The Vagenda

Why Pixar’s Princesses Don’t Fit The Mould.

Image belongs to Disney Pixar
Rebecca Brooks hair envy and making archery cool. Two things you never thought you’d get from Pixar, proud proclaimer of all things animated. But their latest film, Brave, due for release roughly around the same time as the Olympics archery finals, is set to bring a kick-ass female heroine to a new generation of fans more used to talking cars and animated Happy Meal toys.
Brave, set in Braveheart-era Scotland (yes, I’m aware of the total lack of subtlety), features a pint-sized feminist heroine called Merida, the feisty daughter of a Scottish king and queen who is hell-bent on avoiding the fate that they have decreed for her – marrying the son of a local chieftain. You can tell she’s feisty because she has a mop of Rebecca Brooks hair, likes archery and hates wearing dresses.
So the big kids’ release of the summer is a big stereotype-buster. It’s trying to do more positive PR for gingers than the Harry Potter films, it’s trying to convince us that archery is cool and not just done by WoW-loving virgins, and that, y’know, IT’S OK FOR A PRINCESS IN A CARTOON TO HATE WEARING DRESSES.
The trend in feminist cartoon heroines is a relatively new one, and they are given a relative niche status in the films they inhabit. Mulan (one of my favourites) was one of the earliest, based in fact on a Chinese folk story that was intended as both a joke and a cautionary tale. Having hastily skim-read the plot of The Princess and the Frog, in which the ‘princess’ is in fact a feisty, feminist-type career girl who happens to be mistaken for a princess due to a nice dress at a costume party, I can conclude that Disney did make a valiant effort to push a career girl princess rescuing a relatively inept prince, in much the same vein as Disney’s Tangled, a spin on the traditional Rapumzel tale. But, as far as I know, all of these ended in the Kate Middleton traditional of modern princess sagas with the princess marrying her prince, albeit with a lot more Shrek-­style princess-kicking-ass plot meanders.
As much as we might wish it, the fact remains that no modern little girl is playing with an Emmeline Pankhurst doll. They can now get their hands on a celebratory Kate Middleton princess Barbie if they wished. But will little girls want to play with a Merida ‘action figure’?
The film is going to be a tough one for Pixar to market – the basic ground (ancient/medieval setting, Scottish accents, comedic sidekicks, mysterious beasts, traditions and destiny) has already been covered in the Oscar-nominated adaptation How To Train Your Dragon, but this time it’s a feisty little girl, not an inept and gentle young boy, that’s taking the lead. No word as yet whether Merida gets a sidekick, a prince, or chooses that kind of ending. But a film about a girl beating boys? That’s got to be pretty polarising. Any teenage fantasy lover (such as myself, also an archery nut and sometime ginger) may be familiar with Tamora Pierce, one of whose heroines was a dab hand with a bow. But when she showed up a group of strapping soldiers with her archery skills, they flocked to her. Merida seems to be trying to achieve the opposite effect. Or rather, the script writers are indicating that, in medieval Scotland and modern day, boys don’t like it when girls are better than them.
So will this film do anything to turn the tide in favour of little girls aspiring to be a kick-ass princess like Fiona or Merida (both, crucially, redheads – add Jessie from Toy Story to the list while you’re at it)? Or are little girls already old enough to know not to actually try and be good at things, because boys won’t like it? Is Brave scrambling to cover ground that the Cosmo agenda has already got to and sown its wicked seeds in? In the trailer, little Merida talks ominously about fate: the more negative wording for destiny that is often used in prince-and-princess sagas. She also talks about a desire for freedom: women in fairy tales are often imprisoned waiting for princes to rescue them, but Merida finds herself imprisoned by this expectation. Is the handsome prince that is the stereotype-busting Pixar crew going to let her save herself?
Only time will tell. But I’ll certainly be queuing for my ticket.

P.S. If you hate Princess books and want to give your kid something good to read, go here.

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