Mommie Dearest

Image Credit: Pixar
Image Credit: Pixar

Critics rank Brave as lesser Pixar: better than the Cars films (and frankly what isn’t?) but far below the profound and witty masterpieces of the past few years. I agree. The film’s visual universe is a banal emerald isle worthy of DreamWorks or Enya. The signature song sounds like an American Idol finale number. And the plotting moves too quickly with few of the quiet moments of visual and narrative brilliance that define Pixar’s best work. Nevertheless, the film’s strongest thread—Merida’s complicated, even violent, relationship with her mother—must be celebrated as a deconstruction of the traditional mother-daughter narrative popularized in fairy tales.

Mothers are usually long dead before a fairy tale begins. In their place, we find vain, brutal stepmothers and witches who sometimes try to eat you. There is a simple reason for this. Fairy tales were written by men in decidedly patriarchal societies who imagined women to be in perpetual competition for men. Once a woman bowed out of this competition, she became a crone. Fairy tales, and later Freud, consequently conceived of mothers as continuously warring with their daughters for male attention—especially the father’s. Because of the incest taboo, fairy tales couldn’t portray biological mothers and daughters at war for paternal affection, so unrelated stepmothers were introduced as proxies. Consequently, you always find older women tormenting younger women out of jealousy before the younger women kill their pseudo-mother figures. And then someone gets married. Lovely story.

I’ve never connected with this view of femininity because it paints women of all ages as petty victims. It’s also inaccurate. Women form intense bonds with other women that have nothing to do with men. Shocking, I know. Despite what male authors have been telling us for hundreds of years, we actually kind of like each other. Brave is an intelligent deconstruction of the typical fairy tale not because of the absence of romance but because of the preeminence of a female bond—the knotty, multifaceted bond between a teenage girl and her mother.Teenage girls, even the nice ones, can be truly heinous to their mothers. Adolescent girls are not necessarily all bitches; they are simply attempting to establish a female identity outside of their primary maternal model. Merida is one such example. She is truly cruel to her mother. She is cruel in a fashion you rarely see in film (unless you were one of the six people who saw Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret), and her actions have nothing to do with competition for men. Gender is at issue because the central disagreement concerns Merida’s refusal to hew to constraining feminine norms, but actual men only exist at the periphery of the mother-daughter narrative. Nevertheless, there is significant tension between the central female characters because Merida is finding a new way to be female that the older Queen Elinor can’t quite understand. Brave portrays this angst as literal violence.

Violence first erupts in the climactic scene wherein Merida slashes her mother’s tapestry—visually siding with her father and everything he represents. The queen’s look of horror couldn’t be greater if Merida had slashed her face. Although the queen initially erupts in rage matching her daughter’s and attempts to burn Merida’s bow—the metonym for her gender rebellion—she immediately  fetches it from the fire because she is not an evil stepmother. The more immature Merida doesn’t figure this out so quickly.

Even though we’re supposed to view the queen as the reactionary obstacle to Merida’s freedom, Brave’s major plot point renders Merida the villain. I don’t care what type of dress your mother makes you wear, you shouldn’t give her a potion you received from a witch without first asking how the potion works. Even Ariel made Ursula explain the details of her contract, and she was half fish. I found this carelessness suspect at first; however, when considering the impetuousness and selfish actions of many well-meaning teenage girls, it occurred to me that this was a tidy exemplum of youthful female narcissism. Merida isn’t a sociopath. She simply isn’t thinking. She can’t see what might be behind her mother’s more conventional desires because she is too absorbed in her own. And then she turns her mother into a bear.

Merida’s look of terror and guilt following this metamorphosis reflects the anguish often felt by girls after they unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) hurt their mothers. Although the story descends into one long chase sequence following this transformation, we still witness Merida’s painful recognition that her selfishness may kill her mother. I’m not calling Merida selfish because she doesn’t wish to be sold into marriage at thirteen (the film’s weaker plotline) or because of her Katniss-like fondness for archery over etiquette lessons. I’m calling her selfish because she put’s her mother’s body at risk without a second thought in order to achieve her own happiness. Again, SHE TURNS HER MOTHER INTO A BEAR.

This ursine metamorphosis is clearly meant to highlight the flipside of their violent animosity: the violent affection. Although some Disney films would have you believe that a mother bear would look on happily while you picked up a cub, National Geographic teaches us that this action would likely result in the loss of a few choice limbs—and possibly your head. Even the term “mama bear” has come to be shorthand for maternal love. The queen, initially portrayed as somewhat cold and distant, is transformed into this ultimate symbol of intense affection to underscore the love informing her earlier actions. Her desire to see her daughter married makes a lot more sense in the context of a brutal universe in which gigantic animals attack and drunken men prowl the castle. When the mythic male bear returns, the ursine queen protects her daughter viscously even as Merida attempts to protect her mother through her own brand of violence. They both attempt to kill because of the intensity of their love— one of the film’s more interesting reinterpretations of femininity and female love.

Although Brave is far from a masterpiece, it offers an authentic depiction of mother-daughter angst and affection. Most girls will obviously never turn their mothers into animals, and most mothers will not defend their daughters with their teeth, but this fantastical fable embodies the emotions at play in this complex dynamic better than 99% of the studio films released in 2012. The ending may wrap up this relationship a tad too neatly, but at least it shows that two female characters—even two women living in a land far, far away—can have an intense bond that doesn’t revolve around men. Even if one of them turns the other into a bear.

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