Disney/Pixar’s Brave comes out today, and I wrote a review of it (see here).
I couldn’t help but think of K-pop singer G.NA while watching it, for two reasons. First, G.NA sports fire-red hair in her video for “2 Hot” that is awfully similar to Brave’s female protagonist Merida.
Second, I keep thinking about the differing ways female empowerment is handled in Brave versus the “2 Hot” video. We definitely need stories that argue and show that women are not helpless and that they can master many of the same activities that are typically classified as “masculine.” But I also think that such narratives tend to ignore the importance of difference.
The way I see it, there are two broad feminist strategies one could take. The first, recognizing the inequalities between men and women, seeks to reposition women in the space typically occupied by men. Women, so this strategy argues, should have the same opportunities and rights that men do. That’s obviously a very essential strategy. The second one, though, seeks to interrogate why the activities and qualities usually attributed to the domain of women are considered inferior in the first place. If men are “here” and women are “over there,” why is “here” always considered better?
I think this second strategy is the one most often overlooked, and it’s the one that personally appeals to me more (though both are obviously interrelated and essential). I’m a man, but I was raised mostly by my mother, and the family members that meant the most to me growing up were all women. Without essentializing too much, I tend to value the “feminine” more often that the “masculine.” We can argue about why behaviors are categorized as one or the other, but without getting theoretical, I’m just drawn more to the former, so while it’s important for women to have the same rights and opportunities that men have, I hope it’s not at the expense of the already existing modes of expression that women have (which are undervalued).
Brave is a feminist story working predominantly within the first camp of feminist practice. Its protagonist is a tomboyish princess who prefers archery to more conventionally feminine responsibilities and resists the duties imposed upon her (such as, most threateningly, an arranged marriage). The one thing that bothers me about stories like this—and this is one way to connect these two feminist strategies—is that they are so unidirectional. It’s always the woman proving herself able to “be like a man,” never the opposite. In this case, Merida is much better at archery (a nice proxy for skill and ability considered in the abstract sense) than the men. But stories like this can tend to reinforce the idea that these activities are, at least partly, “masculine” in the first place.
After seeing Brave, I tweeted, “Brave’s tomboyish heroine can fight as well as the men, but when can we get a male protagonist who just wants to be as pretty as a princess?” It’s a serious question, and it shows how “making oneself pretty,” for instance, is an activity that is sorely undervalued in our culture (except in so much as it serves the desires of heterosexual men). Some of us even internalize this and think that “prettiness” has no place within feminism. I am here referring specifically to the act of beautifying oneself, not valuing merely inborn physical beauty. For this reason, the drag queen is a very important culture hero.
Brave accepts the idea of a tomboyish hero who proves herself to be more capable than the film’s male characters. But can you imagine how a feminine male protagonist in a children’s film would be treated by the general public? It would be considered an aberration, and I believe that this fact is far more important to feminism than Brave’s concerns. (And it is for this reason that feminism can use men who are willing to interrogate their own value system as it relates to “masculinity.”) My belief is that Brave is no accident: with a $200 million price tag, it was made for a reason. It creates an image of a new norm, but what it doesn’t acknowledge is everything else I’ve mentioned above. By framing the current mainstream discourse in this way, Brave very much supports the status quo, admittedly a better version of the status quo than we had before.
I’ve already written about G.NA’s “2 Hot” music video, but I feel more of an affinity with it than I do with Brave. “2 Hot” is not exactly appropriate for children—it’s not shocking or anything, but it deals specifically with adult sexuality—and it’s also not what many people might immediately see as “feminist.” (And that’s part of the problem: we shouldn’t just accept Brave as feminist just because mega-corporation Disney/Pixar is selling it to us that way.) Not every woman wants to shoot a bow and arrow, but sexuality is something to which just about everyone can relate. G.NA’s empowered embrace of female sexual desire in the “2 Hot” video (unencumbered by any sense of shame or any feeling of obligation towards men) is, for me, a great example of what feminism can be, not just because it’s centered around the autonomy of women but also because it’s really, really fun and pleasurable (two things that should never be divorced from politics).
Something that always comes to mind when I think about these issues is this fantastic passage from feminist author Kaja Silverman:
If feminist theory has reason to lament that system of representation [of women within dominant cinema], it is not because woman so frequently functions as the object of desire (we all function simultaneously as subject and object), but because the male look both transfers its own lack to the female subject, and attempts to pass itself off as the gaze. The problem, in other words, is not that men direct desire toward women in Hollywood films, but that male desire is so consistently and systematically imbricated with projection and control.