The “New” Fairy Tale: “Brave” and “Frozen”, Finally “Feminist”!

A quick post on Disney’s newest princesses.

The movie “Brave” is the older movie that came out in 2012, awhile “Frozen” is on a long run currently still in theaters and has become a big hit with both boys and girls. In both these movies, I was excited to notice that the relationships that are revealed as most important and the ones connected to the main “conflict” of the story, are between the main female characters, mother and daughter in “Brave” and sisters in “Frozen”. Both movies focus on relational conflicts between the two female characters, with the male characters in supporting roles or pushed very much to the side of the action…

One unfortunate part is that in each one you have the stereotypes of the archetypal females, such as “the ice queen”, the “cold” type of woman who doesn’t seem to have “needs”, the very rigid and insensitive mother in “Brave” and the distant rejecting older sister in “Frozen”. The young girl in “Brave” is actually a well fleshed out character with contradictions, but the young girl in “Frozen” is a little too flat, portrayed as “naïve”…. Unfortunately, I ultimately prefer the earlier movie “Brave” because the main character is much more appealing and “full”.

When I saw “Brave”, I was very excited to finally see a princess movie about a princess not wanting to get married. The main driving force of the plot is Princess Merida’s wanting to escape her mother’s rigid enforcement of her getting married and getting married when she the queen wants. The movie turns the princess meets prince and lives happily ever after on its head in many ways. Merida is the antithesis of the typical Disney princess; her hair is neither blond nor black; it is red and wild. She loves archery and horse back riding. She is smart, adventurous, independent, unique, and, well, brave! Her mother is not dead and not an evil stepmother, but nonetheless not very open-minded. Her father is not dead either, but like most of the males in the movie, he is portrayed as rather impotent and does not “do” anything to help his daughter, as his wife is the one in charge. He also is missing one of his legs due to his fight with a bear. All of the “suitors” are also portrayed as rather helpless and hapless. Merida is the best archer and they are also portrayed as rather unintelligent and slow. Even Merida’s little brothers are not very developed; they mostly want to eat sweets. Even though, these are castrating portrayals of males, it seems ok that Disney does this, as forever, we have been subjected to portrayals of females as weak, innocent, and needing a man to complete their identity.

The main conflict in “Brave” is between mother and daughter, who want different things. The mother does not listen to her daughter’s plea to be left alone and not forced to marry, so Merida ends up turning her into a bear. By the end of the movie, the daughter and mother have both changed, grown and evolved; they now appreciate each other and have become closer. The mother “lets down her hair” and opens up, and the daughter, having saved her mother and got her back to being human, mends “the bond” between them. Instead of the movie ending with a wedding, it ends with the mother and daughter riding off on horseback together, with their hair getting swept and swirled by the wind, both having learned a valuable lesson and become closer in the process.

Hair is a big thing in fairy tales and movies based on them, which is why I focused on it in describing “Brave”. The color and kind of hair, the hairdo, all of it is meaningful. In “Brave”, the mother tries to “tame” her daughter’s red locks but they return to their natural state of wildness and the mother’s hair goes from being tightly controlled and “perfect” to loosening up. In the movie “Tangled”, the most recent portrayal of Rapunzel, I noticed that the wicked person looks like a Polish woman with very dark curly hair, and I think some grey streaks, which struck a cord as it looked like my own hair is currently. Of course, the whole fairy tale Rapunzel is centered on her long hair and a whole blog post could be written about that. Anyway, in “Frozen”, hair is again metaphorical and symbolic. Anna, the narrator and main character, has a white streak in her red brown hair from when her older sister almost “froze” her as a young child. Later on in the movie, her hair turns completely white when her sister has frozen part of her heart. Her hair turns back to its regular color at the end of the movie when the conflict between the sisters is resolved.

“Frozen” is also fascinatingly different from typical princess material in so many ways. It makes fun of the main stereotype of most fairy tales, the idea of “true love” being between a prince and princess and that they fall in love at “first sight”, without knowing anything about each other, that they “complete each other’s sentences and complete each other”. The real “true love” in the movie is that between Anna and her older sister Elsa. Elsa does not know how to control her power to “freeze” things, and at first sees it only as dangerous when she gets scared by what she does to her sister. Her keeping alone and distant from her younger sister is done out of love and fear that she might destroy her with her power. The movie is seen from the point of view of the younger vibrant silly, exciting extrovert Anna who does not understand why her sister has always pushed her away, kept her out, left her alone, rejected and been “cold” to her. Elsa by nature stays alone and avoids people, supposedly due to her powers keeping her literally at arms length from everyone. One thing I noticed in reflecting on this relationship was that the whole event of Anna meeting her “suitor” on her sister’s coronation day and believing she had “fallen in love with him” and deciding to marry him really had nothing to do with her actually falling in love with this man or believing she was infatuated with him. The whole impetus to trust this man came from her I think finally going outside the castle and still feeling rejected by her sister. Her act of coming to her sister with this “fait accompli” and introducing him was more about her relationship with Elsa than any desire to marry anybody. She was essentially saying, “You won’t pay attention to me or let me in or be close to me, so I will go find the first man that is nice to me, spend the evening with him and then tell you that I’m going to marry him because if you really care about me at all you will actually tell me you don’t want me to marry him and ALSO be close to me again in the way that I want you to be.” The fake closeness she has with this stranger is more warmth she has experienced since her sister “dumped” her long ago, so of course she is very open to being with anyone who acts loving toward her. Even her interaction with the other guy, the one she meets when looking for her sister seems related to her sister. He is similar to the cold aloof Elsa in that he is a loner, content to do his work with his deer and not interested in interactions with other humans. He is not very friendly either. Perhaps she is drawn to him not only because he knows how to get around in the cold but because he reminds her of Elsa!

Another funny aspect of this movie is the way it portrays the older sister and younger sister relationship; the older sister stops playing with the younger sister and rejects her. She knows things the younger one does not know or understand. She wants to be left alone, while the younger sister craves her attention, is puzzled by the rejection and saddened by the change from playing together to being left to play by herself. How many sisters have experienced this? Of course there are other kinds of relationships between sisters, but the movie portrays one of the main kinds of older versus younger sister dynamics, where the older sister later comes to see that the younger sister is not as naive and ignorant as she once was; the younger sister has “grown up” and the dynamic shifts in adulthood to a different kind of appreciation of each other’s qualities.

Anyway, there is more to be said about these movies and their attempts to turn the stereotypical princess story on its head, but I must say, I am very pleased to see these mainstream Disney princess movies take on more complex and interesting themes, conflicts and plots, shifting from the unrealistic “true love” marriage tale to some more complicated focus on the family dynamic between two females, mother and daughter and sisters, older and younger and reveal two courageous characters who are fighters in every sense of the word… I wish I could have seen these movies when I was around 5 or 6 and thought marriage and having kids was awful!

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