The stage is set: we have the slightly henpecked but hypermasculine husband who understands his daughter’s plight. The misguided mother whose unwelcome instruction marks her as unpleasant and wrong, if not evil. Domesticity is (as ever) oppressive, unrewarding, and reactionary. Still, the kingdom in need of a marriage alliance. There’s a quiverfull of unsatisfactory suitors. As for our protagonist, she wants nothing to do with any of it. In her father’s words, she just wants to wear her hair wild and be free! Bears are everywhere in this universe, but they’re dead and stuffed, and the only dangerous one is outside.
If the story was an arrow and we shot it now, we’d know where to find it when it landed. “I’ve been doing comedy for 25 years,” says Louis CK in Episode 2 of Season 3 of Louie. “I know every joke. Even if I haven’t heard it, you start telling me a joke, I know how it’s going to work.” It’s sort of like that.
But if you heard Pixar was doing a fairy tale about a family consisting of a mother, a rebellious teenager, and a Bear King, and it turns out one of them turns into a bear, how much money would you have put on it being the mother? In Season 3 of Arrested Development, Lucille Bluth says something unexpectedly profound: “First they turn you into a monster, and then they call you one.” Queen Elinor is the civilizing force in the kingdom. She is the disciplinarian. She is the educator. She is the one busily engaged in turning the family’s stories into historical documents — into tapestries. If history and politics are going to make it to the next generation, it’s because she’s taking the trouble to ensure their transmission.
This is not the stuff of feminized domestication, though the fact that two women are engaged in the foregoing activities makes it astonishingly easy to read it that way. Elinor is training a Renaissance prince. Taken as a whole, Merida’s education (if we include Fergus’ share in it, which we should) is straight out of the Mirrors for Princes.
Elinor is wise and dedicated to furthering the cause of her kingdom and family, but she’s also overzealous and insensitive to her daughter’s needs as a person (as opposed to a prince-in-the-making). There’s a hint that she sees this when Merida is corseted up and looking pathetically at her mother, but she lets the moment go. All their former playfulness is gone; where once they played hide-and-go-seek, they’ve become humorless and impatient with each other. In fact, mother and daughter are engaged in a process familiar to many people who have been adolescents or had one: they’re turning each other into monsters. The transformation is complete when Merida slices through her mother’s tapestry and Elinor burns her bow. Elinor realizes it instantly. Her question — “what I have I done?” — is one she asks many more times in her incarnation as a bear, when her humanity starts slipping away with increasing frequency.
And so Merida turns her mother into a monster.
A beautifully written essay on the widespread misinterpretation of Brave and of Pixar’s motivations for making “just another princess movie.”