Brave (Feminism 101) vs. Frozen (Feminism 102)

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Watching Brave’s fumbling attempt to put a girl front-and-center becomes weird when you see the real feminism in Frozen.
Now, the thing about feminism in kids movies (and in general!) is that it’s all about the encoded messages.  And a movie can have a strong woman and still have some pretty terrible role models buried in there.  And Brave, well… it means well, but in the end the messages it sends aren’t really terribly interesting.
Because the message of Brave is kinda feminist, but first-layer thinking of feminism.  Merida wants to do boy things!  This is why she’s interesting, becoming a boy!  Otherwise, she’d be like all of those other useless icky girl princesses.  And her mom wants to keep Merida down, and what a mean mom she is for refusing to let Merida have her dreams!
And in the end, Merida sees that Mom has her reasons for wanting Merida to be a princess… but that sense that women who don’t act boyish are somehow less interesting permeates the picture.  Is Mom as compelling a character when she’s not a bear?  Not really.  Is it implied that maybe some women would be happy being a princess and doing girly things?  Not really, no.  Is Mom pretty much wrong And so to my mind, Brave is largely a lesson of “Follow your dreams, as long as they’re active violent boy dreams.”  Maybe with a little dash of “Pretty isn’t strong.”
That doesn’t make Brave a terrible movie, mind you.  I found it a C-lister Pixar hit, in the same realm as A Bug’s Life – perfectly watchable, but not something I go back to the way I do Finding Nemo or Monsters Incorporated.   Yet many love it, and that’s fine; having mundane or even harmful messages is not at odds with you loving a movie.  (Or else my adoration of Gone with the Wind and Dumbo are deep trouble.)
Whereas Frozen is, like, next level.
Frozen features two sisters, each radically different, with two beautifully-devised motivations.  And I’m not going to give too much away, as part of the joy of Frozen is following the plot where it goes – but unlike Brave, where Mom has a point but really is actually wrong on pretty much every major point come the movie’s end, both sisters have compelling arguments. Neither understands the other’s experiences in life. That misunderstanding drives the narrative.
And they’re so strong that really, either could lead a movie on their own; it’s hard to imagine an exciting story about the life of Merida’s Mom in the absence of Merida, a sort of bland film about motherly drudgery.  The subtle message of Brave is that boyish old Merida is the interesting one, a quiet slam against motherly love – it’s worth having around, sure, but is it anything you want to do with your life?  The argument is severely weighted against one side of the frame.
Whereas Frozen is so perfectly balanced.  Both sisters are girly in their ways, living beautiful dreams and seeking romance – and yet they remain active and flawed protagonists.  They’re heroes.  And they don’t have to squirm out of their dresses or muss their hair to be valid – though mussed hair does result when they’re out in action, of course.  It’s like watching an argument between two equals.
Plus, the songs are incredible, and the plot is wonderfully curveballed, and the voicework is great.  To reiterate: Brave’s message isn’t a bad one, and it’s not a bad movie.  But on the whole, I give the nod to Frozen.  But if, as others have noted, a children’s movie is basically a way of injecting morals and cultural mores directly into kids’ heads, I think I’d by far rather take the message of Frozen.  It’s a message of sisterhood. And really, really beautiful.
(Also see this beautiful link: A Feminist Defense Of Princess Culture.)

6 Comments

  1. Leah Miller
    Dec 2, 2013

    I’m going to have to disagree with you about Brave.
    There are a ton of women and girls who identify with Elinor (Merida’s mom) more than with Merida, and the central lesson of the movie isn’t that Elinor’s work is boring drudgery… it’s that when we’re focused on doing things in stereotypically brash and masculine ways, we can forget that there is value in things we may have dismissed as feminine. The future lies in developing a nuanced and balanced view of femininity, and communicating with other women who might embody different aspects of it.
    Elinor’s work is the real work of a medieval lady: diplomacy and logistics. Her husband’s job is war, and her job is keeping the peace. When Merida completely embraces the masculine values of competitiveness and skill at arms by winning the tournament, she upsets the balance and brings the kingdom to the brink of war. Society isn’t waiting to jump up, clap her on the back, and offer her the same status as her competitors – just like in the real world, presenting with male traits is not enough to give one immediate membership in the power and privilege club.
    Later, when Merida is sneaking Elinor-bear out of the castle, she uses Elinor’s skills of diplomacy and reason to end the crisis. She doesn’t go in swinging or shooting, she uses words. It’s not for nothing that the film’s final climax has her riding a warhorse while sewing a tapestry… a perfect example of mixing her more stereotypically tomboyish impulses with a final understanding that things her mother values aren’t worthless after all.
    Brave draws attention to society’s tendency to pit girls against their mothers – by opening up gulfs of communication between them, painting women of previous generations as dull drudges who want to push their daughters into the same stereotypical roles in which they themselves were trapped. It points out that these acts of seemingly regressive traditionalism are rooted in genuine affection, and there may be more value and wisdom in the teachings of previous generations than relentlessly modern tomboys might be able to see at first glance.
    In the end, it’s a combination of traditionally “masculine” bravery in the face of physical danger and traditionally “feminine” tact and diplomacy that save the day.We see both Elinor and Merida compromising, communicating, and admitting that there is value in what the other brings to the table.
    Brave is one of my favorite Pixar movies, and the themes I outline above are brought up constantly in the spheres where I discuss such things… but I haven’t yet encountered a guy who picked up on them. This isn’t meant as a judgment, just an interesting datapoint. Guys leave the movie thinking only Merida’s stereotypically masculine actions had merit, while girls are more likely to leave with a newfound appreciation of mother-daughter relationships, diplomacy, and empathy.

    • frayedcat
      Dec 10, 2013

      I love Brave because what changes in the movie is the relationship between the mother and the daughter. Where Frozen is more typical Disney in that Nothing can happen until the mother is gone/dead.

    • DJ
      Jan 18, 2014

      I agree completely with your analysis of Brave!! I think it is put together really well & it is one of my favorite films for kiddos.
      On the other hand Frozen is more the typical message – the younger sister can not succeed without the help of the boy (the obvious love interest from the start), there is an implication that the older sister is a moron because she can’t figure anything out until the end when she figures it out and fixes everything in less than thirty seconds, and there is overt and unnecessary sexualization of the sisters during some parts of the movie.

      • AR
        Jun 24, 2014

        hehe I am a guy and think the mother is the one who brought value to the movie, completely agree with you too.

  2. AR
    Jun 23, 2014

    I also disagree about your output on Brave, but a lot has been said already.
    I also disagree about praising Frozen though. It give you what is expected, what Enchanted already did, what is expected of the times really. The problem is that it also carries the more subtle takes on femininity that are risky for young girls who are soon to become teens. First the body issues. It is ok to try to look good and healthy, but the definition of a body in a teenager in Frozen is impossible.
    Then, there is frivolity… yes, they are nice and good-hearted, but in a way that reminds more to the the high school prom queen cliché, more focused on looks, clothes, hair, make-up, and popular false naivety and condescending niceness to the “rest”. They both are mostly self-absorbed throughout the movie, except when it comes to one another, that is, for one another, for people in the group, the two cool, rich, beautiful, powerful girls.
    I know it is not actually promoting antivalues directly, or are portrayed as bad people in the ways I mentioned, but I think the actual impression they leave for imitatation only amounts to try to be the beautiful, condescendingly nice high school prom queen than to simply being authentic confident girl. This is the first time in Disney princesses that they are drawn with the implication that they are extremely absorbed in their beauty. Belle, Ariel, Mulan were sloppy with their attire, Pocahontas was stately more than detailed in the way she presented herself. Jasmine basically had a uniform. Frozen develops impossibly beautiful and detailed hair do’s than change through the movie, never-before-animated complex and luscious dresses and more detailed make up than any princess ever before. Yes, those things are a way to express feminism, but young girls don’t need more emphasis on that already.
    Merida is boyish more in a childish manner than in a masculine one. They were able to capture femininity in a girl that is more interested in boyish things which is a way to free girls of the burden of what is supposed to be a girl. The stately beauty of the feminine mother is never boring, but something the movie presents as something to aspire to, but not during childhood. The movie really honors that and leaves a lasting impression that though tradition can be misguided, femininity is to be embraced. Merida learns to embrace more of that part by the end of the movie. As girls keep watching this movie as they grow up, they’ll find the subtleties in that valuable character which for me, made the movie. The bear section of the movie hid a lot of what we consider feminine outwardly, but it all remains there and just gives more of a lasting effect on what it means. It is her parts as a woman that are more memorable, only empowered by the part she was a bear. Both characters are more complexly flawed, in ways that are more real and subtle and easy to relate to, than the easy characters in Frozen are. I really think Frozen is less than Feminism 101, but rather a 102 on how to sell a product.

  3. Hannah
    Dec 9, 2014

    I think Brave is more feminist than Frozen for this reason: Brave doesn’t need romance to keep the audience entertained whereas Frozen does… it also annoys me alot when people say ‘Frozen was the first Disney film to teach girls they don’t need a man’ but in Frozen Anna does need a man whereas Merida makes it clear she should marry in her own time, when she is ready and for love.

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