Not escaping it. One fantastic symbol of womanhood in the movie is hair. Both Merida and Elinor have luscious, epic hair. Of course, since it's a Pixar film, the animation is beeeaauuutiful. There really are women with hair like Merida's (I knew a girl named Alex with it), and it was so vivid and real, especially in the many misty, wooded scenes. And there really are women with hair like Elinor's (I knew a girl named Janae with it), and you can almost feel the real weight of it as it sways behind her back. In the beginning of the film, mother and daughter wear their hair in completely different ways. Elinor keeps her hair orderly and bound up, while Merida's is outrageous and boundless. When Elinor tries to enforce her own brand of womanhood, she tucks every wild red strand of Merida's away under a tightly fitting head cover. When Merida tries to enforce her idea of womanhood, you could say that she gives her mom the ultimate wild hair--an entire body covered with thick, black fur. By the end, one indicator of their increased understanding is Elinor's new hair style; her hair is still neat and tied back on top, but flows free on the bottom.
There are of course many other stirring, symbolic moments in the film. Two of my favorites? First, when Merida has to address all the snarling, squabbling men by herself, since her mom is a bear. At first, she's at a loss as to how she can even safely enter the room with all of the testosterone and projectiles. She doesn't utilize her one "manly" interest--archery. Instead, she emulates her mother. Cloaking herself in calm, Merida steadily walks into the room, emanating a matriarchal force. Without even saying anything, Merida wills the men to be gentlemen--just as her mother had earlier in the film.
Second, Merida mistakenly thinks if she simply mends the heirloom tapestry depicting her with her parents, then the spell on her mother will be reversed. This must be done before the second sunrise, which is fast approaching. So, there's a fabulous scene of Merida keeping balance on a galloping horse while she sews the tapestry back together. Again, a strong visual of Merida claiming womanhood for her own, of her taking womanly arts that she has learned from her mother and weaving them into her own life, interests, and personality.
And of course, it doesn't hurt that Merida never fights in a stupid battle, that archery is not her most important skill, and that Elinor defeats the villain. So so great.
My mother has a favorite little saying--"Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all." I've heard her say it with a lot of different meanings. Sometimes she means it humorously, like if she notices some little quirk she shares with her mom. Sometimes she means it...somewhat bitterly, like if she notices a less desirable trait that she's carried on. I think Brave captures the plural tones of that little saying--the passionate, mixed-up feelings that we, as women, can sometimes have toward our own mothers. I love and admire my mother dearly--I am so grateful for her--but we are not the same person. We have had our own mother-daughter struggles. There are countless ways that I want to be like my mom, and there are some ways I want to be different. But regardless, as I have grown up, gotten married, and become a mother myself, I have turned to her again and again. I have needed her. As I nursed my own little daughter in the dark of the movie theater, I just prayed that someday, she'll need me in the same way.