Brave’s Unconventional Heroine: What Doesn’t Queer You Makes You Stronger

Pixar’s animated Scottish-princess-mother-daughter-magical-adventure flick Brave opened at number one in the box office this weekend, taking in $66.7 million and giving everyone a lot of feelings about the company’s first woman-fronted movie.

Here’s the trailer!

So there’s that!

When the trailer originally premiered, I had more than a handful of reservations, most of which centered on my fear of straw feminism. I went into Brave with low expectations, but after watching it again and again and again, I feel like I can safely say that I am very impressed with how it turned out. A good mother-daughter story with some kick-ass animation and a solid if not somewhat dark screenplay to boot? Yes, please! Really, my only beef was that there weren’t more women characters overall, but even that seems intentional. You guys, it’s just a really great movie, and I strongly recommend seeing it.

But where there is light, there must also be dark. Entertainment Weekly ran a story with the attention-seeking headline “Could the heroine of Pixar’s ‘Brave’ be gay?” While asking this question only proves that someone missed the point of the film, Princess Merida’s complete lack of romantic interest was bound to raise a few eyebrows. From the EW article:

But could Merida be gay? Absolutely. She bristles at the traditional gender roles that she’s expected to play: the demure daughter, the obedient fiancée. Her love of unprincess-like hobbies, including archery and rock-climbing, is sure to strike a chord with gay viewers who felt similarly “not like the other kids” growing up. And she hates the prospect of marriage — at least, to any of the three oafish clansmen that compete for her hand — enough to run away from home and put her own mother’s life at risk. She’s certainly not a swooning, boy-crazy Disney princess like The Little Mermaid’s Ariel or Snow White. In fact, Merida may be the first in that group to be completely romantically disinclined (even cross-dressing Mulan had a soft spot for Li Shang).

Of course, EW isn’t alone in their feelings, not by a long shot. Roger Ebert even called Merida “a sort of honorary boy” in his review, which is infuriating and lacks any sort of real perception of how gender and gender roles work.

Probably not thinking about banging chicks at this particular moment

Here’s the thing: It’s ok to think that Merida is a lesbian, not because she shirks traditional gender roles but because she doesn’t have a love interest. Archery prowess and a love of the wilderness does not a lesbian make, otherwise The Hunger Games might have been a little different. She’s not “an honorary boy” because she’s not actively trying to find a husband. On the contrary, it is unlikely that this story could have happened to a guy in this setting, and this conversation about sexuality definitely wouldn’t have happened. Also, stop conflating gender identity with gender presentation! Commentary like these reviews is frustrating, but maybe that’s the point Pixar is trying to make: Merida’s sexuality is a non-issue in the film, and the fact that this topic is even worth mentioning is because women are constantly sexualized.

That being said, it’s not a stretch at all to imagine Merida as a queer person. That’s part of Brave‘s genius, really. Merida is a princess, but she’s also the hero, and because she’s not openly into dudes, it leaves her open for people of any sexual orientation to project themselves onto her without feeling weird. Besides, the story isn’t about romantic love. It’s about the conflict between Merida’s duty to her family and her duty to herself with a focus on her relationship with her mom.

Everything about Brave is beautiful: It has swoon-worthy accents and strong female characters and Mumford & Sons and slap-stick and goofy brothers and what’s probably Pixar’s most gorgeous animation to date. It seems silly that people are willing to write-off everything positive about it because it’s a story about a princess. Comparisons to Disney princess movies are fair, but only insofar as to mention that this fairy tale is a departure from the glossy, Prince Charming-centric stories audiences have come to expect. Brave allows Merida to be an angsty teenager first and a princess second.

This is the kind of movie that needs to be made more often. It’s like Tangled on feminist steroids. I feel like part of the reason why I like this movie so much is because it’s the first time I’ve really been able to identify with a princess because, to borrow a phrase, “I don’t want to get married. I want to stay single and let my hair flow through the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset.” (Literally, that is what I want with my life, except I also want the Brave soundtrack on repeat while it’s happening.) To send young girls the message that there really is more to life than stumbling onto true love is not in any way a bad thing, and to discuss this in a movie that both uses and circumvents traditional princess fables is brilliant.

I’m going to see this movie again, is what I’m saying.


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Grace Ellis has been writing and making hack-job graphics for Autostraddle since 2011 and is a co-creator and co-writer of the comic book series Lumberjanes. She is mostly an intern in name only. (Mostly.) She lives in Columbus, Ohio because why anything. Also, she wants to write the Black Widow movie and feels like if she just keeps telling people, eventually she will be allowed to do it. She has a Twitter and a Tumblr, both of which are pretty above average.

Grace has written 91 articles for us.

67 Comments

  1. Thumb up 15

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    Yes, you should see it again, because three times was clearly not enough! ;)

    I’m so excited to see this. I have a feeling that I’ll identify a lot more with Merida the Independent Ginger than Ariel the Ginger Who Literally Sacrificed Her Voice for a Man.

  2. Thumb up 0

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    I loved Brave so much and would have been obsessed with the movie if it had come out when I was a kid.

    How old is Merida? I thought she was around 11-13, but apparently some people think she’s 16-17.

  3. Thumb up 7

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    “To send young girls the message that there really is more to life than stumbling onto true love is not in any way a bad thing, and to discuss this in a movie that both uses and circumvents traditional princess fables is brilliant.”
    Yes. It’s nice to see your child excited about something that you feel good about. I haven’t been able to share her enthusiasm for Disney princess situations until now.

    • Thumb up 3

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      We’re in the princess phase over here too. Which, funnily enough, has made me realize that my 3-year-old has no understanding of gender. She has us take turns being the Prince and it doesn’t phase her in the slightest that both of us are female; I don’t think she even knows what “boy” and “girl” mean, really. I think she’s a bit young to see Brave in the theater but I’ll definitely rent it when it comes out on DVD.

      • Thumb up 10

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        One of my mom’s favorite stories about me as a toddler is the time I looked at her and said, “Mommy, I princess, and you princess, and Daddy princess, too.”
        I grew up to identify as genderqueer, so make of that what you will. I still like letting everyone be the princess.

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        When we played pretend I always wanted to be the queen rather than the princess. I couldn’t understand the appeal of being a princess when you could be the supreme monarch and have actual power.

        I think I missed the point of the princess trend, too.

  4. Thumb up 9

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    This movie should win an award for cutest bears in any movie ever.

    But seriously, Brave filled me with warm fuzzies and I hope it starts a trend of more female driven stories in animation that don’t revolve around finding your true love.
    Also I hope the dvd has a feature about all the technical Pixar wizardry behind Merida’s hair because JEEZ it is absolutely stunning.

  5. Thumb up 1

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    Wow wow the “honorary boy” thing is so offensive.

    But like, the speculating that she might be gay thing, really isn’t. I’m so confused by this. While the EW article was attention-seeking and missing the point, it was also pretty innocuous. And I’m getting kind of weirded out by the number of people who are so upset that her gender-variance is being read as queer. I realize that it doesn’t speak to a lot of queer women’s experiences, but you guys know that is a real thing, right? Not just a stereotype?

    • Thumb up 2

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      Definitely see where you’re coming from. One of my straight friends posted a status update on Facebook about this, with the result of a lot of straight girls going “I like sports and I’m not GAY,” which made me vaguely uncomfortable, so I posted this in reply:
      “You know, I’m against stereotyping as much as the next progressive queer lady, but it’s hard not to feel a little slighted when someone suggesting a character might be gay is met with outrage. When much of the larger culture treats the word ‘gay’ as an insult against someone’s honour, you have to make sure you’re not feeding into that. Also it gets complicated when you throw in the panic around homosexuality and children’s media. At this juncture, ‘tomboy with no male romantic interest’ may be as close as a children’s movie can come to portraying a lesbian, and I remember relishing that sort of subtext growing up as a “different” sort of kid. Of course subtext is nowhere near as good as an actual openly gay character, but we’re not there yet.” I’d also add that I see a lot of unfortunate policing around queer people’s gender presentations so as not to confirm stereotypes. I mostly see it with effeminate gay men being devalued or thought of as fake and campy, whereas that personality is more their real selves, and acting butch is the mask. They were just free from the fear of being perceived as gay that causes many straight men and closeted queer men to avoid commenting about grooming or fashion, etc. I don’t think this effect is as strong as with women, but I appreciate being out as queer so I can freely act the way that feels authentic.

      • Thumb up 2

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        “You know, I’m against stereotyping as much as the next progressive queer lady, but it’s hard not to feel a little slighted when someone suggesting a character might be gay is met with outrage.”

        This is exactly my problem with the reaction to this. So what if she’s gay? Does that somehow ruin the message of the movie?

    • Thumb up 1

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      Its a thing but so is being a straight non gender conforming lady and to always insist that gender variance equals queer is to separate gay and straight ladies into two separate species; real “feminine” women who don’t want to or can’t do anything traditionally male, no matter how stupid assigning it to maleness is, and queer women who aren’t “real” women. Its bad for everyone because its used as an excuse by people who like the patriarchy where it is to avoid questioning it and it continues to Other queer ladies. Its also used to repress behaviours in non conforming straight girls growing up by well meaning family members and patriarchal asshats alike, “you’ll never get a boyfriend if….” because “everyone will think you’re gay,” and while of course women’s lives shouldn’t revolve around finding a partner generally that’s something straight girls want and society is all about teaching them they have to sacrifice everything for that.

      Not to mention that femmes exist.

      Basically I don’t think the discussion on someone’s gender presentation should lead on to speculation about their sexuality because you can’t tell the latter from the former. There are clues sure, and some things are more likely to lead to one conclusion than another statistically speaking, but its not an actual causal link.

  6. Thumb up 1

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    When I first heard they was going to be a big Pixar movie with a female main character, my first question was “I wonder if they’ll shoehorn in a love interest,” because that’s totally what gets girls interested in movies right? All girls care about are boys because all anyone cares about are boys, right? And when I found out there wasn’t a love interest, I was slightly surprised, very much interested, and excited for my as-yet-unborn niece or nephew to potentially enjoy it someday, because this really is the first of its kind, as far as big budget animation goes, and even with smaller-budget movies, anything similar is few and far too far between (I can’t actually even think of any, but I’m sure a few exist).

  7. Thumb up 3

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    I loved the open-endedness of Brave’s lack of romantic focus, and that mother-daughter communication and respect (along with awesome archery) were the skill sets that saved the day.

    Also, speaking as the child of landscapers, OH GOD, THE STONEWORK AND FORESTS. HECK YES, PLEASE MAKE ALL SCENERY THIS AWESOME FOREVER AND ALWAYS.

  8. Thumb up 1

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    “the fact that this topic is even worth mentioning is because women are constantly sexualized.”

    Yeah, no one would ever assume a male character is gay simply because he doesn’t have a love interest/his story doesn’t revolve around finding a woman to marry.

    Also I feel like the fact that the reviewer points out that the clansmen competing for her are “oafish” kind of shows how dumb her point is. It reminds me of how in But I’m A Cheerleader her friends thought the fact that she didn’t like her boyfriend’s slobbery kisses was proof she was gay. I mean, she WAS gay and there were a million other signs, but I remember watching that movie in a group and we were all like, “but who WOULD want to kiss him, regardless of sexual orientation?” Even if you’re straight, it doesn’t mean you want just ANY guy…

  9. Thumb up 1

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    I think one of the great things about Brave (besides Merida’s hair) is its focus on the mom-daughter relationship. Lots of other princess movies have daddy issues (Ariel and Tritan, Jasmine and the sultan, Belle and Maurice, and Mulan had an arguably closer relationship with her dad than with her mom). My own mother always hated that fairy tale stories had evil stepmothers, because she herself is a stepmom. So, very cool that Brave offers this picture of a mom and daughter that shows they might have their disagreements but, ultimately, (familial) love conquers all. Refreshing.

    Oh, and Merida struggling to breathe in the corset/pulling her hair out from the wimple was awesome.

      • Thumb up 1

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        I do agree that it shows how they don’t all start out with perfect looks or whatever, but to women who still tightlace nowadays (often for health reasons as well as aesthetics) the corset as a symbol of oppression gets old. Not to mention that in the time that Brave is set in, corsets hadn’t been invented yet! They didn’t even wear anything close for quite some time *after* the movie takes place, in fact.

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          Ha! Very good points, Aly, thanks for making me think about that. You definitely get me with the historical anachronism, thing, because I’m a history grad student…though I do late 20th century stuff, so at least I didn’t flub on my specialty.

          They were cute moments, though, seeing her twist her hair out from under the hood, and then when she takes the big breath that rips her dress (though maybe not the corset?) right before she shoots the arrow. It’s clear that while a corset might work for some women (as they do for her mom), it doesn’t work for Merida.

          Anyway, thanks again for your gentle correction. :)

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          My grandmother actually set fire to her liberty bodice (a sort of follow up to the corset that was meant to be less constricting while enforcing good posture).

  10. Thumb up 2

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    I think the real answer to the “is Merida gay?” issue is:

    1. Who cares???? Okay, she’s a lesbian. Good for her. Maybe even better for LGBT rights.

    2. Was that the point of the film? Was “Brave” about a young woman coming to terms with her sexuality? NO! I don’t know about you, but I would definitely resist arranged marriage at what – fifteen?

    3. Okay, Pixar’s first movie with a female lead. They do an excellent job of removing Merida from traditional gender stereotypes, which honestly, for me, can be the very best things about a film with a female lead. But then she *has* to be non-gender identifying, gay, AND queer? I call bull.

  11. Thumb up 0

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    I was kind of expecting that Mordue would turn into a prince and that Merida would be expected to marry him. I’m glad the movie didn’t end that way. Depending on how it was carried out it might have been a little disappointing.

    Also, BEARS!

  12. Thumb up 0

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    My friend and I saw this movie together. We both ride and have minimal archery experience. Point is that we are going out this summer to let our hair flow through the wind as we ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset with Julie Fowlis on our iPods.

  13. Thumb up 4

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    i love you for using ‘swoon-worthy’, incorporating Kelly Clarkson into this piece and for use of the word ‘fables’. All of those things need to happen more often in life.

    also, all of this, right?

    just because a little girl isn’t having wedding dress fantasies because she’s too busy jumping off things and landing into mud, doesn’t make her a dyke. it shouldn’t make her feel pressure to be anything other than a kid.
    can’t that just be a thing? just being a kid and romping and frolicking and getting dirty and playing dress up in suits of armor, tutus and bumble bee costumes without some adult trying to decide which way your fuckery will express itself?

    all of your points on this, I.E., are way more articulate than mine because you’re da best.

  14. Thumb up 3

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    Wow this is my first comment on Autostraddle! :) I haven’t seen this movie, I’m so excited, it looks cute.

    I feel like the “Is Merinda gay?” in the mainstream press caught me off guard, my first reaction was kind of positive, they aren’t shying away from the very IDEA of a gay princess! But then I read a bit more into it and realized stuff like “honorary boy” etc was pretty problematic… All the same, I’ve been giving sidelong glances at all the straight-girl rage coming from those who were beyond offended at the suggestion that they, as archery-loving tomboys (where are all these women?) might be read as possibly gay. THE HORROR! Still, here’s to hoping we get a confirmed queer princess movie ONE DAY! ;)

  15. Thumb up 1

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    Oh No! A main plot point isn’t a male-female romance?! This heroine must like other females! That can be the only answer to this puzzling loophole in the storyline.

  16. Thumb up 0

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    THANK YOU, Grace!

    If Merida has a sequel about her romantic feelings, and she happens to have feelings for girls or guys or both or something non-binary, then great. We should be so lucky to see a Disney princess fall in love with someone besides a handsome man.

    THIS WAS NOT THE ROMANCE STORY. Exactly.

    It’s infuriating that girls can’t be or do anything without romance and sexuality being projected on it. A girl can’t be anyone on her OWN, is what that tells us.

    I’m so glad children have the chance to see a girl who refuses to be defined that way.

    Thanks again for a great article!

  17. Thumb up 0

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    Brave is fantastic precisely because Merida’s orientation isn’t presented in stone. It’s one of the first “princess” films where queer viewers actually have a chance at seeing themselves in the protagonist. This is opposed to practically every other American animated film that presents the unquestionable hetero-ness of its characters.

    The EW story is definitely an attention grab. But it’s also a worthwhile, and honestly innocuous, question to ask. It’s extremely troubling that so many EW commenters, particularly straight women, got offended by the question.

    The commenters claimed they were offended by the stereotyping presented in the EW article, but would they have had such a visceral response if the writer had used an opposite stereotype (long hair, flowing dresses, ability to sew) to ask whether Merida is straight?

    Taking offense implies that something is wrong or bad. These straight women, despite their attempts to claim the contrary, are clearly offended by their conflation with the gay community. This is troubling, because it continues to reinforce the idea that being gay is somehow bad.

    If these EW commenters (and those with similar sentiments) were as comfortable with LGBT people as they claim, they wouldn’t throw such a hissy fit if they were mis-read as gay. Many LGBT people are mis-read as straight or cis, and yet in American society that’s still seen as a compliment. Micro-aggressions and double standards much?

    At any rate, thanks for this article, Intern Grace. Brave is a wonderful movie, and everyone should go see it!

  18. Thumb up 0

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    So I just saw this movie. And I thought it was pretty good.

    Not “OH MY GOD I AM BALLING WHAT THE FUCK HAS THIS MOVIE REDUCED ME TO’ Pixar amazing, but a really nice animated film. I had problems with the story, but that’s because a piece of paper says I studied animation and when you do that you officially ruin the entertainment value of anything you will ever watch, ever again (it’s like going to film school). But I came in with pretty low expectations (original female director that was supposed to be the first female director for Pixar was replaced with male director, mixed reviews about the screenings, rumbles from inside Pixar that their story people weren’t too thrilled about the story themselves), and figured it would be something really pretty to look at at least because no one models and renders like Pixar. But it was more than that, so I was pretty happy.

    That aside, I COMPLETELY agree with you, Grace. I really loved that Merida was this strong female character who wasn’t overtaken by this sudden need to love some guy due to plot. The gender-variance just made her more dimensional for me, and definitely more of a role model. I didn’t see her as gay, but it was also easy to relate and project myself into the character and I saw a lot of myself in her (as well as the frustration of the relationship with her mother). However I can also see where people used to the cliche of having the SFP fall for the prince, the childhood friend or the roguish anti-hero can confuse Merida’s lack of interest with potential queerness. At the same time though it’s STAGGERING that we live in goddam 2012 and we’re still using tired stereotyping (she’s rough and tumble! she’s fierce! she’s not interested in boys!) to pin down gender expression/sexual preference in a KIDS MOVIE. Like really, people?

  19. Thumb up 0

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    Grace, I just want to say that I went to see this movie 90% because of your recommendation and I am so glad I did. I totally love breaking with traditional fairy tales while keeping a lot of the same fantastical elements, which this movie did well.

    The movie is not at all about Merida’s possible sexuality. It is completely, 100% about her relationship with her mother (and the rest of her family) and realizing how to be true to herself but also fulfill her duties. THAT is an awesome message. And I would just like to add, the script never says that she is not interested in boys, she says over and over again that she’s “not ready” for marriage, which is a very different statement if you ask me.

  20. Thumb up 2

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    Thank you for writing this! I was totally unaware of this controversy surrounding the movie until I started looking up pics to make an HP/Brave crossover meme.

    EW’s reasons for Merida being a lesbian are, frankly, stupid. Like you said: There’s no problem with the idea that she might be a lesbian, and maybe she is. But first of all, her sexuality was besides the point. Her sexuality DID NOT MATTER to the story. The story was about a mother and daughter whose relationship had fallen apart, and how they fixed it.

    And:

    I was a tomboy growing up. I still am, in some ways. I used to think boys were gross and kissing was gross and holding hands was suspect. I was going to have my own TV show on Discovery Channel, and I was going to never get married but instead live in a tent in Africa with my camera man (who I would certainly *not* be romantically involved with). I also did archery for several years in 4H (wow, did “Brave” reawaken the desire to do that). Plus I still think it’s cool to let daddy long-legs and worms and caterpillars crawl all over my hand as I examine them.

    And guess what? I’m straight. But according to EW, could I be gay? Absolutely, because I don’t fit traditional gender roles…whatever. Along with all of the above, I bridle at the idea of being the obedient fiancee…I definitely laugh at my boyfriend and do what I want.

    (Well, sometimes. Obviously a good relationship is founded on compromise…which is part of the point of the movie.)

    Who cares whether Merida’s a lesbian? It doesn’t matter either way, and like you said – sure, you can take her lack of interest in the three suitors as a sign of that (although I have to ask, was there ANYONE who saw the movie and thought the suitors were good?), but her breaking of traditional gender roles?

    Come on, guys.

    Plus this kind of perpetuates the stereotype that all lesbians must basically be men in female bodies. There are lesbians who wear make-up and are into fashion and stuff…they don’t have to be “butch” any more than straight women have to be “girly.”

    Seriously.

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