Monday, September 10, 2012



Why is it that for most critics Pixar's feature Brave just hasn't measured up to anything earth shattering?  So many luscious epics from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings or Avatar have left us with the same old dichotomous tales of corporate greed as empire, and individual heroism through alliance with primitives who are pure and innocent.  In Brave, as IMDb reviewer jeev7882 notes, "the film doesn't really have a villain. This isn't a good vs. evil battle."  Or at least, it mobilizes the internal and external good vs. evil struggles in some novel ways.  

Yet the core bravery the film requires of its protagonist Merida is missed by too many of the viewers and reviewers. Only one I found stood out from the chorus of more disappointed voices. Cynthia Fuchs wrote that  "when Elinor is gesturing the great story of her daughter's history and legacy and wonderfulness, literally over the heads of men, Brave represents an experience that so many mothers and daughters have shared, but rarely see in a movie."  

True, this film is not Snow White, nor Cinderella, nor any of the fairy tales where true mothers are absent and false one are menacing.  Now we are a society awash in worries about very real vicissitudes of  mother/daughter tensions. Such tropes abound in the currently metastisizing genre of tween lit but few literary offerings have the vibrancy of this film (with the possible exception of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, for which the film accompaniment The Golden Compass disappointed too many). Few offer much that is new with respect to what parents can represent to the emerging selves of teenagers (although the visually lush surrealism of Mirrormask from Dave Mckean is worth mention). Brave deserves to be read as a visually disturbing fantasy of how the wildness of galloping youth can connect to the power of mature selves and bodies around them.

Animation clips borrowed from a posting "FromPillow" on the following tumblr site: 
So it is a shame that Fuchs isn't playing up the deeper meanings of gendered political and social labor that lie behind the "over the heads" moment in the film where Queen Elinor  gesticulates, due to the fact that she has ben inconveniently (if unintentionally) transformed by her daughter into a giant bear. The arts of diplomacy and basic relationship maintenance that have long been socially constructed as work for women (thank you notes; party planning; apology delivery; ego soothing; alliance maintenance; gift exchange; flirtation itself) all appear to work effortlessly--even pleasurably--to mend all kinds of rifts so that progress for humans toward collaborating can continue. In this film, the tapestry that Merida must mend is a metaphor not merely for her relationship to her mother, but for fault lines between generations, ethnolinguistic groups, genders, and even species. There is no single arrow that can hit such targets; no easy endorphin-filled moment of "i did it." Rather there is the willingness to dig in and do it all again and again and again, with an irksome and ever changing mental map of where mending is needed to keep political and familial and interpersonal safety nets strong, thereby allowing individuals and groups to take collective risks, to fight for things together, or even to forge consensus on who are our heroes and celebrities.

Pin 91023: Brave - Merida and Elinor Bear - Pixar Studio Store
Pin Design can be viewed at
Diane Keaton's memoir Then Again juxtaposes mother and daughter voices. She gives the reader a startling confession of bulimia and body image distress in her own young adult life. But she also offers the searing, sad prose of her mother's diaries and letters as an empty nester, trying to redefine nurture and channel it inward to herself or outward to wider worlds beyond her own brood. Her mother's challenge of shifting to self care from effective care for others is wrenching, and it is reversed in Keaton's own life where parenthood comes only in her fifties.  Le monde a l'envers. Or perhaps both Diane and her Mother would have related to Janis Joplin's words, which have endured despite the fine she paid for uttering them in public: "Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got. There is no yesterday, no tomorrow, it’s all the same day."  

Okay, so Merida must learn that life for many girls and women is one long day's struggle with finding oneself amidst the more collective clatter of the rituals and relationships we weave to meet our needs.  This  is not the usual cortisol-peaking, crash-into-it- and-fight-your-way-out bravery that correlates with popular success in comic books and summer movies. Stories of that latter kind of bravery were my dominant traditions as a child, and are resurgent with recent retrospectives on Wonder Woman and emergent shows such as Agent Carter.

Such stories, most of which relied on some chunk of contemporary conservationist Harrison Ford's grit and charm, made me feel alive and aware in a world that seemed to need brave souls when i was a teenager. Even a young adult in Africa serving in Peace Corps, or starting my own research projects, such constructs buoyed me; made me feel what i was doing mattered and was in some way glamorous. Back then i still galloped on horseback a lot, whether across hills in Tennessee, across plains in Central African Rebublic (and finally, less frequently, at the polo stables on the edge of New Haven, Connecticut where the big, bored ponies needed exercising during weekends and vacations without their student riders).

These days, I worry about what would happen if i did something dumb like fall off a horse and break my neck. I am blessed but also burdened with responsibilities for others who depend upon me, from undergrads, masters students, doctoral students, and postdocs to neighbors, colleagues and friends in Central Africa, my own parents, and a collie. I need a different model for courage and heroism, or else I just feel tired and hardly worth anyone's attention.  Now the kind of bravery i seek is daily (hum), monthly (ugh), and as-the-years-go-by bravery. The kind required to confront the animality of our own adolescent or aging bodies, and to understand that making peace, whether in a home or a nation, is a different kind of hard work than making war, and may be the more important kind if humanity is to continue on an upward trajectory for its capacity to thrive. 

Animation clips borrowed from the following tumblr site
Mama bear's enormous exposed bottom is a weird and daring leitmotif in the film; when she herself catches a first glimpse of it she is horrified (see clip, above). It is the dripping, wiggling, shining, surprising animation triumph that has gotten far too little mention relative to flowing waterfalls in the background or tresses on Merida herself. That bear-sized rear end renders Elinor's crown irrelevant, and reminds her to retain the organic, physical connection to her own self in order to be powerful.  In the end, she does rear up on that behind and beat back her nemesis, a male human spirit also trapped in bear form,  thus freeing them both.

In a society that flips out at even the suggestion of an exposed "nip," both on sitcoms and in real stadium events (sorry Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Janet Jackson), it seems odd that so many of the royal family protagonists are naked in the film's denouement. Is it a bizarre beacon of hope that growing girls somehow can and do help both themselves and their older female role models become more comfortable with their bodies?  The end of the film suggests that with such comfort comes more awareness of their Grown Up Girl Powers: to defend (as much against our own selves and allies as against our enemies), to mend (not only damage done by our own words and deeds but also the rifts between selves, groups, and generations), and to transcend social strictures by (still, somehow) embracing carnal intensities like fishing and fighting (and yes, janice,, as we move through life's phases and become more and more sober citizens of the messed up worlds our parents made. Just like Diane Keaton did. Or does the best she could. Better, in fact than her mom was able to do. And so on. 

Seen thus, this film trumpets hope for women and girls, in a crudely elided "progressive primordial" moment. It draws a picture of distant human pasts as a platform on which we all now stand, built by both brave men and brave women. It speaks volumes at at time when contemporary women are having more and more public conversations about their  limited energies perpetually divided among self, family, work, and world. Slaughter (yes, really) argues in her recent and widely read Atlantic article, that "...Women Still Can't Have it All." If one agrees that doing so is the ideal, then bravery is needed in spades. 

So, this long blog (log?) is a shout out to those women who opted for the matinee show of Brave with their daughter or niece instead of attending that physical therapy appointment they so needed, or finishing the laundry. Those everyday small sacrifices in our lives make the end of Brave unsatisfying, with its image of  "Mum" galloping on horseback at the end with her hair flowing. Really? Just hop back on our horses? Chipping is right: "Brave would've benefitted from being far smarter in its dialogue, far more surprising in its plot twists and far less 'oh that's all right then' in its ending." 

But are we reading the film with enough generosity? Can we try to dignify its collaborative writing and direction, its craftsmanship, and its ambitious commentary on coming of age (and coming out of acting too much one's age) with more than just an assessment of it as a passable adventure flick? Please? In our society, movies are so much what we make them as we teach one another ways of "reading" them.  

As for what will happen next for Merida,  we must hope that when she does meet a love she likes, she will know how to stay in THAT saddle. More on that later, maybe?