Is it possible to disagree with a film’s latent politics, and still be moved to tears by it?
Yes, when the movie is Brave.
Like many little girls (at heart), I had been looking forward to Pixar’s latest animated movie – one that featured the studio’s first female protagonist.
While I tried not to read reviews of the film before it opened here last week, it was impossible not to sense from the Internet chatter about Brave that it was a mother-daughter story.
In a wee nutshell, a Scottish princess, Merida, rebels against her mother when mum makes her choose a husband from an assortment of lame-duck clan scions.
So there I was last Saturday, popcorn in hand, watching ace archer Merida with her impressive mop of flaming hair in 3-D at Lido. Instead of my kids, I was with three of my girlfriends (all the better to appreciate girl power).
When – spoiler alert! – Merida realises that she has lost her mother forever, tears started streaming uncontrollably down my cheeks, salting my Coke.
Thank goodness for the big 3-D glasses that kept sliding down my nose, which helped disguise the waterworks somewhat from my fellow cinema patrons.
Then the house lights came on. I turned to my friends and muttered: “I hated it.”
The thing is, I really wanted to like it. And on some levels, the story of a teenage girl trying to communicate with her mother is a worthy one.
However, what I found disturbing was the route the screenwriters had taken to tell that story.
(If you’re a diehard Disney- Pixar fan, or someone who has yet to see the movie, please stop reading now, and spare yourself the trouble of planning to pelt me with rotten tomatoes.)
Merida’s act of rebellion takes the form, ironically, of turning her own mother – albeit, accidentally – into another form: one that is sub-human and potentially savage.
Hollywood has traditionally presented the mother figure as a source of horror – from Psycho (1960) to Mommie Dearest (1981). Two months ago, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus rehashed the sci-fi preoccupation with terrifying alien mothers, complete with a scene of self-abortion.
So, to have the mother rendered (temporarily) mute or inarticulate in Brave is hardly a feel-good feminist image to me.
Granted, I do not have a teenage daughter who wishes I would stop nagging at her (my own boys have already started rolling their eyes when I open my mouth, though), but I have never conceived of my once-tumultuous relationship with my own mother in such animal terms.
Mothers are unknowable, to some extent, to their children; but that does not make them – and all little girls who grow up to become women and mothers themselves – irrational beasts that patriarchy would have us believe they/we are.
This, however, is a minor objection, compared to how the narrative arc irks me.
We are shown a Merida on the cusp of great possibilities, a skilled archer and warrior. I thought she was going to be a gender-smashing general like Mulan, the cross-dressing Chinese maiden that was mined for the 1998 Disney film, marshalling troops to expand her father’s kingdom.
Instead, Merida is mired in what is essentially a domestic drama, never straying far from her father’s land. Her quarrel with her mother is over a marriage plot that uses her as a political pawn to sew up peace between clans. And, yet, even that is resolved, that side-steps the true injustice of the situation.
As Peter Bradshaw notes astutely in a review for London’s The Guardian: “Now, in some respects, it is interesting and unusual not to have a conventional love interest, but what we are offered instead is something oddly regressive, binding Merida into the family unit just when she was making that bid for independent adulthood.”
You may be thinking: Why is Clara making such a big deal over a cartoon? But I believe, if you care about your daughters, you should be careful what values you feed them through the sub-conscious, intravenous lines that make up pop culture.
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