Mothers and Daughters, Battle-Embroidery and Bears

[Contains many, many spoilers for Disney/Pixar’s Brave]

I took Raeli to see Brave yesterday and was so excited to come and write a detailed post about how seriously this movie takes the job of royal women (both queens and princesses) among the other wonderful things this movie does. It turns out this is exactly what was intended, as I read on Blue Milk today:

“…if you look at real princesses, they were basically working girls. Pampered in their times maybe, but nonetheless, they had a job to do for their kingdoms, whether it be as a diplomat or as a bargaining “tool” to bring kingdoms together in alliance. I think there was little waiting around for true love and eternal happiness in their lives. And back in the days in which the fairy tales of old were written, marriage was one of the most important jobs of a princess. It was part of their job, not simply a romantic notion.”
[Brenda Chapman, one of the original writers on the Brave script, who devised the character of Princess Merida]

Brave is a fun, action-packed movie, and yes, as said in many places elsewhere, it’s a story about a mother-daughter relationship, which is rare in fairy tale movies and adaptions. But what I was most impressed with is that it is not a story about a princess who is totally into cool boy things like bows and arrows and horse-riding, and hates girly things like embroidery, and whose mum is a total drag about wanting her to be ladylike. If it had been that movie, I would not have loved it nearly as much.

Brave is as much Queen Elinor’s story as Princess Merida’s, and coming to it as a mother I was delighted to have so much complexity in the portrayal of the Queen. We see how important her role and indeed job in the kingdom is – while her husband is the warrior king who can speak to the other chiefs on their level, she is the diplomat and peacemaker who keeps them all on an even keel. When she is taken out of the equation, the clans fall apart in anarchy and warfare (as they have all presumably forgotten to bring their own diplomatic, peacekeeping wives with them – bad move there!).

I liked very much that Elinor and her point of view are respected throughout the story – and that the audience is allowed to sympathise with her even when she is thwarting the heroine. This is further conveyed through the portrayal of Merida’s father, who is a marvellous character in his own right. His relationship with Merida is more light-hearted than that with her mother – he is the “fun” parent who makes snarky commentary about her potential suitors, supports in her love for “unladylike” pursuits, and thinks she is basically awesome when she flouts the rules to try to win her own hand in marriage at an archery contest.

However, and this is the important part of the grown up thread of the story – he can afford to be that fun parent, because Elinor is there picking up the slack, just as he can fight happily with the other clan chiefs, and muck around. He has Queen Elinor there to tidy up after him, and his enjoyment of Merida’s wilder tendencies means that his wife can’t afford to enjoy that aspect of their daughter at all. She always has to be the tough parent, the one who draws the line and thinks about future consequences – and while she and her husband love each other very much, you can see that the only reason this hasn’t strained their marriage overly is because Elinor is willing to put up with it. I got a bit cross on her behalf, though!

There’s a dual perspective going on for the entire story. It’s clear that as Merida and Elinor both complain bitterly about how the other doesn’t listen to them and can’t understand them, they are both failing to empathise enough with each other: Merida because she is young and hot-headed and wrapped up in the unfairness of being pushed into a role that does not suit her temperament; Elinor because she has a job to do, and is trying to prepare Merida for that same job. The anger and resentment built up between these two women who love each other desperately, but have reached the point of no return in their relationship, is symbolised by a quite awful scene where Merida slashes her mother’s tapesty depicting the family (in which Merida is depicted as the perfect tidy princess she isn’t), and Elinor responds by hurling her daughter’s bow on the fire.

(worth noting that Merida flounces off crying, miserable at what her mother has done and not her own actions, while Elinor, being the grown up, is immediately horrified at her own actions and tries to undo what she has done immediately – I think that’s important)

I love that neither mother nor daughter is completely wrong or right – their relationship has to change, and they both need to become more flexible about their ideas, and it takes a colossal mistake on Merida’s part to make that happen.

Enter the witch. Who, much like Merida and Elinor themselves, is a complete subversion of the kind of witch we are accustomed to in Disney movies. Instead of being a malign force, she is a batty old wood-carver who lives deep in the forest, and (it becomes rapidly obvious) only does magic or craft relating to bears. Thus, when a prince of ancient times asked for the strength of ten men… she turned him into a bear. And now, when Princess Merida begs for a spell to change her mother (hoping to change her mind and/or attitude towards the compulsory marriage deal hurtling towards them), the witch turns her into a bear. Obviously.

The scenes in which Queen Elinor are a bear represent some amazing animation and one of the best “virtual performances” I’ve ever seen. There is so much subtlety in how she deals with, basically, the body horror of turning into a wild creature, and the ways in which she tries to keep some semblance of humanity. But it’s important that, while losing her mother to the shape of a bear is a horrible learning experience for Merida, it’s also an educational experience for her mother, who discovers first-hand that her daughter has managed to acquire all kinds of useful survival traits while running around the forest with her bow and arrow.

The climax of the movie, then, is a series of quite emotional concessions between Merida and her mother – Merida realising how important her theoretical marriage is to keeping the clans from killing each other, Elinor realising that her daughter may need to find her own path to being a good Queen, and both of them learning the art of compromise. Plus, bear antics, both frightening (for seven year olds) and amusing.

Then there’s the tapestry. When we discussed craft cliches at one of the several crafting panels I was on at Continuum 8, I mentioned the idea of embroidery being synonymous with “useless” princess skills, and the way that fictional young ladies so often were given a hatred for embroidery (or an inability to embroider) as a fictional shorthand for “she’s cool like a boy.” That isn’t what happens with sewing in this movie.

The witch leaves Merida a message, that she must mend what is broken to stop her mother remaining a bear forever – and Merida immediately assumes that she has to fix the tapestry she slashed. Everyone ELSE in the cinema (well, probably the grown ups) knows that it’s the relationship between she and her mother that really has to be mended, but the tapestry so beautifully symbolises that anyway that the two ideas co-exist very effectively. And when Merida does mend the tapestry (in the midst of many other dramas) she does so on horseback, riding madly through the forest in order to protect her mother from the bear-mad men of the clans, including Merida’s own father.

I love this because there’s never a hint that Merida can’t sew. Of course she can bloody sew. Also she can do it under battle conditions, because she’s awesome.

Clothes and hair are also used symbolically through the film, adding yet another layer of meaning over the mostly-straightforward plot. Merida’s hair is certainly a character in the story in its own right (as is the astounding scenery), and the outfit which her mother chooses for “the gathering” uses all the medieval traditions of hiding women, wrapping her hair out of sight. (Merida pulling one red curl out of the veil looks ridiculous, and is meant to – she is spiting her mother, but looks silly doing it) Likewise, the dress chosen by Elinor for this event is too tight, literally constraining Merida, and when she goes on her archery rampage to prove a point, the dress has to give at the seams: again, quite literally.

But Merida’s own outfit of choice, apart from being a more flattering colour, isn’t especially immodest. She’s not running around in her underwear, or in trousers. It’s just a roomy, more lived-in dress, one in which she can climb a cliff, ride a horse and shoot as many arrows as she likes. It’s comfortable, and it’s important to note that one of the concessions that Elinor has to not only allow but embrace, is that her daughter should not have to be uncomfortable in order to be a good Queen someday.

When Elinor finally returns to her human form, her hair is wild and unkempt – unbraided for the first time in the story. Later, the final shot of the movie is Merida and Elinor riding companionably together, along the beautiful animated Scottish landscape, and while Elinor’s hair has been tamed and brushed since her recovery from metamorphosis, neither is it bound as tightly as it was earlier in the film.

There are many great things about the story I haven’t mentioned, including a whole lot of funny lines and subplots, the battle sequences, and the most excellent ninja little brothers. I haven’t talked about Merida’s combination of warrior reflexes and natural fear reactions, and the way that it being an adventure story about a mother and daughter allowed the daughter to be afraid of things without that being a statement on the weakness of women. It’s a wonderful, wonderful film. I didn’t expect to have quite as strong an emotional response to it as I did have – and so glad I saw it with my daughter, cuddling her when the scary bear bits were scary, and holding her hand.

At the end, she said with satisfaction, “I will never get tired of watching that.”

I think that’s true for me, too.

Square 130x126Brave Read-Along

7 replies on “Mothers and Daughters, Battle-Embroidery and Bears”

  1. Mindy says:

    I really liked the thread of grey in Elinor’s hair as well. I’m not sure why, but I’m glad they put it in.

  2. Thoraiya says:

    Thank you, Tansy, for writing the review I would have written if Goodreads had films to rate as well as books! All I managed was to dash off an incoherent “SO BRILLIANT” email to my friends, but you’ve said it all. This is now my favourite Pixar film, equal to Disney’s best (IMHO) “The Princess and the Frog.”

    I, also, had tears in my eyes at the end, and my daughter and I were squeezing each other tightly.

    “My favourite part was when the Queen changed back,” the Small One said earnestly. “I wouldn’t ever turn you into a bear, Mummy.”

    Ah, may those teenage years stay far, far away 😉

  3. Thoraiya says:

    OH, I almost forgot. Realistic archery FTW!

  4. Melander says:

    I went with my daughter, a nearly four year old (Tansy knows her) and even buying the ticket people were saying how much she looks like Merida. Ehem, we both do.
    The day we went to the cinema I’d battled to brush her curly red hair for the first time in several days – hygiene comes into this, (I’m not good at hair-dos so her preference for a Leo-esque mane usually doesn’t worry me).
    My daughter decided apropos of nothing, that she would appropriate a stick (curved and bowlike) on the walk to the cinema. I am serious, she has never appropriated a stick before and I didn’t realise until the film started the importance of the bow.

    My daughter and I have many differences – she is in so many ways the antithesis of the type of girl I was – and thus there are many battles. I have tried, and continue to try, to enjoy her and let her be who she is. She is strong and spirited and these very qualities will take her places I could never think to lead her, good and bad, perhaps but it is her life.

    She sat in my lap for most of it, it was scary, and at times I held her whispering “It’ll be alright, you’ll see” whilst fervently praying that Pixar hadn’t gone all George RR Martin-esque and was setting up to kill off a number of main characters.

    After crying through the credits, I left wishing there’d been more of the Mother’s back story as, the mother in film?? A nuanced mother in film? How often are mother’s only the scape-goat for whichever line the director has on families….? BUT thinking about it now, to find out that Elinor was a feisty girl too before she submitted to the dominant paradigm and grew up to be the Queen, would be too cliched for this film.

    Tansy, please get this piece published in a journal or something – your insights need to reach a wider audience as does this film!!!!

  5. tansyrr says:

    Aww thanks, Thoraiya & Mel for letting me know of your experience going with your daughters. Thanks for your comment too, Mindy – I agree with you completely about the streak of grey!

    Mel, maybe they’ll do one of those prequel movies for us about Elinor. Though I think I’d prefer a sequel in which mother & daughter go adventuring, maybe to rescue the boys & dad together.

    SO glad little C has an awesome redhead to be a hero for her, Mel! Will someone be getting toy bows & arrows for Christmas? You have that lovely long garden for target practice…

  6. Melander says:

    I actually gave it to our Head of School as she’s done a lot of work on the representation of motherhood.
    Really think all mothers of girls should be made to watch it in a lesson on how not to bundle your hopes up into your kids…..
    & suspect we will be chasing the “Meredith” merchandise. Celeste has rename Merida.

  7. Melander says:

    Oh and yes!!! Wasn’t the Elinor as bear sequence amazing – how they made you know and feel her as a bear was classic.
    Pixar has come along way. It’s interesting – this is Pixar’s first female driven movie – there was a post on Hobart Mother’s Network bemoaning the lack of strong female role models – tI screamed at them to get into Ghibli, although there are tropes and issues there too.
    But Laputa, Sprited Away, Ponyo, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Nausicaa Valley of the Wind, Totoro, Howl’s Movie Castle – all of them offer more for girls than any pre-Brave Pixar fare.

    Brave rocked my world, and I couldn’t understand why until you put it down – it is finally a fully endorsable good message movie for girls – after how long????

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