On Brave and Paradigm-Enforcing Women
Warning: Very mild spoilers ahead. I promise I won’t discuss anything that you couldn’t discern from the trailer, or, at the very least, to not ruin the movie.
At long last, Pixar has put out a film featuring a female lead, and one with fantastic hair to boot. While other Pixar movies have involved female characters in important roles, this is the first to sport one as a protagonist. While it was panned by some critics for being not as good of a story as Pixar tends to produce, I would argue that it is a different kind of film rather than an inherently inferior one.
The conflict that Brave‘s protagonist, Merida, faces, is the not-uncommon one of being in rebellion against gender norms. Brave also features another common lady trope: Merida’s mother, Elinor, seems far more invested in enforcing said gender norms than Merida’s father, Fergus, does.
Whenever a conversation about gender norms comes up, someone will generally cite the fact that women enforce them. Sometimes, people will even argue that women enforce them more than men do. Whether or not this is true,* what is clear is that women are often seen and portrayed as engaging in much more gender-policing than men do. Elinor is not exempt; in fact, the main conflict in the film revolves around the inter-female conflict arising from such enforcement. As Queen, Elinor wields a certain kind of power, but makes it abundantly clear to Merida that the only way to attain similar power is through adherence to an incredibly stringent set of rules about what a princess can (and, more importantly, cannot) do and be.
While Elinor enforces the patriarchy, her husband seems rather disinterested in ensuring that his only daughter behave in a manner befitting his firstborn. Indeed, Fergus goes above and beyond in fostering and encouraging Merida’s interest less-than-ladylike pursuits — training her in archery, for one. As he and Merida both lack interest in following the code of conduct that Elinor enforces in her household (and it is truly her household), father and daughter both share many laughs at Elinor’s expense.
It seems counterintuitive that a mother would be more invested in limiting her daughter than a father would. After all, if it’s the patriarchy, then why are the patriarchs themselves, so to speak, less interested in preserving the status quo?
The answer lies in Elinor’s retort to Merida’s rebellious cry that she wants her freedom: “But are you willing to pay the price your freedom will cost?”
Elinor understands the price that a princess could end up paying for not being what other expect her to be more fully than Fergus ever could. Fergus might smile and dote upon his daughter’s desire to assume a more traditionally masculine role or engage in traditionally male pursuits, but Elinor worries for Merida’s future. The fact that she feels she needs to do so is a problem, but that she does so is not a sign that women like her somehow want for there to continue to be stringent gender roles. Rather, she doesn’t want her daughter to suffer the consequences of violating the norm.
Some women might gender police other women because they want to feel more-female-than-thou. Others might do so in order to preserve the limited but hard-won power that they wield within the patriarchal system. The first motivation clearly does not apply to Elinor, who both loves her daughter dearly and easily holds her own. The second, while tempting, doesn’t seem fair to Elinor, who is self-sacrificing in her wish to preserve her family and household. She, like many well-meaning older female figures in young women’s lives, fights her daughter’s rebellion due to her fear of the repercussions.
Vilifying women for not wishing for the girls and women in their lives to come to harm is about as helpful as chastising a parent in a small town for being worried about their child’s un-closeting: it doesn’t change the fact that the parent’s pragmatism is, unfortunately enough, the safer option.
Thankfully, social norms can and do change as a result of the actions of violators. Working towards that end is far more productive than calling out those who play the system because they have to. To re-purpose a phrase I’ve only heard used in a pretty misogynistic fashion, hate the game, not the player.
* If you know of any research on the topic, please let me know. My Google-fu has failed me on this one.