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Don’t Settle for Being Brave

Life lessons from Pixar's first leading lady.

Full disclosure: I want to be Brave. I don’t want to be brave, but I want to be Brave—I want to be that Scottish girl with the crazy red hair, the black horse, the sweet archery trick shots. Google tells me her name is Merida. I prefer to call her Brave.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I live in Los Angeles, where billboards for Brave tower over me everywhere I go, and I have yet to hear a single friend say they’re not excited about this movie. And when they say they’re excited, what they really mean is, “Let’s get serious and just bring the whole Kleenex box, because you know this is gonna be a claaassssssic Pixar cry-fest.” A cry-fest in the best sense. All of us—from average “I love The Expendables” dudes to highbrow “Wes Anderson is just too mainstream now” film snobs—all of us recognize there’s something special about this movie, even if we don’t yet know exactly what it is.

Part of the appeal may be the girl hero. At least, it is for me—and not just because I’m a grown-up girl myself. Many film critics and culture watchdogs have already written at length about the number of Pixar firsts in this movie—first female protagonist, first princess, first fairy tale—so rather than blather on about the socio-political importance of a proactive princess in the Hollywoodland of passive Bella Swanns and Anastasia Steeles, I’d rather just focus on the appeal of Brave—okay, okay, Merida—as a character, just a person on a journey. Granted, her femininity is significant, since—according to the trailer, at least—her journey has something to do with her spirited defiance of traditional gender roles.

But her age may be a more crucial element in her characterization. She stands at the threshold of adulthood and, with it, all the expectations of domesticity and “settling down.” She doesn’t want to be married; there doesn’t seem to be a romantic interest. (Quite the opposite of Disney’s princesses past, and perhaps quite different than what many of us young evangelical women have been taught in Sunday school.) She represents a true hero, something to aspire to—not just for young girls, but for grown men and women.

She endures ordeals and tests, is purified by sacrifice and returns home with the power to transform the world just as she has been transformed.


The word “hero” gets tossed around frequently. People in Hollywood, and likely the Pixar folks up in Emeryville, Calif., tend to define it in mythologist Joseph Campbell’s terms: “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” (For those of us who did not study the classics or literature in college, we may be familiar with Campbell as “that one guy who is constantly referenced in the DVD extras of Star Wars.”) Campbell analyzed world myths and broke down their key beats into something popularly known as “the hero’s journey,” outlined in his famous book Hero With a Thousand Faces. As a Christian, there are many aspects of Campbell’s universalist philosophy with which I disagree, yet in it there are as many brilliant insights that ring true. In Campbellian terms, a hero is not defined by her state of being. A hero is defined by what she does. She hears a call to adventure. She resists the call at first but then meets someone or is put into a situation that changes her mind. She crosses a threshold into a new world full of terror, excitement, allies, enemies and tricksters. She endures ordeals and tests, is purified by sacrifice and returns home with the power to transform the world just as she has been transformed.

The trailer for Brave succinctly summarizes the Campbellian call to adventure: “If you had the power to change your fate—would you?” It’s an intriguing question, and rather than engaging in an esoteric debate about predestination versus free will, for which I am hardly qualified and for which this is hardly the forum, I’d rather focus on its idea of change. According to Campbell, a hero is not defined by her state of being but rather by the change in her state of being. And the hero’s journey is not about character growth. It is not about being a better person. It is about complete and total transformation. You see, no one goes to the movies to watch someone undergo a few stressful situations and change a little bit as a result. We go to witness revolution. Rebirth. Resurrection.

Thus, a good story—and arguably a good life—isn’t about being brave. It is about doing brave. Living brave. Making a choice. Crossing the threshold. It’s not about waiting in a tower for your prince to come and whisk you off to a Cinderella castle. It’s about going on a journey, facing your deepest fears and surrendering yourself to the possibility that in attempting to change your fate, you will inevitably be changed. And perhaps also discovering, along the way, that sometimes coming home can be as brave a quest as going out into the world.

So let’s not settle for being brave. Let us instead aspire to do brave things. Let us live boldly. Let us transform the world as we have been transformed. Heady words, but grounded aspiration for young girls as much as it is for old men. While I have not yet seen Brave, I suspect this idea is the spine on which its story bends.

As for so-called fate, well, I don’t know. But if “fate” should decide to bestow me with a fast horse, curly red hair and mad archery skills ... I’ll take it.

9 Comments

Krempel

14,046

Krempel commented…

Oh, is it amazing? Please, tell us more!

Christie Hudon

7

Christie Hudon commented…

I completely agree. There were so many negative points that I couldn't get past. It tells me the ideal of being Brave appeals so that is how the story was marketed-an adventure to end all adventure.

Jacob Lehman

1

Jacob Lehman commented…

Though there were the few issues with nudity (though really, is seeing a baby's naked butt so taboo?) and some complicated and confusing story elements, I liked the movie, the approach of Merida's transformation in the story, and what it means to stand up responsibly for your convictions, but also what it means to recklessly pursue your desires without regard for those you love (I'll try not to spoil too much of the plot specifics). Yes, Merida was insistant in her defiance of traditional marriage laws and gender roles, and I was worried that the movie would project a somewhat amoral, anti-marriage message. But that's not the message of the movie. The movie told me that communication is the key when you have a problem with another's actions or requests. In defiantly standing up for her convictions the first time, Merida faced grave consequences and spent the rest of the movie essentially having to clean up her mess. But I think this is a good way to preach against the traditional "hero's recklessness" that can indoctrinate kids these days (much like we saw from Mater in Cars 2). Merida shows us that if you responsibly and diplomatically stand up for your beliefs, you can avoid numerous problems and usually end up where you want.For parents, talk to your kids before and especially after the movie about anything you might have a problem with, but I think its safe to take your kids without fear of exposing them to a destructive message. And I believe this story carries a valuable message for the Church today.
"I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement." 1 Cor. 1:10

85,220

Millers82 commented…

85,220

Alyssa Bacon-Liu commented…

Absolutely adored this movie! I wish I had a daughter to take to go see it! I thought it was so incredible at tapping into mother-daughter relationships, coming of age, and trying to find your place in culture and society while still being true to yourself. I think so many people can relate to the tension between family/community/societal pressure and following your heart. And I think the way the film explores some positive and negative consequences to DEALING with that tension is it's true strength. Bravo, Pixar. The message of Brave is so timely and so relevant to young people, especially young women.

ps - Yes, there are butts (it's rated PG so it's not like they tricked you or anything).

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