Disney, gender equality and the bold move made by Brave

We usually think of the struggle for gender equality as taking place in courtrooms, boardrooms or in Congress. Earlier this month, in fact, the Paycheck Fairness Act – meant to address statistics that women earn about 77 cents compared to every dollar earned by men – failed to pass the Senate. Sometimes, however, gender equality is sought in less venerable spaces. Take, for instance, the movie theater.

The struggle has especially been borne by Disney princesses. Going all the way back to Snow White, continuing through Cinderella, Ariel, Belle (my personal favorite) and Mulan, these figures have been the subject of cultural scrutiny and doctoral theses, all of which essentially wrestle with the same question: what does true equality look like for a female character in a fairy-tale world?

Brave, the new animated adventure from Disney/Pixar, offers a refreshing and nuanced answer, and it partially does so by taking one troublesome element out of the equation: Prince Charming. Instead of one dreamboat over which to pine, the movie offers three bumbling suitors who have come to the castle of King Fergus, hoping to win the hand of his daughter Merida. None of them stand a chance, however, as Merida is a fiery spirit (hence the flaming hair) set on her own independence. Plus, she humiliates her suitors by outshooting them in an archery contest.

So far, so familiar, even for a progressive princess tale. The female action figure – a woman who achieves equality by shooting better than the men – fuels countless movies, comic books and video games. Compared to the likes of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty - who wait passively to be awakened by a kiss – this is progress, but it’s also equality of a specific sort. It doesn’t allow for women to be simultaneously seen as equals and, well, women.

One reason Belle, the heroine of Beauty and the Beast, is among my favorite Disney characters is that she exists outside of the princess-tomboy dichotomy. Her characteristics – her beauty, her bravery, her bookishness – are uniquely her own (and gender neutral). And as far as Prince Charming goes (in this case the Beast), she’s a complement to him - indeed, a life-giving one. In an interesting way, the Beauty and the Beast tale offers a gender twist on the Biblical model of the garden, in which one partner gives life to the other so that they may enrich each other as equals.

Brave’s bold move is to take takes things a step further than Beauty and the Beast: it allows Merida to find her identity apart from a man altogether. Indeed, Brave becomes less a story of a princess and her prince than a princess and her mother. It is Queen Elinor who insists on Merida’s betrothal, and their showdown comes to a head in an ingenious narrative twist that forces both Merida and her mother to reconsider their perceptions of each other. (If all Pixar films are really for the parents in the audience, then Brave is for moms and their soon-to-be tween girls.)

I’ll leave the lovely details for you to discover, but in essence the path the narrative takes allows for Merida to find an identity that rightly eschews sexist tradition, yet without denying her femininity. Her climactic heroic act involves not only archery and swordsmanship, but sewing.

Gender equality in Brave, then, is not a rejection of certain qualities, but rather an embracing of possibility. It recognizes that men and women are gloriously different, and that attaining equality does not mean erasing those differences. The movie allows girls to find their own, individual mixture of tomboyishness and princess power.

Why do screen examples such as Belle and Merida matter? Because they echo into the real world, particularly for the young viewers whose own concepts of gender and identity are still being formed. (And not only by Disney, but also by more noxious entertainments such as Transformers.) If we hope for boys to become men who see women as more than damsels in distress, and if we hope for girls to become women who understand that their femininity needn’t limit them or be denied, then one small way of getting them there is to let them enjoy something like Brave.

What Do You Think?

  • How does Brave compare to other princess tales?
  • What other children's movies have challenged gender stereotypes?
  • What does a Biblical ideal for gender equality look like?


Comments (6)

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A very thought-provoking piece. I definitely agree that women shouldn’t have to become uber-masculine in order to count as heroes. (In my book, it was one of Tolkien’s great failings that the only women who leave their mark on Lord of the Rings’s plots were the shieldmaiden who passed herself off as a male knight, and Galadriel whose name literally means man-maiden.) While I’ve not seen “Brave,” everything I’ve read about Merida makes it sound like her story has an interesting comment to make on that whole tradition.

But I must say, I sometimes get a bit irritated with the assumption that there is such a thing as “femininity” that plays out the same for everyone concerned. Must swordsmanship and archery be any less central to what it means to be a good woman than sewing is? Speaking as the natural tomboy who never did master the “girly” skills I was supposed to care about, I don’t think that makes me any less a good woman. That said, I really do like the idea that for some girls those skills are needed and useful, they’re part of what it means to reflect God’s image in the world. (And I suspect, those “girly” skills fit naturally with some boys too.) It’s about using our gifts in a way that honors God and helps us participate in tikkun olam, not whether the way we use those gifts matches up with what people expect of men or women - and it sounds like Merida honors that truth. Good on her!

Thanks for the analysis, Josh. You are so right about the princess movies resonating throughout culture. I haven’t seen Brave yet (my all boy crew isn’t all that excited about it), but I’m glad for more heroines I can point to and say, “See, this is the type of woman you want to be worthy to marry.”

Belle is my favorite too, Josh. She’s a complex and multi-dimensional character for all the reasons you mention, in addition to her varied interactions with Gaston, her father, the castle servants and especially the Beast. And after all, it is her kiss that awakens the Beast back from the dead, not the other way around.

Another one that challenges the sterotypes is Shrek. Neither of the main characters play out in typical male and female fashion. It reminds me that the choices we make with what God has given us are important, not whether we are able to mimic a culturally imposed set of expectations to look or act a certain way.


Thanks for bringing up Shrek, Tim. It’s not Disney, but I’ve always thought Fiona was an encouraging retort to the fairy-tale concept of princessy beauty. When she remained an ogre - and that was seen as a victory - at the end of the first film, it was shocking and darn-near revolutionary.

Right, Josh. Unlike Belle, whose love re-formed the Beast back into the handsome Prince (who actually is almost as pretty as Belle herself), Fiona embraced her beastliness and her love for that ogre Shrek grew.

I heartily concur with your impressions and with the overall thrust of your piece here, Josh. And I think the comments so far have well summarized the main theme, so I do not want to belabor that point. But since my wife and I just saw BRAVE last night, I simply can’t help commenting about one more dimension of this issue.

There is a profound demonstration of how gender roles both complement and reinforce one another in the way Fergus and Elinor interact in their relationship with each other and in the way they each participate in raising their children. At various points in the movie, both are protectors, both are providers, both are teachers, both are leaders, and both are parents—yet each in his or her uniquely individual way. Merida’s story is, in some ways, an exposition of the best and the most difficult qualities of both her parents.

I think the most satisfying thing about the plot resolution—which I do not want to give away—is that, in the end, Merida’s identity is reducible neither to her gender nor to her inner rebelliousness. The “bravery” that the movie inspires is the moral courage to be who one is created to be—which includes both obedience to and pioneering challenge of societal norms.

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