The Quandry of Gender Bending Cartoons: A Brave Discussion

Brave (2012 film)
Brave (2012 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are children’s cartoons required to have a sexual or gender identity? If so, then there are many more questions to be answered.

I would like to thank my friend and guest blogger Eve Kerrigan for having really thought about this one and putting together a really thoughtful piece that she shared with me and gave me permission to post on her behalf.

With the types of social conversations we are having these days, I feel like this anthropological and psychological perspective on media is a really thought-provoking one:


A Brave Discussion

All the really big movies come out in the summer. As soon as the last school bell rings, the blockbusters and animated kid’s movies hit the theaters. Because I am, essentially, a giant toddler, I pay as much attention to the animated releases as I do to the big action flicks, screwball frat comedies or heartwarming Rom/Coms starring this or that hot newcomer that the studios roll out come June.

This summer, Brave, the newest movie by Pixar, the cutting edge, Disney owned C.G. animation studio, opened on the weekend of June 24th to an astounding 66.7 million dollars according to Forbes magazine. That’s a lot of cake! Brave’s big opening weekend was due, in part, to the hype touting its lead character, Princess Merina, as “not your typical Disney princess.”

Every article a search turns up about Brave, every advertisement for it, and the log line for the movie all use terms like strong, defiant, feisty and strong-willed to describe Pixar’s first female protagonist. Well , isn’t that special? Evidently all one has to do to earn these monikers is avoid arranged marriage and prefer sports (in Merida’s case, archery).

Not that this is a small thing. Animated children’s films are riddled with pretty, helpless princesses who seem to exist solely to sing with the birds and be saved by virile, noble princes. Disney is particularly guilty of propagating this stereotype with nearly 15 animated films containing a female protagonist who needs saving, either from a curse, imminent death, a lifetime of loneliness, marriage to an old man or some such predicament. These girls are very high maintenance.

So, while it may seem odd to make such a big deal of a girl who pretty much does what a normal suburban teenager would do, the uniqueness of such a character taken in context cannot be overstated.

First, let me say Kudos to Pixar, and to parents everywhere, for wishing to expose their young children to this “new” kind of role model.

Now, let me draw your attention to what I think is a questionable side of our relationship to this phenomenon of the strong, independent female protagonist. The topic first drew my scrutiny when I read an article about the film published in The Atlantic Magazine entitled “Does it Matter if the Heroine in Brave is Gay?“

As the article says, “Merida is a Disney princess who doesn’t want a prince. . . She also happens to be a tomboy, a tough and sporty archer who would rather be riding her horse than wearing a dress.” The article then goes on to talk about an Entertainment Weekly editorial that compared the film’s successful opening weekend to another event: Gay Pride Day.

Entertainment Weekly’s Adam Markowitz sparked the conversation by saying “it’s quite possible that while watching Brave’s tomboyish heroine shoot arrows, fight like one of the boys, and squirm when her mother puts her in girly clothes, a thought might pop into the head of some viewers: Is Merida gay?”

So, the question, as I see it, is, is the question questionable?

Certainly, Markowitz’s statement reflects an appalling commitment to lesbian stereotyping. Still, some might argue that despite that fact, the question is valid.

In response to Markowitz’s assertion, the author of the Atlantic article considers a list of possible reasons Pixar may have intentionally left us feeling ambiguous about Merida’s sexuality suggesting that one of the following is true:
1. Brave is about a daughter’s relationship with her mother, and sexuality would only distract from the developments within that relationship.
2.She is gay, and Brave is Pixar’s subversive way to put a lesbian in one of its movies.
3.Merida is a straight girl who likes to run and shoot and fight.
4.She’s neither gay nor straight; she’s asexual. (This would be just as sexually radical—if not moreso—than making Merida a lesbian.)
5.The ambiguity is itself a message.

The writer ultimately concludes that the fifth suggestion is true because it supports the greater themes of tolerance the film expresses.

Now, while I certainly appreciate the writer’s commitment to open-mindedness and to the idea of a gay female protagonist – something I think we should, and will, see more of in literature and film, I have my doubts about the merit of the discussion. Sure, It may invite constructive dialogue to ask these questions, but the assumptions underneath are insidious. A similar male protagonist would not likely be judged by his unexpressed sexual proclivities.

For one thing, the idea that Merida is gay suggests that she is attracted to women. This very question sexualizes an otherwise non-sexual character. This seems anathema to the heroine Merida is trying to be. Her character’s central value is freedom, but the minute we get our hands on her, we decide we must put her in the right box. And there’s the rub, folks. This is how we deal with complicated women and girls.
Hmmm. Could it be that society subconsciously terrified of the creative sex running amok?

The internal conversation I’ve been having about all of this took a turn when I read a Recent article from The Huffington Post discussing a study of the self-sexualization of 6 year old girls. The article summarized the findings, saying “media or moms who sexualize women may predispose girls toward objectifying themselves; then, the other factor (mom or media) reinforces the messages, amplifying the effect.”

Then, I started to think about research being done by scientists studying gender differences in brain development which suggests that girls in formative phases mirror behavior more than boys do. Knowing this, it seems profoundly clear that female role models matter with respect to how they influence the formation of the female, culturally and socially. The female protagonists we see throughout literary and dramatic history reflect the best and worst of what the women of those times have to offer. So, in that light, Merida could be pretty important to how a bunch of young girls will view themselves in years to come and, it seems, how we, as a culture, view Merida could also have a pretty big impact.
What if we treated Merina, the imaginary Disney tomboy princess, as we would hope to be treated? What if, instead of making strange declarations about her sexuality and instead of marrying her off or telling her how to behave, we just let her be? What if we gave her encouragement and approval for the things she is good at and didn’t cram it down her throat that she is beautiful (even though she is)? Well, then, I expect we could make the leap to treating our little girls in much the same way.

All of this is particularly poignant as the heated debate over gay marriage rages on in America. The gay community, a group of people who want only to be accepted and treated with respect and civility, has expressed palpable anger and pain over this topic. I get it. And yet, the whole conversation seems clunky and out of date to me as I watch news stories about the successful Mars landing and read articles about space age advances in bioengineering. Shouldn’t we be further along here?
And, this is how the hype about Merida feels to me, like separate lunch counters or skirts on police women: out of touch. I’m delighted to see a protagonist like Brave’s Merida has finally made the cut as a young female role model in a mainstream movie, but I really look forward to a time when it’s just no big deal.




2 thoughts on “The Quandry of Gender Bending Cartoons: A Brave Discussion

  1. Hey there! I’ve been reading your weblog for a long time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Kingwood Tx!

    Just wanted to say keep up the great job!

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