I finally went to see Brave. My expectations were complex: I'd been salivating for Pixar's first female protagonist since the film was called The Bear and the Bow, but the criticism had been mixed. Some praised the movie for its heroine's nonconformity to traditional princess behavior; others critiqued the same thing as further denigration of conventional femininity. It's the same old same old that you get every time there's a Lone Female: she has to be all things to all people, and is doomed to failure from the start.
(Easy solution: have more than one female character.)
Initially I hoped to love the film. Then I realized that, with a hope this strong, disappointment was inevitable. Then I began to think that expecting disappointment might result in satisfaction after all. (This is why you shouldn't think too hard about these things.) I hoped that Pixar's first female protagonist would be awesome; I expected to be disappointed.
What I did not expect was that this would turn out not to be Pixar's first female protagonist at all.
On my reading, Merida is a boy. This film is about a trans boy and his relationship with his mother.
Every use of the word “princess” makes Merida cringe. Why? Because he is a prince. The threat of betrothal sends Merida into a flat panic. Why? Because marriage codifies the enforcement of compulsory cissexuality and heterosexuality.
Merida has no real role model of masculinity. Although his father jokes with him about the useless suitors, and provides him with the bow he longs for (which becomes, along with his gorgeous mess of unruly hair, a totem of his freedom and his true identity unencumbered by the pressures of coercive gender assignment), ultimately the king, like all the other male characters, is a figure of comical ineptitude. Queen Elinor is the primary figure shaping Merida's life, both because of her general competence and because Merida is the first-born (and the only AFAB) child.
Thus Merida's mother is the focus of all his fears and anger. After all, his father is surely just as responsible for the insistence on marriage, but the queen alone draws Merida's rage. She is both the person he wants to be (competent, in control, confident in her identity) and a person he would rather die than become (a woman).
Merida externalizes his desire for the world to see him differently, and projects it onto his mother. Thanks to his actions, his mother and brothers are all physically changed, forced to undergo the trans* experience of being seen by the world as something different than what you truly are. It is this profoundly painful experience of dysphoria – and the fear of becoming something you know you are not, simply because of how you look to those around you – that finally causes Queen Elinor to understand her oldest child's perspective, and to grant him the freedom to break with tradition and be who he truly is.
There is a constant thematic drumbeat throughout this film of fate and how it can be changed. Fate be changed: look inside... It reminds me irresistibly of the feminist mantra: biology is not destiny. Merida does not have to be the princess he was assigned to be at birth; it will take a lot of courage to defy traditional, societal, and familial expectations, but he is brave enough to do it.
I need this reading. I need this reading because there are no mainstream pop-culture narratives of how to be a trans*masculine person without a femme sister, of how to be a trans*masculine person relating to the mother who loves you but wants you to be her daughter. (Of course, I'm not sure what this narrative has to offer in terms of practical advice. How do you de-allegorize turning your mother into a bear?)