The Selfishness of "Brave" (spoilers)

This poster makes me think she’s
about to defend family and kingdom.
Spoiler, she doesn’t.

I saw Disney/Pixar’s latest princess movie earlier this week – which I had much anticipated – and it’s stuck in my craw ever since.

If you haven’t seen it and you don’t want it spoiled, you should stop reading.

I was trying to reconcile why exactly I was so disappointed in it – thinking, surely it’s not just because it’s not the typical princess love story – when I finally hit on it: Brave is primarily concerned with the rewards of selfishness.

I admit I’m essentializing the story a bit, and it’s probably not what Disney intended, but I believe it’s the message that shines through.  To understand how, let’s recap the movie.

Princess Merida is firey and independent.  When she learns (somehow this is a surprise to her) that it’s her role in the kingdom to marry a clan chief’s son, she throws a hissy fit, has a fight with her mom, and runs away.  She then purchases a spell that will change her mother so that she herself doesn’t have to get married, which of course backfires (as all ill-purchased spells do) and turns her mother into a bear.  The rest of the movie is a mad dash to break the spell, during which Merida and her mom heal their relationship, her mom tells her she’s allowed to get married when she chooses to whom she chooses (which is what Merida wanted all along), and the spell is broken at the last minute.  Hooray!

So here’s what I got out of it: if you are persistent enough in pursuing your own selfishness – putting yourself above others and risking the safety of others for the attainment of your personal goal – then it will pay off and you’ll get what you want in the end, even if you regret a bit the means you took to the end.

What a great moral.  Now let’s reflect on some prior Disney animated movies to understand why Brave is such a disturbing divergence from some of the more beloved classics.  Here there be more spoilers (if you live under a rock), so proceed with caution.

Look at Mulan – she’s so cool

In Mulan, which is arguably the most comparable to Brave because they both have kick-ass heroines, Mulan risks her life to take her father’s place in the Chinese army, risks her life to fire the cannon that buries the Huns and saves her fellow soldiers, risks her life to return to the Imperial City and save not only the Emperor but all of China from the Hun sneak attack.

In Tangled, Rapunzel is willing to sacrifice her freedom and be her Evil Witchy Fake Mom’s prisoner in order to save Eugene’s life, because she loves him.  Eugene in turn cuts off her magical hair before she can heal him so that the Evil Witchy Fake Mom will have no reason to keep Rapunzel as her prisoner.

In Beauty and the Beast, Belle takes her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner, the Beast fights off wolves to save Belle even though she hates him, and then Belle returns to the castle in hopes of saving the Beast from the enemies (the town and Gaston) that she really can’t hope to defeat on her own.

The Little Mermaid is a bit more of a selfish story, with Ariel willing to do anything to be human and be around Eric, but when she thinks Eric has fallen in love with someone else, she’s willing to let him go and let him be happy – until she finds out that he’s actually under a spell, and then she risks her own life and her pact with Ursula to save him.

Then there’s the Pixar greats, like the Toy Story movies and Finding Nemo and The Incredibles and Monsters, Inc, and Up, all of which have strong messages of risk and sacrifice for those you love.  I’m still not sure about the merits of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella,  but I could continue on the theme of learning to put others before yourself in movies like Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Emperor’s New Groove, among others.

In light of the standard set up by many (not all, but a gracious plenty) earlier Disney and Pixar animated movies, I think Brave falls short.  I think it could have been so much more, even keeping the focus on the mother-daughter relationship.  I believe the great merit of animated movies – movies that children and adults alike can love – is a story that rings true with an appeal to a higher standard of character.  I never felt like Merida was being particularly brave – I felt like she was being thoughtless and self-absorbed, for pretty much the entire movie.  I realize Disney is trying to make up for the stereotype of Princesses rescued by the Handsome Prince, but Merida is not the kind of character role model I’d want for my children, or really for anybody.


2 thoughts on “The Selfishness of "Brave" (spoilers)

  1. You present an interesting and worthy argument, but I think there are a few other points to remember.The initial issue of Brave is what many viewers would perceive as a flawed system, in which women are stripped of marital choice. Merida's 'selfishness' stems from recognizing that flaw and wishing to change it.Similarly, Mulan recognizes the flaw in China's honor system, Rapunzel sees it in the witch's tyranny, Belle in the Beasts' cruelty, Ariel in her father's anger against humans….In every instance, the heroine is pressing against a flawed system and attempting, in one way or another, to either escape or change it.Ariel knows she cannot overpower her father's rule, so she attempts to leave it. Mulan cannot fight China's laws, so she secretly breaks them. Rapunzel only wants to break the rules juuust long enough to see the lanterns. And Merida tries to change the system by changing the character upholding it, her mother.Merida's ending, too, parallels the previous movies with ends to the systems. Triton changes his mind, Gothel is overthrown, Adam changes into a non-tantrum-throwing prince, China accepts Mulan as a hero, and Merida's mother accepts the new marital system.These parallels in mind, the only difference you press is the significance of sacrifice, and that is where I find issue. Is self-sacrifice a potent trope? Yes. Is it the main point of the Disney greats you listed? No. Is it required to 'appeal to a higher standard of character'? Absolutely not.Really, in some of the instances you mentioned, the sacrifice is little more than a plot device (Beauty and the Beast) or small, touching (but ultimately unnecessary) additions (Aladdin). Mufasa's death in The Lion King would fit in as both, and Simba's taking on kingship is less sacrifice than responsibility.Brave's value does not rely on sacrifice, but lies in a message that fighting and manipulation are not worthy means to an end, as they bear (pun intended) only destruction. Rather, calm communication and love may far better foster understanding, acceptance, and positive change. The bildungsroman centers on gaining the maturity to see that, the bravery is in facing the consequence of mistakes, and the risk? Well, there is a demon dear tromping about.As a creative exercise–what other ending/ plot shifts could there have been without changing the entire story or giving a…slightly off message to viewers? The only elf-sacrifice available to the current plot seems for Merida to have accepted the system. She might have been able to bargain to take on the spell herself, but…that wouldn't really fit either, and the 'take me instead!' seems a little overdone at this point.

  2. I, too, was thrilled to go see Brave (in fact, I'd probably say it was the movie I most looked forward to this year) since it was a) a Pixar film, b) a Fairy Tale of sorts, and c) Scottish. And I, too, was sorely disappointed.In the past, Pixar has always had a knack for thoughtful entertainment. And since this was a film that seemed primarily concerned with the question of fate and destiny – I figured Pixar would offer a meaningful take on the issue.Throughout the film, all sorts of answers to questions about fate are offered (Is it right to change your fate? Is it wrong? Is there even such a thing as fate?). But at the end of the day, the answer was the exact answer you'd expect from the folks who are always promoting the American Dream mentality: "Make your own Fate… if you're Brave enough." That's not the actual wording, but it was mighty close to that. What a pity. (And yes, I agree, totally selfish.)That being said, I loved the montage at the beginning, where she rides her horse out into the wild and sticks her hand in the waterfall and whatnot. 'Twas marvelous. But as soon as the marriage question came up, I agree, it was downhill from there.

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