Sunday, March 4, 2012

Pixar's First Female Lead: Brave from a Feminist Perspective

The other day I was reading the Time magazine article on Pixar's first film with a female protagonist, Brave, and it sparked several thoughts.

[The article, "Pixar's Girl Story," is unfortunately only available for Time subscribers, so unfortunately I can't send you off to read it online. The premise is that Pixar's movies, clothes, toys, clothes, rides, video games, and tv shows all have male leads (and what the author calls "very male leads" - cowboys, robots, astronauts, cars, and of course, men)]

Firstly, that working at the Pixar studios sounds awesome, even if the article's author describes it as a playground for boys:
"...plastic bins dispensing every kind of cereal, free. Men pedal scooters past me. On Friday mornings an employee named Mark Andrews stands on the front lawn in a kilt, challenging co-workers to actual sword fights... animators work inside toolsheds designed like castles, jungles, and Old West jails. In one office, a fake bookshelf opens onto a secret lounge. Guys carry official Pixar laminated cards in their wallets that read, 'this card entitles the bearer to one Star Wars reference in a meeting." 
But then he goes into the fact that Pixar has a girl problem because "there are no rooms full of princess costumes to dress up in. No frosting stations. Not one My Little Pony poster." And this makes me heave a big sigh.

Why does the lack of princess costumes mean that the Pixar studios are not a girl-friendly place? (excluding for the moment that Pixar hasn't had a film with a female lead before now, and the fact that all the employees are men). I am a girl and I LOVE free cereal, scooters, fake bookshelves, and Star Wars.

But the article passage that really struck me and got me thinking was this:
"Brave's medieval Scottish princess, Merida, almost never wears princess clothes. Instead, she rides a horse and shoots a bow and arrow."
We'll know that we truly don't need feminism anymore when sentences like that no longer exist.  But that sentence (and the sentiment) does exist. This says a lot about the state of society and the need for change that feminists are trying to bring about.

When the day comes when its no longer abnormal, shocking, or interesting for a princess, or any female, to ride a horse and shoot a bow and arrow. When "princess clothes" just means whatever a princess happens to wear, whether its a dress or pants, ball gowns or armor. Not that there is a contradiction between wearing princess clothes and riding a horse with a weapon in-hand.

Moreover, this story is really all they could think of for their first female lead movie? Its almost like they're trying too hard. "Look! Girls can be 'brave,' too! We've got a super strong badass female lead who defies conventional female standards by not wanting to marry some random guy just because she's a princess so she's going to go ride horses and shoot arrows instead!" Wasn't this sort of done already, for instance in Pocahontas or Mulan? She is dissatisfied with society's expectations of her as a girl, doesn't fit in and wants action and adventure. Why is it that her life begins to have meaning, and she's able to be awesome, because she rejects her "feminine" qualities of princess and wife and embraces her "masculine" qualities? Also, she's STILL A PRINCESS. Do all female heroines in animated films have to be princesses?

A feminist version of a Pixar film would portray men and women without expectations of fulfilling or going against binary gender roles.

Now don't get me wrong, I think Brave looks awesome and I'm definitely going to go see it. I love Pixar despite its former lack of female leads and despite its creativity in story line here (saying this before seeing the film, obviously). Also, Pixar hasn't done a bad job portraying women, and they're not actually anti-feminist - Jessie in Toy Story and Helen Parr in the Incredibles were both great. And I love bad-ass female leads, bow and arrow shooting, and medieval period pieces. And I honestly do have a soft spot for fairy tales. I also think the Scottish setting will be fun.

Some things I did like in the article, though, include this:
"Chapman isn't worried that boys will shy away from a film about a princess, even though industry research indicates that boys have more influence than their sisters in convincing their parents which movies to see. 'Back in my day, boys and girls both went to see Cinderella and Snow White and Sleeping Beauty,' he says. 'It's just a change in media and advertising.' When I ask Lasseter why boys would see Brave, he answers... 'Because its awesome! It's got awesomeness in it! It's got bear fighting in it!'"
And even though I think both boys and girls can appreciate bear fighting (if its appropriate to the story line and entertaining), I really like both answers given above. Of course boys will want to see Brave, because its going to be awesome entertainment! And that should be all it's about.

What do you think of the upcoming movie Brave? 

The Trailer for Brave:


  1. I'm inclined to think that both viewpoints are correct. It's great for little girls to see a film where they can break away from the stereotypical princess in need of a prince role. She doesn't need or want to wear pretty dresses, and she doesn't need or want to sit around the palace.

    However, you're right too in that this film line has been done before. It can be done again though. I don't see that as a bad thing.

    I think that the film makes and writers are struggling to find a way to balance the traditional princess fairy tale, which has attracted girls for many years, with the new millennium girl who is the creation of the feminist movement. She has the choice to be classically feminine, or not to be classically feminine, or to be classically feminine sometimes and not others.

    I see my own mother and myself as the example of the last. We both know how to dress up, and we can thoroughly enjoy it. But, much of the time we're both working outdoors or being physically active and without the need for a prince to save us. We let neither our brains nor our bodies atrophy.

    I would even struggle as a feminist to write a movie that would make everyone happy. How would you go about re-writing this film to suit the feminist movement while at the same time attracting little girls who are used to the Cinderella or Mulan approach?

  2. Oh, and for great reading on the subject of feminism and the media, and how feminist movement is not yet done, check out "Enlightened Sexism" by Susan J. Douglas.


    The Bechdel test sounds like something you would find both Humorous and sad. Check it out!

  4. Thanks for your comments, Amanda and Georgianna!

    I haven't seen the Bechdel test - thanks for sharing :)

  5. You give Pixar too much leeway. They are, like Disney, a sexist studio obsessed with making boy audiences happy. I have lost all faith in Pixar's storytelling abilities after Cars 2 and John Carter (which was directed by the over-rated Andrew Stanton.)

    You can keep your Brave. I'd see "Coraline" over this any day, as far as gender portrayal.


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