“Brave” and “Strong” – a Catch-22
In reading some criticism about Brave, I’ve seen a fair amount of frustration directed at the fact that to be “strong,” a female protagonist must excel at things that a man would do well. The question then becomes: What does it take to come up with a strong woman in the first place?
I’m going into spoiler territory now so read no further if you would prefer to avoid hearing about the film!
I think we need to look at three “strong” female characters from the Summer blockbuster season: Katniss from The Hunger Games, Black Widow from The Avengers and Merida from Brave. Are they strong only because they excel at things that are traditionally considered “male” skills?
And equally compelling question, that I’ll get to later, is what could make them strong if they didn’t excel at those things?
In other words, is creating a strong female role model nearly impossible because she is either too girly or too manly? How do you balance the two? What is the perfect female protagonist? Can such a character exist?
As a man, I feel my perceptions on the issue are suspect from the outset. When I look at Merida firing a bow in Brave, I don’t see her as engaging in a manly pursuit. I see her as a young woman who does something exceptionally well and loves to do it.
However, the film clearly sets up a dichotomy between the “manly” acts of riding her horse, firing arrows and rock climbing and the “womanly” tasks her mother expects her to carry out.
I think the story bears out a more balanced approach to a female protagonist but I’m going to take a look at Black Widow and Katniss before I look at why I think Merida provides a balanced protagonist. She may not be perfect but I don’t think the film is trying to make a strong woman by giving her the same traits as a man.
Katniss and Merida are both given the “male” ability to fire a bow. In Katniss’ case, however, I can’t argue that it ever feels as if she is an accomplished archer as an attempt to be more “manly.” In fact, she is good with a bow in order to keep her family from starving to death.
In the film, I feel that Katniss lacks strength because she doesn’t appear to make any choices for herself. She always ends up being saved by someone else. Her compassion for others – which is a stereotypically female trait – seems to be what makes her “strong.”
Black Widow, on the other hand, is a kick ass martial artist who is also pretty good at tricking gods into revealing their plans. She seems capable of using her feminine “assets” to manipulate the males around her. She’s strong in a more traditionally “male” fashion but she also uses the fact she looks like Scarlett Johansson to her advantage.
So are they strong women? Or are they both just male roles cast as women because whoever wrote the story wanted a woman in that role?
No matter the answer to that question, Merida is not a woman cast in a male role. If we looked at the story of Brave and asked if the same story could be told with a male in the lead role, the answer is a convincing “no.”
Because, you see, the story is not about how good Merida is with a bow. In fact, her skills as an archer prove to be nearly useless when it comes to the central conflict – the conflict between Merida and her mother.
I admit I lack any sort of personal reference but from everything I’ve been led to understand, a mother-daughter relationship is much more complicated than any other parent-child relationship. I’m a guy and I have two boys so I could be completely wrong. I’m going on heresay from friends woh are women.
I’m afraid that admission alone means this blog will never hold up in court.
In the case of Brave, though, this (theoretical) complicated relationship is certainly the problem and I think it is set up quite well. The opening scene shows a healthy/happy relationship between Merida and her mother. We flash forward and that relationship is broken.
Everything that proceeds from that point involves that relationship – even if we don’t really understand it up front.
Another point that is surprisingly absent from much I’ve read about Brave is the question of who is in control of the court.
If we are looking for a strong female character in the film, shouldn’t we at least be taking the Queen into consideration? We see that Merida’s father clearly looks to his wife for guidance and we also see that the other lords look to her for any important decision. When the queen is absent, things have begun to devolve because she is the one who kept their respective egos in check.
Merida herself can’t see this and fails to recognize that what her mother is preparing her to do is to run the freaking country.
Again, what constitutes strength? Is Merida a bad role model for young women because she knows how to use a bow or is she a good role model because she is learning how to become a leader?
I think that Merida’s archery is used as a defining characteristic of her rebellion. It is something that her father encourage and because she is rebelling against her mother, it becomes an important point of contention.
I’m still left wondering if the whole problem isn’t a catch-22. Making a woman “strong” in a way that is “womanly” is viewed as stereotyping and sexist. Making a woman “strong” in a way that is “manly” is viewed as stereotyping and sexist.
The trick, of course, is to make whatever choice you make believable. Merida seems a lot like a headstrong teenager. She is bright, capable and skilled but she is also blind. Her mother is the same way.
The film is not about how “strong” either one of them are. It is about the two of them bridging the gap between them and finding strength in each other.
Writing a story with a strong female lead has got to be the hardest of all stories to contemplate due to the baggage that comes with it. I think that demanding strong role models for young women is extremely important.
For what it’s worth, if I had a daughter who admired Merida, I’d be OK with it.