Not So Brave: An Open Letter to Pixar

BraveCroppedHere’s what I wish: that in 1994, when the early creative team at Pixar -- John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Joe Ranft -- met for that fabled lunch where they dreamed up the story ideas behind A Bug’s LifeMonsters, Inc.Finding Nemo and WALL–E, that one of them had said, “It’s a story about an overprotective mom who has to overcome her fears to find her lost son, only she’s a clown fish and the whole thing is set under the sea.”

Or, “She’s the sole robot left on Earth, cleaning up long after the humans have abandoned the planet, and she finds a little solace in the romance of a movie musical.”

Because if they had, then we wouldn’t have had to wait 17 years for Pixar to make a movie with its first female lead. And that movie wouldn’t have been Brave.

I can hear the dismissive snorts now. If moviemakers choose to write the lead roles with a guy in mind, because they’re guys and that’s their mindset, then why isn’t that OK? And Pixar did make four award-winning films, and many would say those films are now classics. Trying to second guess if the film would have worked with a female protagonist is just that-- second guessing.  

I get it. But still. I’m a Pixar fan and I was hoping for more from the highly creative and inventive folks there. I wish that when it came time to dream up a movie, they’d stop imagining it with a male or female lead at the outset. Figure that out later, once the movie is plotted out. That way, they might discover that for the kind of stories they pride themselves on telling -- stories that are based on universal themes yet riff off of conventional wisdom, that play on clichés -- gender doesn’t matter. The leads can be girls and the sidekicks boys and the story still holds up just fine.  

And then I wouldn’t have to point out why Brave isn’t so brave when it comes to storytelling about girls (except, I suppose, when you compare it to the classic Disney stories where the pretty, vocally-gifted princess is mainly concerned with finding a prince to rescue her.)

If you haven’t seen it, Brave is a visually beautiful film that breaks new ground in animation. The heroine -- Princess Merida -- has curling red hair that is a thing of digital wonder. But that’s there where the ground breaking stops.

Merida, who loves to ride her horse and is an expert shot with bow and arrow, lives with her clan in a Scotland of long ago when girls are supposed to dress nice, do needlepoint and leave all the thinking to the manly men. Or in Merida’s case, to her mother, who tries to mold her daughter into the ideal image of a queen so she can marry one of the princes from the other clans.

As if it’s not bad enough that there are crushing gender expectations for free-spirited Merida, the person who’s enforcing them is her mother. Really? 

And so -- spoiler alert -- Merida decides she’s going to rebel against all that and find a way to write her own destiny because she doesn’t want to get married just now. She ends up asking for a spell from a witch to solve her problem (because, of course, that’s the way most girls solve their problems). Only the spell goes awry and she has to deal with the aftermath and return things to the way they were. Along the way, she comes to an understanding with her newly enlightened family, or in Merida’s case, her newly enlightened mother.      

Rebellious girl with a brain, living in a time that doesn’t respect her. Horse. Bow and arrow. Witch. Bad spell. Repressive (step)mom. Kingdom in peril.  

Yep, real original. Too bad the folks at Pixar didn't take their cue from Tamora Pierce, the author of a young-adult series of popular books about Alanna, a truly ground-breaking female knight. (My daughter, and three of her friends, was so impressed with Alanna, that they dressed up as female knights for Halloween one year. The following year, they were elves and hobbits.)

I will give Pixar a few points for not making Brave a Disney-esque girl-meets-boy drama, and -- another spoiler alert -- for not having Merida be rescued by a prince at the end of the movie. She gets her happy ending, of sorts: Her parents let her postpone her decision about  who she’ll marry, until she’s done with all that horseplay and archery, no doubt. Sigh, sigh, sigh.

Think of it this way: Merida lives in a world where expectations for girls are super low. She may be a spunky heroine, but her whole world is sexist. Guys run the show. Girls and women are clearly second-class. Girls in her world just have to marry the right guy. They aren't expected to do anything else.

Now consider that most little girls today don’t know that world exists or ever existed -- unless of course someone tells them.

Here’s what my One Thing New co-editor Kimberly told me when we discussed the movie and whether she would take her 5-year-old daughter to see it:

“My daughter bosses around the bigger boys in her pre-K and it doesn't ever occur to her that it should be any other way. She knows that mommy and daddy both contribute equally, more or less, to the family income. She knows we both take business trips and she knows that we both pick up the slack. She knows we both cook and we both clean, and on long trips we share the driving.

Now, why would I want to take her to a movie that introduces to her the idea that women are subservient to men — even if they're smarter and braver — and that even smart athletic girls have little else to worry about in adult life than who they marry (admittedly, a big decision)? She's going to run into that attitude soon enough, and I'm not going to like it and I hope she'll talk to me about it. But no way am I going to expose her to that *@$! myself, and no way am I going to pay $10 for a movie to do it.” 

John Lasseter, Pixar and Disney’s chief creative officer and the father of five sons, said that Pixar is now working on a new film that will also feature a female lead. It takes place inside a girl’s mind. Here’s what he told Charlie Rose in December: “Peter Docter, from Monsters Inc. and Up, is doing a new film that takes place inside of a girl’s mind and it is about her emotions as characters, and that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.”

Her emotions as characters? I shudder to think what “girl emotions” the folks at Pixar are going to dream up here. 

It also brings me back to my wish. I don’t want Pixar to make a girl movie. I want them to make another brilliant Pixar movie in which the main character happens to be female. How? Simple: Write it with a boy in mind -- and then make the lead a girl instead.

Now that would be brave. -- CG

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Image courtesy of Disney Pixar

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