With the new Pixar film Brave in theatres now, everybody’s talking about the new “Disney Princess” (technically it’s Pixar). Merida, in the story, is a rebellious teen who doesn’t want to get married and is a girl who wants her freedom. First of all, they’ve done this storyline billions of times and I don’t know how they’ll handle this. It’s Pixar, so I trust them to some extent (besides, they didn’t give away much of the plot in the trailers, so I might be wrong; maybe there’s something more in the story), but some part of me is worried. My main concern about this is that the makers of the film won’t give Merida any other character traits other than “she’s a girl who isn’t girly and doesn’t want to get married”. I mean, it’s Pixar and all, and I have seen strong female characters (e.g. Elastigirl from The Incredibles), but I’ve noticed a trend this year of girls holding weapons in order to be depicted as strong (The Hunger Games, the two Snow White movies, and now Brave).
It reminded me of something important: sometimes it is really hard to write women in film in terms of depicting “strong female characters”. Writers do want to make strong female characters, but that often is associated with making them act like men in order to do so, and less like women. Women don’t need to carry a sword or weapon or be manly in order to be considered a strong female character. They don’t even necessarily need to fight. They can be independent and strong-willed while still keeping their femininity. Just because they’re damsels in distress or need to be saved, doesn’t mean that they’re automatically weak. Hell, if they’re written as men, then they aren’t really female characters anymore.
I feel like I should write an article about the way women are written in fiction (primarily film) in terms of how someone would imagine or depict a “strong female character”. But don’t get me wrong: just because I said this doesn’t mean that women can’t be manly or rough or tough (or whatever) in fiction. And it definitely doesn’t mean that the character is written badly. If they are manly or aggressive or tough, it has to make sense. Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 is a perfect example of this: she’s less feminine and more aggressive like some kind of angry soldier (in contrast with her personality in the previous Terminator). Sarah has foreknowledge of the future, which has driven her nuts. Sarah’s acting kinda “manly” in order to prepare her son to be the best soldier he can be, but acts aggressive and pessimistic because she lost hope on humanity. Her character traits all make sense.
Anyway, I feel like I should mention the rest of the Disney Princesses and use them as a case study, because they’ve had an interesting development on writing female leads, and also because I can compare them a bit to the newest “Disney Princess” Merida.
Here’s a little history: the first three Princesses, Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora, aren’t really considered the typical interesting or well developed Princesses (although I kinda like Cinderella, because despite living in misery she tries to find optimism in her life). It started to change after Ariel and Belle and then Jasmine and so on. Although there’s an interesting feedback concerning Ariel. I know people, especially women, who have complained about Ariel because it seems as if her only goal in the film is to get the Prince. Ever since that controversy, the rest of the Disney Princesses have been developed as strong by giving them a primary interest that defines their personalities and goals: Belle’s into books, Jasmine is a natural born leader, Pocahontas is all about the environment, Mulan’s about family and honour, Tiana’s into cooking and hard work, and Rapunzel is into arts and crafts. This has worked for the most part.
The reason I’m mentioning this is that Merida is following up to that. Although, for one thing, it seems as if she’s on the other side of the spectrum when it comes to Ariel. Merida doesn’t want to get married. Secondly, sure, she likes archery, but they could make her do karate and it really wouldn’t make a difference to her personality. It made sense that Belle read books because she wants to have an adventure/be in a fairytale. It made sense that Rapunzel did arts and crafts, because she’s stuck in a tower her whole life and tries to make a productive day. Not only does Merida seem like a character in a story which has been told over and over again, but… that’s it. It seems as if the only reason to call her strong is because she’s into archery and just wants things that women don’t want. It has been done before, but much better.
Take Belle, for example; my favourite Disney Princess along with Rapunzel, and probably the strongest Disney Princess. It’s not that she doesn’t ever want to get married. If Belle wants to get married, it’ll be under her own terms and not on the terms that society tells her to be. She’ll get married when she feels she’s ready. But people in her town don’t seem to get that. I’m worried that the writers of Brave believe that not wanting to be married is a legitimate reason to call Merida strong. If she doesn’t want to get married, then that must mean that she’s stronger than other women. That’s obviously not true. Then again, I haven’t seen Brave yet, so I’ll see how it goes. However, I’m talking about my concern about writing women that way. I really hope they don’t treat Merida like that, but I’m concerned that they’ll make her bland because of that. That the only character trait will be that she wants her freedom. If a lady in a story wants freedom, fine. But why? What about it? Establish their personality; their goals; their ambitions. At least for Jasmine it’s established that she wants her independence. She doesn’t like anyone controlling over her life. Jasmine can take care of herself. If she wants to get married, it’ll be for love. And, again with the damsel in distress reference, just because a girl needs to be rescued doesn’t mean that she’s automatically weak or boring. Belle, Jasmine, Tiana and Rapunzel needed rescue at least once and they’re the strongest Disney Princesses AND some of the strongest female characters ever written in film.
Let’s now look at Rapunzel; the most recent Disney Princesses apart from Merida (and probably the most popular Princess since Jasmine). Her whole life she’s been in a tower and the thing that prevented her from leaving was because she was constantly reminded of the dangers outside the tower. So when Flynn Rider, a handsome thief, comes into her tower, Rapunzel convinces him to escort her outside the tower. She also uses her long hair to her advantage, from a rope to a weapon, which is another sign of her proactivity. When she’s in trouble, it makes sense. It’s her first time out of the tower and she knows that she’ll need someone to guide her about the outside world. Needing help from a man doesn’t make her a weak character. Rapunzel is both a fun, interesting and believable character.
The makers of Brave probably wanted Merida to be like the rebellious Mulan (the only warrior Princess… well, she’s not really a Princess, but she is part of the franchise), although Mulan’s case is slightly different. Mulan, at the beginning of the film, doesn’t know who she is. All she knows is what she isn’t. She isn’t the typical Chinese lady or Chinese bride. But she lives in a society where family and honour is everything, and trying to become someone outside the norms of society would probably affect her family. She obviously cares about both family and honour, but probably more about family than honour: when she takes her injured father’s place in the war and dresses up like a guy, she’s doing this for her father. Then Mulan realises that maybe she’s also doing all this for herself: to find someone worthwhile in herself. To find her identity. So what? She goes to the army and proves that she’s a badass, right? Nope. Mulan has trouble fitting in and does have to earn her skills in the army (probably the best aspect of the film). Mulan discovers herself as she trains to fight in the army, and discovers how to use her wits to fight. For a girl who wants freedom for her own identity, they handled Mulan pretty well.
I hope that Merida is an interesting character that stands on her own and not just for the sake of the story. A good character has to both stand on its own and complement the story. That’s something some films do extremely wrong, not only with women, but also with men, but I digress. One of the flaws of Snow White and the Huntsman was that Snow White wasn’t really interesting. Sure, she did develop in the story, but we didn’t find out much about her character. She’s kinda boring. Although I’ve noticed that when it comes to superhero films, the female leads are extremely improving. They’re not just there to be the love interest or to be rescued; they’re strong-minded, and sometimes play importance to the story’s subtext. Like Rachel from Nolan’s Batman films, for example, who’s a very strong-minded character.
I hope this helps you understand my concerns about writing strong women. It’s not a huge problem that affects all films, but it does affect a film when the problem is there. People have to be careful with that. Sometimes women will even end up bland because writers are so concerned with depicting them as strong. I probably will see Brave in the near future, and if I do, I’ll decide whether they wrote an interesting female lead. I trust Pixar enough. But as for the rest of the filmmakers/writers out there (this applies not only to male writers, but also female writers; female writers will have this problem as much as men do), think about this: you aren’t just writing a woman; you’re writing a character in a story. And if you’re writing a strong woman, then you’re writing a strong character who plays an essential role in the story. Think about that, writers.