I was very curious to see Pixar’s newest film and first film that focuses on a heroine. Films today, like our culture, are struggling to redefine the feminine in a new way. But many film-makers — Joss Whedon comes to mind — give us heroines who are simply boy heroes in female bodies. They wear pants, fight as well as any man, and have brilliantly devious minds. In the end, like any hero Joseph Campbell describes, they destroy the Big Bad Thing or find/achieve what fantasy author Sheri Tepper calls “the Single Wondrous Thing” and so save everyone else.

I’m all for giving people, especially girls, a strong female role model. But I think these film-makers, and the comic book folks, are on the wrong track.  This isn’t how real girls are heroic.

I grew up in the 60s and70s, when women tried to redefine their lives to allow more freedom and possibilities (and money). But what most of them did was to try to follow the masculine career path instead of settling for being a housewife (or nurse or teacher, the two careers most women could go into). So they fought their way into medical schools and law schools and business schools and got jobs in those fields. But that wasn’t good enough; they couldn’t be just as good as men to succeed, they had to be better. So they sacrificed relationships and home life and their own creative impulses to spend 80 hours a week at the office.

A few women thrived at this. But most did not, and woke up 20 years later and said “what the hell am I doing? This is not any kind of life!” And they started asking themselves what they really valued and how to get more of that. They started asking themselves what “success” really means for a woman. Now most women are looking for a middle ground where they can have a career that lets them use their talents to the full and makes money, without sacrificing relationships and home life.

This trend to have girls follow the traditional boy hero path in movies strikes me as similarly well-meaning but misguided. Sure, some girls have it in them to be  kickass warriors. But there’s a huge range of options for girls between being good little girls who always do what they’re told and never aspire to more than marriage & motherhood (and for some, that’s the option they’d choose anyway), and turning into some kind of ninja warrior/spy/superhero.

Frankly, I think the ninja warrior woman is just a male fantasy. It may seem like a liberating fantasy, but you could say that about dominatrix fantasies. Most women aren’t anything like that. 

Fortunately, “Brave” was written and directed by a woman, and she takes that fantasy and turns it on its ear. Merida certainly seems fated to become a warrior woman; encouraged by her father, she rides her horse at a gallop through the woods and shoots at all kinds of targets with her bow and arrow, never missing a single one. When the scions of the local clans gather to compete for her hand, she enters the competition as well and wins.

But she’s not a boy. She’s not a hero. The hero only has to win once and everything goes right. It’s never that easy for girls. The struggle to claim sovereignty over themselves, the right to be who they want to be, is never accomplished after just one victory. Instead of earning the right to marry whom she chooses or not marry at all, Merida upsets the entire community.

Heroes usually start out as the orphan boy, the youngest son, the one no one expects anything of. They are ignored by their community. They have to accomplish the Single Wondrous Thing so that people will realize that they are someone, that they have the right to the throne, the right to marry the princess. But heroines have the opposite problem: their path in life has already been prescribed for them, and it’s a passive one. Merida is the princess that the hero expects to marry. That’s her whole purpose, in the eyes of the community. And it’s not enough for her to say “no, I won’t” – because by refusing, she upsets everyone else’s plans.

Which is why most heroines have to run away. And Merida does, right into the forest, the wild place, the place outside the community. Where she meets the witch . . . as you do.

Witches, for heroes, are usually evil and must be battled before they win the princess, as happens in many Disney movies, including the recent “Enchanted” and “Tangled.” Okay, in those movies the princess does the fighting, but still, the witch is evil. But that’s not how it goes in the heroine’s story. The witch in the forest is no threat to the girl. Instead, she is the girl’s teacher and mentor. She teaches the girl how to see clearly so she can make the right choices.

The real problem for Merida is not that she needs to prove herself a warrior. What she needs to do is find a way out of the trap of the expectations her society has for her. The person who most strongly personifies those expectations is her mother. This is another point that “Brave” gets right. Women often blame men for the limited roles they are allotted, but the truth is, it’s usually other women who enforce those ideas. The mean girls in high school, for instance, are there to shame and belittle any girl who deviates from the norm as a warning to other girls not to be different.

I won’t spoil any more of the movie beyond saying that the witch forces Merida and her mother to become allies instead of enemies. Merida comes to see that her mother–who is, after all, a queen–has a great deal of power of her own; once she sees that, she learns how to find that power in herself. At the same time, her mother comes to understand Merida’s point of view and stops trying to force her into the mold she herself was forced to fit. Together, they challenge their community’s old ways and change them.

That is what a heroine does. She changes herself and, as a result, changes her world.

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