Monday, August 20, 2012

Parents as Protagonists: Is Pixar's "Brave" an Antidote to the Dead Parent Syndrome?

"Brave"'s mother and daughter: Courtesy of Disney/Pixar
Over the last several months, I've read innumerable reviews (these from Forbes, Ms. and Slate are examples) suggesting that in their 2012 film "Brave", Pixar had finally created a feminist princess story. Well, I finally gathered the 8 and 10 yo troops and went to see it.

While I agree, the film suggests a terrific, empowering alternative to the "someday my prince will come" just-waiting-for-rescue-and-then-marriage princess narrative, the reason this feminist mother found "Brave" fascinating was its placement of a parent, front and center, in the action. Indeed, just today, I read that Brenda Chapman, the writer and co-director of the film, intended both the mother and daughter to be co-protagonists, but felt it was marketers who placed the princess Merida as the sole protagonist. In her words, "I always considered Merida and Elinor equal characters. Both of their arcs needed to be completed. This movie is a love story between a mother and daughter.

A mother and daughter as equal characters, whose conflict drives the plot? A love story between a mother and a daughter? Oh, happy day, zip-e-dee-doo-dah, could this really be?

Just consider that in most fairy tales, mothers are often dead, or effectively absent. While this  undoubtedly paves the way for the princess of the tale to encounter danger and obstacles, it also sets such tales up for the perfect female antagonist - the evil stepmother/witch. Think about it: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel - they all have them. Power-hungry, wicked, yet inexplicably driven mad by their waning beauty, they are the foils to innocent princesses awaiting sexual awaking, er, I mean, rescue. Forget Silence=Death, these films seem to say, the real equation is that Menopause=Death (and evil-doing!). In 2010, I suggested that the smothering witchy stepmother in Disney's Tangled was the penultimate example of the Freudian/Elektra-ish/Oedipal need for protagonists to "kill their mother figures off" before getting their sexual groove on. 

Modern day children's literature too has a dearth of live parents. Earlier last year, Leila Sales called this the "Ol' Dead Dad Syndrome" in children's literature. While the common thinking is that parents must be removed from the scene in order for young protagonists to face danger, rise to challenges, and drive their own adventures, relationships with parents are a critical part of most real children and teen's lives. In that case, writing parents, and writing nuanced parent-child relationships, is challenging, but essential for writers of children's literature.

Which is why "Brave" is, to me, a feminist tale. Not simply because it rewrites the princess narrative, giving a young woman physical prowess, fighting skills, a brain, and a brave heart. Not simply because it removes romance, princely rescue and marriage (largely) from the plot. Pixar's "Brave" is a feminist tale because it focuses on a quintissential, and critically important, female relationship: the mother-daughter bond. And rather than making it two dimensional, or static ('mothers and daughters can't get along!'), the film shows how both mother and daughter can change, and in so doing, how they can save each other, and themselves.

My favorite scene from "Brave"? The one where Merida takes a stand between her father and his warriors and her magically transformed-into-a-bear mother, announcing, "I'll not let you kill my mother!"  And a few seconds later, when Mama Bear roars to Merida's rescue as she is attacked by the evil bear Mor'du -- communicating without words the sentiment roaring in this mother's heart: "I'll not let you hurt my child. I'll die first."

Evil stepmothers and dead mothers are tropes whose time may be of the past. A fierce mama as a co-protagonist? That's a brave feminist trend I can get behind.


  1. Love the idea of a mother-daughter love story. We need more of those...this coming from the mother of a 13 year old daughter who is still my buddy (on most days). I haven't seen Brave yet, but have the book it is based on stuck on a shelf. Been meaning to read it for maybe this is the week to grab it!

  2. oh go see it Kari - I'd be interested to hear what you thought!