At long last I got round to seeing Brave. I wanted to like it. I really did. It’s set in Scotland! There’s magic and mythology! The protagonist is a redhead! And yet… I feel dissatisfied.
I like Pixar and have high expectations of them. Their previous output, most of which I’ve seen, has shown them to be imaginative, emotionally intelligent and curious about how narrative conventions can be used and subverted. Yet if Brave had been the first Pixar film I’d seen, I doubt I’d rush back to see another – in fact, if Pixar didn’t have seventeen years of good will built up, my ambivalence towards this film might have tipped into antipathy.
The writing is weak. I’ve come to expect neatly crafted stories from Pixar. They used to understand emotional stakes, how to build up a protagonist’s hopes, expectations or fears and then dash the hopes and/or confront the fears. This time, I found I had no idea what Merida actually wants. There’s nothing massive at stake for her. She doesn’t want to get married because of the “loss of freedom”, but what does that mean? Three suitors are presented and she could run rings round any of them – even the least accommodating husband is less trouble than a mother, as I think I once heard somewhere. Without any driving desires, I’m not sure what Merida’s journey is. Yes, she gets the clan chiefs to agree that their children can choose their own spouses, but she’s still going to be expected to marry one of the unappealing heirs at some point.
There was plenty of promise in the mother/daughter dynamic between Elinor and Merida, but the resolution was far too easy. What, a wee bit of quality time with Mum plus a little bit of magic and everything’s peachy? If I’d turned my mother into a bear there would have been hell to pay when I got her changed back. Yes, there would have been an initial moment of being happy at being safely reunited, but then there would have been questions, screaming matches, all the usual mother/daughter stuff that happens after one of you does something really stupid. Perhaps that’s just me and my Mum, but it would have been more interesting than the slightly cloying ending that we got.
The thing that really left a bad taste in my mouth, though, was the depiction of the Scots. Yes, yes, this is where the Scot fulfils one of her national stereotypes and bangs on about how hard things are if you’re Scottish. Look, I know there are varying degrees and that other races have it worse, but that doesn’t change the fact that the way the Scots are portrayed in Brave is racist – or at best, it’s very crude racial stereotyping.
It’s difficult to say how Scottish women fare because there are only two female characters and they’re both busy playing cliche refined mother and cliche rebellious daughter. Certainly Merida is not helped by her voice actor, Kelly Macdonald, who has trouble sounding like a human being rather than an automated phone system that has been set to ‘Scottish’.
It’s the men who come off worst. They’re burly, hairy louts with no emotional depth (which weakens Merida’s climactic appeal – it’s directed at sensibilities they didn’t have prior to that scene). They drink, they gorge, they toss cabers, flash their kilt-clad arses at each other, feud constantly and are used for lazy comic relief. Their lines include references to tattybogles, puddens and galloots, never found anywhere else in the film. (Oh, not quite – one reference to Merida’s ‘gub’ from Elinor and one ‘jings, crivens an’ help ma boab’ from Merida.)
Would we accept this if the Scots weren’t white? We’re surely past the stage where it would be acceptable to populate a kids’ film with a group of Chinese men wearing pointy straw hats, waving chopsticks and mispronouncing the letter R? Or black witch doctors running around with bones through their noses? The fact that the Scots are white and speak English doesn’t make it any less problematic. Am I just being oversensitive here? Perhaps, and I plan to revisit this in another post to help me figure it out, but I don’t think so. I’m not a knee-jerk reactionary type. My objection is not the appearance of these stereotypes in the first place, it’s to them being accepted without question, exploration or purpose beyond filling some screen time with lazy writing. Pixar is better than that. Pixar is quite capable of creating interesting minor characters who are more than just a “hoots mon the noo” joke.
And seriously, a corset-lacing scene? To show Merida being oppressed by her mother’s expectations and traditional gender roles? Seriously, was this written by teenagers who haven’t realised how hackneyed that is yet? Not to mention that stays of that kind didn’t exist until the 19th century, and unless you laced them with dental floss you’d be unlikely to succeed in bursting out of them just by stretching and breathing in.
…Oh, come on,. You knew I was never going to let the corset thing pass.