I’ve found a rather interesting discussion of Brave breaking out in my comments stream - mainly, “Was Brave’s culture a patriarchy?”
The reason why this is a question is because I said, “I mean, it’s great showing a Princess fighting the power, but can we have a strong female hero who’s not defined by fighting against frilly dresses and societal expectations?” And several people said, “Well, it’s Merida’s mother who’s forcing her into that, not the culture. Her Mom, in fact, is the main antagonist! It’s not really the men creating these problems.”
(Not that her mother’s a villain, but she certainly is an obstruction. Sorta. Go see the movie. It’s not the greatest, but it’s interesting in how the parts that don’t work, don’t work.)
Leaving aside the historical question of “Yes, the 10th century Scottish tribes were patriarchal,” as I think we can all agree that the Scots didn’t have actual witches and magic bears, I think it clearly was. I don’t think women warriors were encouraged, nor women generally allowed to choose their free path. Mainly because, based on my evidence from one showing:
1) At no point in the movie do I recall seeing a woman warrior within Princess Merida’s culture.
2) Certainly the three tribes who show up to claim Merida’s hands are all male, with no women (or at least I didn’t see any).
3) All the women shown in the film (aside from the two female leads and the witch) appear to be either mothers or wives.
4) Though her dad is clearly proud of her skills with the bow, in the end he backs the mother and actively mocks Merida’s desire to be a free warrior.
5) When the three tribes show up, full of warriors, there’s not a female warrior to be found in the bunch.
6) They also don’t bring their wives along. Nor any women anywhere.
7) When Merida is dressed up in a useless, tight, form-fitting dress, not one man reacts to find this awkward.
8) When Merida is not married off, they go to war.
9) Despite the fact that the mother is clearly overbearing on this topic, not one person in the castle expresses the concern that the queen might be a little forward on this manner. In other words, she’s enforcing a position that nobody else seems to find unusual.
10) When Merida proposes a solution to the problem that involves changing the culture, it is the men who instantly approve that change and put it into practice, without consulting a single woman.
Now, the counterpoints are:
1) The only person we see really arguing for the marriage agreement is the mother. She proposed it, in fact.
2) The other tribes clearly respect the mother, calming down only when she lays the hammer.
3) The dad is the one who gives Merida a bow and teaches her how to fight.
4) The women warriors from the three tribes could be at home, given the important task of guarding the home front.
To which my counter-counterpoints are:
1) In medieval societies, the mothers often proposed marriage agreements, but that doesn’t mean those societies weren’t patriarchal. Women frequently had more power than modern people believe in those days, but it was often kind of a sideways power, filtered through male needs.
2) The practice of Chinese foot-binding was often the result of intense pressure from mothers wanting their daughters to look beautiful, but the fact that the pressure largely came from women doesn’t mean that the culture wasn’t patriarchal.
3) I see Merida as perceived as a rebel, and as such Dad’s handing her a bow isn’t the act of a normal father, but rather a quirky King who can do what he wants.
4) We could suppose stuff like this all day long.
The fascinating thing about this discussion is about how it’s all about perception. Given the world we see, there’s no definitive answer to the question: after all, we while we don’t see anyone chastising the mother for her actions, we don’t see anyone condoning her, either. The reactions of the people are a few gasps in reaction shots. The everyday actions of women are difficult to extrapolate, given that we don’t actually interact with them.
All we can see is this strange little window, trying to judge what’s normal in the middle of a story about three extraordinary people (a King, a Queen, and his daughter) in an extraordinary time. And yet for all of that, I think it’s clear that Brave is a largely male-run society, where Merida is not rebelling against one woman’s crazy desires, but rather a whole culture that wants her to be pretty and delicate.
Yet the structure of Brave makes it oddly hard to tell! Which is fascinating.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.