Monday, 17 September 2012


We went to see Brave a while ago.
 Since then Eleanor has been obsessed with archery, bears, horses, and will o' the wisps.
Her pictures have mostly been of Merida, the heroine of the film, and most of the words she has wanted to write have been similarly brave inspired.
 We have had to stop her from tangling her hair to make it "all loopy"* as it became impossible to get a brush through it.
She has played at being Merida every day, casting me in the -highly confusing- role of Queen Eleanor, and calling on Phoebe to represent an entire set of triplets.

She has a new Brave sticker album** which she fills with great care and delicacy, and a bow and arrows set which she fires without them.
In short, she loves it.

We were pretty happy with it too.
The story was fairly predictable, and I wouldn't like to hear a Scottish person's opinion of the setting,*** but the scenery was beautiful, the plot well executed, the characters, though fairly one-dimensional,**** were nicely rendered, with Merida's hair being a triumph of the pixelated art, and the regal Queen Eleanor possessing sufficient flaws of body and mind to prevent her from appearing merely a noble cipher**** while being handled sympathetically enough to avoid her becoming a strait-laced straw-woman.
Also the archery was very impressive.

Most impressive of all, however, were the gender politics.
I don't mean just having a girl as the hero: most Disney films have a heroine after all.
I don't even mean the way that that girl turns her nose up at courtly matters in favour of jumping off rocks and shooting things: while it was nice to see a film eschewing the standard girl-in-pretty-dress-meets-boy-and-eventually-reaches-the-zenith-of-her-ambitions-by-marrying-him Disney plot, with everything that implies to its audience, this has been done before.
 What was impressive was the way they presented this.
Firstly: no-one is surprised by Merida's capabilities.
Queen Eleanor may disapprove of her preferences***** but there is no suggestion that girl should not enjoy, or be talented in, what are normally presented as masculine pursuits.
Although other characters are clearly impressed by her prowess with a bow, their reaction is very much that of the people of Sherwood on seeing Robin Hood in action: they gasp not because she is a girl but because she is just that good.
Actually that's not the only resemblance to Robin Hood in that scene.
And they may have been gasping for another reason too, but if I tell you about that it might give things away a little.
 Secondly and much more significantly: nobody is diminished by Merida's capability.

There is a tendency, in books or films where the girl is the hero, or at least in those where she takes a traditionally male role, to build her up by running everyone else down.
The girls rescue the boys while the boys either stumble around incompetently, or wait swooningly to be rescued displaying a decided lack of interest in saving themselves.
Kings and fathers in such tales tend to be rather bumbling and retiring, while Queens and mothers, while similarly ineffectual, are much more forthright and decisive.
The effect is generally somewhat pantomimic: it is as though a group of traditional fairytale characters had merely swapped clothes, the girls putting on trousers and tucking their ringlets up under knights' helms, while the boys pin on long flowing wigs and conceal their manly stride beneath long skirts.
 An obvious exception to this rule, and one in the Disney canon, is the story of Mulan, however as she really is a girl in boy's trousers, whose ability to be "one of the men" is treated as a rare and heroic attribute, this is not, in the end, a very positive example either.
 In Brave, however, Merida is strong, capable and independent, and not only does no-one suggest that she is unusual in this respect but no-one else is lessened to make her look better.
Her father, while not politically minded, is practical, capable and strong, her mother is intelligent and eloquent, the various male secondary characters are all people in their own right, in no need of rescue, and perfectly able to look after themselves if it came down to it.
 It is, in short, a story about a person with heroic abilities and equally heroic flaws, overcoming adversity to ultimately triumph.
It is, in short, a story.
That the heroine is female is entirely beside the point.

Eleanor, of course, isn't aware of any of this: she doesn't hear the film telling her that she's just as good as the boys because no-one has told her that she isn't.
So she doesn't notice the message that she can do anything a boy can do, she doesn't see the significance of a female heroine.
She just sees a story, a role-model, a game to play.
And that, to me, is the most significant thing of all.

*Nothing can be done about her mind.

** Sneaky maths strikes again!
Actually it's interesting to see how far she's come since the last sticker album, I suspect that by the end of this one she'll have gained as much benefit from the number-identification and so forth as she can.
Which lets me out of getting her another I suppose.

***Actually I would.

****In fact the loud, easy-going King Fergus seemed a far more stereotypical figure but this is somewhat forgivable as he is given less space for character development.

*****There wouldn't be much plot if she didn't.


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