Gender Roles in Brave

The Pixar film Brave is notable for many reasons: it’s Pixar’s first feature-length film with a female protagonist, it tackles the Disney legacy of passive and pretty princesses, and it grapples with gender roles in magical past not terribly unlike our reality (social hierarchies attempt to keep order while individuals compete for status and struggle with their relationships to the natural world and their duties).

A ranking of Disney princesses from least to most feminist reveals that over the years, the princess crowd has grown slightly less obsequious and obnoxious… slightly. Brave shakes all that up by having a fearless archer for a princess… or does it?

One blogger views Brave as a failure because very little actually happens in the plot: “Other than deciding her mother isn’t so bad, Merida doesn’t really grow. She’s simply extended her time as a tomboy, another archetype, less a girl than a stereotype of a kind of girl.” She also points out that if this were but one female protagonist among many, it wouldn’t be such a big deal – but since Merida’s all we get so far, it’d be nice to get a little more bang for our buck, a little more feminist consciousness for our consumption.

In contrast, this excellent (though lengthy) essay argues that Brave accomplishes plenty. The author writes: “In any case, the main conflict — a mother-daughter fight — is a function of the fact that Merida’s fate is unfairly but by definition neither hers nor her mother’s; it’s bound up with the fate of a new state.” The film is thus politically savvy as well as giving us insights into how a teenager’s relationship to her parents need not be constrained by social pressure to monster-ize them.

I would say that in comparison to prior princess films, Brave walks a fine line by addressing the “classic” concerns – social status, beauty, and marriage – in a complex fashion that acknowledges the interdependence of the individual with society. For all that Merida is a tomboy, she is also a sister, a daughter, and overall, a well-rounded human being. I would love to see more dynamic, multifaceted characters that defy simple gender stereotypes in our media, especially given that the gender roles in media are linked to children’s self esteem.

Thanks to my colleague Brittany Warman for linking to these provocative essays.

Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor. Follow Jeana, the author of this post, @foxyfolklorist.

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.