Pixar's new movie, Brave, is out Friday, and it features the first girl lead the studio has ever had in 17 years of existence. Her name is Merida, she is Scottish, and she is a princess. O.K., so there's the princess trope. But she, like Princess Fiona in Shrek, or Anne Hathaway's Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries, has attitude. But, she is a princess.
Thus begin the inherent complications about how pro-woman our first Pixar female-lead-driven story can actually be. Our vehicle for this empowered girl plot is a fairy tale, which places it in more traditional content footing to begin with than something like, say, Wall-E or Toy Story. There is discussion about who will win Merida's hand in marriage, and familial obligations and mother-daughter relationships, and all she wants to do is ride her horse and be free. In the media, poor Merida keeps being described as "headstrong"—a sort of backhand compliment you rarely hear given to a boy character who bridles against the traditional expectations placed upon him.
But anyway. She's a girl! She, like Katniss Everdeen, is skilled in the techniques of warfare. She, as Mekado Murphy writes in The New York Times, "is more interested in archery and independence than in marrying and fulfilling royal traditions as dictated by her mother, Queen Elinor." She is girl-crush-worthy. Yet she's still dressed in the familiar trappings of tomboy princesshood, trying to break free from the expected social norms (and the doll toys of her seem to focus on her pretty hair, not her strengths, per se). Comparatively, the troubles or challenges of Pixar boy characters tend not to be so inward-looking, nor their plotlines (or dolls) so tied to conceptions about their gender.
Paralleling that is the fact that, for the last 18 months of production, the film's directorship moved from Brenda Chapman, who developed the story and concept, to male director Mark Andrews for reasons that aren't exactly clear. Andrews told io9, on the importance of Merida as first Pixar female protagonist,
We've had female protagonists in our movies; we've had Helen and Violet and the little girl in Monsters Inc. who's a little tough cookie. And Eve is fantastic. So we've had female protagonists before, just not the center main character. Or Jessie! She was fabulous when she entered the realm of Toy Story. So it's not that we shy away from them on purpose, but I think it's important to have one because that just opens it up to more. I'm happy that my daughter's going to get to see this film with a strong female protagonist so she can go, "I can really relate to this character."
Shying away from them on purpose, of course, is not the problem. Sexism is generally more vague than that, more socially immersed and seemingly acceptable, at least in 2012. For the piece in the Times, Chapman talked to Murphy a lot about what went into Merida's looks—the challenge was to create a character who looked like a "real girl" as opposed to one with the Barbie-like proportions (my words, not theirs) of, say Princess Jasmine or Arielle. Chapman wanted "a wildness about her," which is reflected in particular by the character's unruly red, curly hair, and someone girls could look at "and not feel inadequate." So there's much detail about Merida's physical attributes, for example, her hair, her "strong, athletic legs" (though they're mostly covered with a long dress), her rosy cheeks, her wide-set eyes, and her overall look—not too toylike, not too exaggerated, always appealing.
We're visual creatures and in any movie, animation in particular, the specific look of characters and what that represents to viewers is clearly important. That said, there appears an inherently different standard with female and male characters (again, think about how overtly sexy some Disney girl characters are). I'm glad that there were efforts to make Merida look "real" and like someone a real girl could look at and not feel bad about themselves in so doing. But I'm sure there will be criticism to come about how Merida does or does not fulfill what people have expected of her, whether that's in the movie plot, in the image of her on the screen, or with regard to how she's talked about or has been imagined.
Which brings us to a key difference in the burden for Merida compared to her male counterparts, Woody, Nemo, Sully, Mr. Incredible, Buzz, and so on. With those boy characters (even if they're boy fish, or boy robots) no one says they have to uphold some standard of perfect boyhood or being male role models, or, in falling short of what's expected of them, be censured. No one calls them headstrong, or even points out, really, that they're boy characters—unless it's to say that there are far more of their gender reflected in these films than Merida's. For the same reason that Pixar had been criticized for not having had a lead female character in a movie prior to now, our young Pixar heroine is going to be held to a higher standard and already is, because she's first, because she's the only representative of her gender in this way.
Chapman, who seems all to aware of this pressure, told Murphy:
“Fairy tales have gotten kind of a bad reputation, especially among women,” she said. “So what I was trying to do was just turn everything on its head. Merida is not upset about being a princess or being a girl. She knows what her role is. She just wants to do it her way, and not her mother’s way.”
I'm eager to see how Merida stands up in the movie itself, and at the same time, hopeful that this move helps us address some of the even harder questions. It's not just about putting a girl character in your film, as a lead, or what she looks like. How do you capture what makes a girl character a girl character, but also empower her, and not compromise what makes her her? How do you make those characters appealing and real but present a greater social construct that's not sexist or so politically correct as to be unrelateable?
These are questions we'll have to keep asking ourselves for a while. I'm interested to see where Pixar takes it this time.