A Movie Review from a Sociological Perspective Brave, a Symbol for Gender Equality

That is not very ladylike. That simple phrase is packed full of sociological significance.

For quite literally ages, femininity has been carefully constructed by societies, oftentimes with little or no acceptance of any form of deviance from what was considered proper conduct of a lady. For many women, the social goal of life was meant to be marriage and little effort was made by society to allow free will or exploration of one’s identity outside of the path wifehood. This path included, and in some cultures arguably still includes, a code of conduct that is restrictive in nature and has acted as a force of oppression. With the rising of feminist belief and collective action, bricks from this path have been slowly removed and allocated to building a path to true gender equality. The battle for equality still rages into our modern age and the evolution of our society has opened up new forms of media. With the introduction of home video, impactful messages conveyed through film can be viewed by an almost limitless audience. One such film that serves a powerful message about gender is Pixar’s 2012 film Brave.

Brave is the animated story of Merida, a medieval Scottish princess. The film begins with

a personal narrative by Merida herself, explaining how she differs from the social norm. She explains how she enjoys masculine hobbies such as archery, horseback riding, and rough housing much to the disapproval of her queen-mother Elinor, whose primary objective is to groom Merida to fit the socially accepted role as a proper princess. Merida’s rebellion against her mother comes to a head when she discovers that her parents have offered her hand in marriage, as per the tradition of the realm, to one of the kingdom’s clan leaders’ sons, who will compete for the right to marry her through a series of strength and combat based challenges. With no immediate hope of changing her mother’s mind about the arrangement of marriage, Merida takes matters into her own hands by competing in and winning the contest in an attempt to win her own hand, or preserve her independence. By doing so she angers the gathered tribes and sets the

kingdom into an uproar. Merida flees the kingdom and stumbles upon a witch who sells her a

magical potion meant to change her mother’s mind about the marriage.

Merida then tricks her mother in to drinking the potion which turns her into a bear. The two are chased from the castle and spend the next day trying to find the witch and fix the spell. During their wandering they bond and Elinor grows to see the side of Merida that she once saw as despicable more favorably. When they return to the castle, Elinor (still in bear form) gives Merida her blessing to break from tradition and marry who she pleases. This separation from the status quo is well received and, true to Pixar form, they live happily ever after. That is, of course, after a dramatic showdown with an evil bear and reversal of the spell.

The significance of family as the major agent of socialization is made apparent early in the movie through the characterization of Elinor. She is the current queen and sole educator and mentor for young Merida, who is next in line to be queen. Her own beliefs in what a proper lady and princess should be are the beliefs that she is trying to use to socialize Merida. These beliefs include modern western social norms regarding femininity such as politeness, reserve, poise, beauty, and a pursuit of marriage. Elinor overtly describes her role as an agent of socialization when she exclaims that she has spent her daughter’s whole life “schooling, training, and preparing” her for marriage.

The behaviors encouraged by Elinor serve a role in social reproduction, with the goal being the traditions that have regulated royal behavior be continued through the socialization, and eventual replication by Merida. The perceived importance of these traditions are revealed by Elinor’s response to deviant behavior by Merida. Full authority is exercised by Elinor when her daughter refuses to comply with tradition. She forces Merida to attend the ceremony and games, donning full princess regalia. Any opposition or questioning of the fairness of this decision is met

with the justification of tradition. Responses like “why don’t you just do what you’re told” and

“we can’t just run away from who we are” further emphasize the goal of social reproduction of traditional behavior.

The social tension and behaviors depicted in Brave are best explained through Comte’s sociological theory of functionalism that focuses on social events and how they serve a function within, and work to continue a society.1 The practice of arranged marriage, the main point of contention in the plot, serves the function of maintaining order and peace within the kingdom. Through marriage of the princess to one of the subservient clans’ heirs, sociopolitical peace is maintained within the kingdom. The importance of this function is highlighted when the visiting clans threaten the king with war at the proposition of the idea of forgoing the tradition of arranged marriage. It is at this point in the film that the continuity of a peaceful society, upheld by tradition, seems to be on the verge of collapse due to the abandonment of the traditional marriage customs.

Although Brave takes place in the medieval era, it does not fully explain the social context of the time. This can be expected, considering that it is a work of fiction meant to be viewed by children, but several distortions of social context and social reality need to be addressed. The film does represent the historical, social practice of maintaining alliances through royal marriage but fails to represent the true ramifications for abandoning the practice. The film shows an instant and smooth acceptance of the new idea of not following the arrangement of marriage. Based on my knowledge of history, this transition would not be as seamless as depicted. Because the hierarchy of medieval power was constructed and maintained through

marriage, any group (in the case of Brave, the subordinate clans) would react in the interest of either maintaining their current status in the hierarchy or advancing in the absence of the social confines of marriage by means of violent action or secession. In this way, the social importance of marriage to the overall structure of society depicted in Brave, varies greatly from the modern western view of marriage which encourages people to pursue marriage based on factors such as love and compatibility.

Despite its shortcomings and its historical setting, Brave sheds light on modern sociological issues, specifically those relating to gender. By featuring a strong willed female as the protagonist, Pixar broke the mold of stereotypical female characters in children’s movie. Traditionally, female characters in children’s movies have been instruments of reproduction of a gender norm focused on subservience, distress, and weakness. Brave provides a model, a fictional role model, for young girls to observe and build their identities based on characteristics other than the constructed gender norms of the past. Merida is a symbol for a new generation of women, one that rejects the idea of a weaker gender and replaces it with inspiration and confidence in the strength of femininity. In essence, the story and characters in Brave teach a valuable lesson that it is ok to be your own person, even if your personal identity goes against the social norm.

Brave, like most Pixar movies, is highly entertaining. It is an action packed adventure with a generous amounts of combat, exaggerated movements, and slapstick that is guaranteed to keep the attention of even the most hyperactive individual. Despite being animated and marketed toward younger demographics, Brave has something for every member of the family to enjoy. This film is definitely not limited to simple humor in its value. The plot is morally driven, focusing on the plight of a young woman and her desire to transcend the social boundaries of her

gender. Overall, Brave is a fine mix of entertaining animation and example of the action

necessary to make the strong female character more than a work of fiction.

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