How many men are in Brave? Ten billion.
How many women are in Brave? Six.
How many women have goals in Brave? Two.
What does the third woman do? Appear once: “I’m not a witch. Okay I am. Pay me. Here’s a spell. leave.” Appear again, as a magical holograph answering machine. Add nothing.
What does the fourth woman do? Exist as a narratively stupid cleavage-conveyance obstacle we laugh at and are exasperated with. Allow the audience to ignore their regressive laughter at a big-titty bimbo, by being fat and old and plain and frumpy. Kiss the hypermasculine hunk brought by one of the visiting clans at the end, proving that the sizable breasts and low neckline are not included in service of her character or with unawareness of their legacy presence as a titillator. Add nothing.
What do the fifth and sixth women do? Carry things and talk about other people, as background colour. Add nothing.
The first and second women are Merida, the protagonist, and her mother, the queen.
What is Merida’s motivation? “Please mum, please, don’t make me have sex with and belong to a stranger.” Merida is an adolescent.
What is her mother’s arc? “Do as I say, daughter.” “Oh no, I’m a bear” “My daughter took outsize blame on herself, and now she is obedient to me, I revoke my order of betrothal.”
Merida’s mother’s motivation, if she has it, is not allowed any space to register. Her sudden demand that Merida marry is unreasonable and unfounded; when she takes it back, later in the film, this reprieve causes no problems at all even though it was the basis of an enormous effort and sacrifice demanded of the clans who serve her as their queen. If it is an easy decree to rescind, why did she ever try to force her adolescent daughter to join with a stranger? Why did she take that fight so personally? Brave tells us she is minorly conflicted, recalling her own trepidation before her own (happy) marriage and comparing it to Merida’s. But her requirement of absolute authority over her daughter isn’t questioned, and we don’t know why. The queen never wavers in her commitment to forcing Merida to take a husband immediately, until the structure of the film and its place in Disney canon requires an absolution and a happy ending.
In life and in good fiction, when people do things that are unreasonable and strange, they do them for reasons they know themselves. When somebody tries to oppress someone they love, their own life and pressures, values, templates and stressors must be examined. Merida’s mother says that Merida must marry just because. She aims to command Merida absolutely. Her life outside of her relationship with Merida is not given time to explain this bizarre betrayal. She does not exist as anything but a slightly wistful mother-obstacle. Why? Nothing about Merida’s social freedom is ever shown to be dangerous. Not enough is made of what embroidery means to this woman in the context of her community’s ideas on gendered achievement for Merida’s disinterest in the craft to wound her so deeply. I want to know why she’s so anguished. I want to hear her lament her loneliness!
Where are the rest of the women in their lives? Does Merida’s mother have friends or women she can rely upon? Does she have women to whom she can go for council? Does she have women who can support her role as mother, queen, wife? Apparently not. Is that want for peer challenge why she attempts to exert ultimate control over the only available lively female? Is she lucky that she had a wild daughter to clash with, otherwise becoming a tyrant of the household, bullying the mentioned female servants? What is weighing so heavily on the psyche of this queen?
Merida is betrayed by her mother in several ways. Firstly, she does not want to marry ahead of her own readiness, and be tied for life to a politician and patriarch whom she has not evaluated. Secondly, she does not want sexual contact; betrothal is tied to sexual demand through Merida’s mother’s talk of her own betrothal combined with the happy, physically enjoyable marriage shown between Merida’s parents and through the presence of the king and queen as Merida’s parents. They have consummated, as the expectation of such is enshrined in the legal state of marriage. Merida has three very young triplet brothers; her parents’ marriage has been sexual for, one must assume, twelve years or more. The triplets appear to be toddlers and Merida can be assumed to be around sixteen—Disney Princess age, and not so young that a marriage plot is totally outlandish to modern viewers—then the king and queen have had sex at least once around seventeen years ago, and at least once around four years ago. That’s a lifetime for Merida—a viewer can’t not see the lifetime of sex awaiting her with an anonymous betrothal partner who she’s promised to before she’s met him, can they?—and before she’s asked for or claimed a public sexuality. Merida’s depicted physicality is all sports, nothing sensual beyond her wish for unconstrained (unconstrained) hair.
In simpler terms, as the marriage her film’s premise revolves around is a political one, Merida will be presumably be expected to produce an heir. I couldn’t really stop viewing from this reasoned perspective, and couldn’t come to terms with this “no, mother, I want to stay a virgin til I’m ready,” “well you’re my daughter and I say that you cannot” plot. I could watch a film like that if the script did it on purpose. If the director knew what they were making. If nobody was pretending it was a lovely children’s empowerment film.
Perhaps worst of all—because these are conceptual betrayals, seen in comprehension but avoided directly in text—Merida is betrayed by her narrative because her frustration with her mother isn’t really given time to unravel on screen. Her mother (and the audience) is allowed a montage of this woman’s reminiscing, recalling Merida as a baby and as a child, Merida thinking her mother was the single greatest, most perfect being. Her mother is suggested to be mourning this complete approval, authority and emotional primacy; the audience is invited to sympathise.
What focus is given to Merida’s loss of security in her mother’s protection? Where’s the authoritative voice of Montage saying “it hurt when she discovered her beloved mother’s fallibility”? Merida’s personal integrity—the right to disobey, ever, without proving she lacks love—is made the field of battle, she is forced by circumstance and narrative to fight for it, and this is framed as audacious. The eventual reconciliation is performed by Merida; first by taking ownership of the mother-daughter disagreement (about her own totally needless forced engagement!) by publicly proclaiming that she, in rejecting her mother’s rule, was in the wrong, and later by publically (in front, both times, of all those men who wander about her home) crying her remorse at potentially losing her mother to accidental beardom.
Her mother simply accepts Merida’s apology, and allows her some personal authority in response. Merida’s autonomy is granted, not taken for granted; Merida’s mother’s authority is absolute and framed in the end as gracious. These characters are shown to love one another and to value one another, yet are pitted against each other and forced to wound each other cruelly, disrespectfully, while men’s rules and demands and societal designs (and storytelling) are looked past and absolved of any wrongdoing or opacity or damaging weight in a disingenuous pretence at feminism and female relevancy.
Nice woods though.