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bechdel taser: did young girls need brave, or just the studios?

Pixar’s Brave. Blah blah first lady protagonist, blah blah why did it take them so long. I’ve never held Pixar in quite the same regard as my contemporaries. I didn’t get into Toy Story back in the day, probably because cowboys, astronauts… toys in general, weren’t on my priority viewing list. I liked witches and pretty dresses, and amusing accents that weren’t of the American alpha-male variety. If I can watch The Addams Family, Matilda, Harriet the Spy and Hocus Pocus, why bother with Buzz and Woody? Hell, the Rugrats, with tomboy Lil and admirably bratty Angelica, gave me feistier hijinks daily than I found in Pixar’s big bang. Deeper considerations, like a kid getting too old for their toys, or the beauty’s-on-the-inside-sort-of message of Beauty and the Beast would not strike me for a considerable time. Perhaps it was my emotional stunting and fixation with surfaces that shielded me from the damaging messages of the Disney princess canon. I missed the straight-to-DVD sequel phenomena with my absence of young siblings, and bypassed the Princess clusterfuck of the mid-naughts because no parents were addled enough to leave someone who freely bandies terms like ‘clusterfuck’ around their children.

But I doubt the girls who did grow up with sequels and more-princesses-than-kingdoms will be irreparably damaged. I do, however, criticise the industrial malarkey. Fifteen years to heroise a girl? Bullshit. There’s the trite old argument that boys won’t go to a film like that. They certainly won’t if you don’t make said films. Pixar is a megalith. Even ten years ago, their reputation would have drawn profitable audiences. They’ve given us a girl in Brave, but shouldn’t be valorised for doing so. It took them an inordinate time, and if it isn’t successful, they’ll do exactly what every other studio does. ‘Oh, people didn’t like this film? Goodness, they mustn’t like female heroes. Time for another cock party, guys!’

Pixar are usually credited with creating interesting stories, beyond the formulaic money-spinners of other youth-aimed entertainment factories. Fishies, monsters, machines, balloons, French chefery… so what did they come up for to showcase a girl’s talents? A princess. How striking. I like to hope they had plenty of brain storms about what kind of girl’s story they could tell, that they didn’t conflate the two ideas from the start.  I imagine most of us, upon hearing Brave was being made, or seeing its poster/trailer, were emboldened that it wouldn’t be a peon to domesticity, or valorise naive ideas about romantic love.

It isn’t and it doesn’t. Though my right eyebrow found itself a centimetre above my left when first I contemplated Pixar’s first lady-protag film being a princess story of all things, as I giggled my way through Brave I was reminded of why it’s necessary. Though it’s 75 years since Disney unleashed Snow White on the world, these stories have inevitable conclusions. If you’re feisty as Fiona, a bookworm like Belle, or satirical as Enchanted’s Giselle, your girlhood’s chapter still ends with love’s first kiss.

A lot of critics have panned Brave for its story, suggesting it isn’t as inspired as its Pixar predecessors. It’s an obvious inspiration that should have been picked up 40 years ago, so it’s unsurprising that it seems a bit retrograde now. Girls’ stories don’t have to be love stories or scary fables.

And what can we make of the story’s particulars? Instead of an evil step-mother, Brave’s Merida has a well-meaning biological mum, Elinor, and an irresponsible dad, Fergus. It is time for Merida to be betrothed. Elinor has the bulky task of turning Merida into a lady and making her accept her fate. It’s a bitch of a job, and Elinor is presented as such. It’s a classic dynamic that adults will pick up on – dad gets a free ride while mum seems like an ogre, having to do the heavy-duty parenting. This is compounded by the task at hand – convincing Merida to marry. I don’t know how critically the kids in the audience will take it, as in their eyes it’s probably just another confirmation that mum’s a bit evil but dad’s a laugh. But Fergus is complicit in the task, while shirking responsibility for it.

Merida is having none of that. She escapes, stumbling to an ursine-obsessive witch’s whittling studio. In the vague terms of fairy tales, she wishes for her mother to be ‘different’. The result, predictably, is not what she predicted. Brave separates from bildungsroman tradition by then having her mother involved in much of the story. Away from a world where ‘dad’ is the synonym for ‘parent I can bond with’, they get to know each other. The movie passes the Bechdel Test well, with plenty of comic relief along the way. Women aren’t idiots, no one is perfect, and no teenagers are sent to alter/slaughter.

This is a movie that should have been made decades ago. Now it has been. Go and see it. Take children, if you’re allowed near any. Take adults, if you prefer to giggle at the bits you could conceive as somehow rude. Hopefully, rather than spurring more princess films, it’ll inspire movies with utopic dreams for children that have nothing to do with flaw-free romances.

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