When it comes to cartoons churned out by Hollywood in recent years, it’s mostly been a boys’ club. Aside from a handful of notable animated heroines — Ariel (“The Little Mermaid”), Belle (“Beauty and the Beast”), the eponymous Pocahontas and Mulan, royal offspring (“The Princess and the Frog”), and Rapunzel (“Tangled”) — girls and young women have been largely ignored.
Besides, many gripe that these heroines aren’t exactly exemplary role models for young girls. Ariel may be headstrong, but she’ll do anything for love, including sacrificing her voice and her identity as a mermaid to become human, marry her prince, and adapt to a man’s world.
Now comes “Brave,” the new Pixar-Disney showpiece that opens Friday. The film is an anomaly in a landscape of fantasy films that typically promulgate the passive “princess needs saving” mythology Western culture has embraced for decades. Will young girls — and boys — see “Brave”? Will it usher in a new trend of strong heroines hungering for independent fates not tied to Prince Charming? The filmmakers hope “Brave” can turn the tide.
“If we look too much at girl-centric stories, we end up with the conventions of the media,” said “Brave” producer Katherine Sarafian, on the telephone from Chicago. She said she intended Merida, the film’s young Scottish princess character, to be heroic, athletic, and spirited. “We were focused more on who she was and what she wanted to do, and less on her being a girl,” said Sarafian. “Not rescued by some prince. She had to find her own way.”
The plot centers on the fate of Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald , a tomboy and stubborn daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Marooned in her family’s castle, Merida doesn’t want to marry one of the local clans’ favored sons and be subsumed by domestic, courtly life. She yearns for adventure. As wild as her long red hair, the girl escapes the castle to ride her horse, shoot arrows, and choose her own path in life, even if it imperils both the traditions of her culture and her relationship with her mother.
It was “crucial” that the story line be the “real” story, Sarafian said. The cartoon, co-directed by Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews, took inspiration from Chapman’s real-life relationship with her daughter. (Chapman was dismissed from “Brave” midway through the production, because of what Pixar called “creative differences.” It’s unclear if those differences concerned the plot or Merida’s character arc. Chapman was not available to be interviewed for this story.)
Where does “Brave” fit into the legacy of cartoon heroines? Disney in particular has excelled at adapting fairy tales and myths into cartoons, and therein lies the original sin.
“The original ‘Beauty and the Beast’ female character is incredibly passive,” said Don Hahn, the Disney producer behind that 1991 film and “The Lion King.” He described characters such as Belle, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella as “Doris Day — capable, but filling a role that women might fill in the 1950s and 1960s.” Hahn said his team worked hard to make Belle more three-dimensional, full of hopes and aspirations beyond just marriage and love. In fact, “Beauty and the Beast” went a step further. “Belle solves the Beast’s story, the opposite of most fairly tales.”
Despite the advances made by “Beauty and the Beast” and “Brave,” overall, Hollywood’s performance with gender equity in cartoons is far from heroic. A 2008 study released by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that in the majority of animated movies with female protagonists — from 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to 1998’s “Mulan” — a disturbing number portrayed their heroines as babes, with sexy, unrealistically shaped bodies. In the plotlines, the female protagonists were praised not for their actions or character, but for their appearance. They often had romance-based aspirations. The only positive trend the study reported was a change from “damsel status” to female cartoon characters having a greater role in determining their fates — even if the fate they yearned for was falling in “one-dimensional love.”
“When it comes to cartoons, females are still stereotyped,” said gender expert Susan Shapiro Barash, author of “Tripping the Prom Queen.” They desire being “saved from disaster by a man” and they fall for the myths of “love conquers all” and “happily ever after.” “Young girls are still misled in terms of female power and fortitude with these characters, and see them as females in need.” She said this “perpetuates false hopes and beliefs.”
That’s if those stories even get heard. According to Box Office Mojo, only three female-centric animated movies crack the list of 50 top-grossing animated films of all time — “Beauty and the Beast” (No. 15), “Tangled” (No. 21), and “Pocahontas” (No. 44). Often, in other hit movies, strong females exist but they are relegated to sidekick or ensemble cast status: Jessie from “Toy Story 2” and “3”; Princess Fiona, the female ogre in “Shrek”; the mother and girl superheroes from “The Incredibles”; Boo from “Monsters, Inc.”
Most blockbuster cartoons stick with boy heroes for one reason: economics. Girls will see movies with boy protagonists, but not necessarily the reverse.
“It is more of a challenge to get boys to go see movies that are marketed as girls’ movies,” said Amy Franzini, associate professor of communication studies at Widener University in Chester, Pa. She said Disney et al. have gradually “evolved” their female princesses to “skew more masculine,” to be more well-rounded, more witty, active, more apt to fight, as “Tangled” and “Brave” attest. “But to boys, they are still princesses, and to them, that’s just not cool,” Franzini said. “The true test will be in the box-office figures.”
The heroine moving from “damsel in distress to an empowered character” is a positive trend, said Hollie Sobel, clinical psychologist at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. But not if they solve their problems by beating up their foes. “Violence as a means of coping with adversity can certainly be problematic.”
And yet violence and cartoons have always been blood brothers.
“Animation is all about exaggeration: of characteristics, responses, and even the physical laws of the universe,” said Brad Ricca, who teaches classes on popular culture at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Most animation revolves around physical violence, he said, so the “strength” of a female character is often crudely measured by her ability to beat up the bad guys.
Curiously, there’s a different sort of inequity in Japanese animation. Children’s movies such as “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and “My Neighbor Totoro” are box-office champs. Other Japanese anime include a “plethora of prepubescent female protagonists with superhuman powers fighting to save the world,” said Rebecca Copeland, professor of Japanese literature at Washington University in St. Louis. “Most are either overly sexualized, incredibly cute, or both.” Copeland said critics disagree if this representation is overall a good thing — Japanese “girl power” — or more objectification and infantilization of women.
Back to “Brave.” With the United States still awaiting its first female president, and women earning only 77 cents to every male dollar, Ricca sees a medieval Scottish tale where “a red-headed firebrand flouts the patriarchy” as a timely and prescient tall tale.
“As a cartoon, such a message can be dismissed as childish fantasy,” she said. “But children learn from myth, which our animated movies have become.”
Many would like to see the time when empowering, female-centered narratives in animated movies were the rule rather than the exception. In the meantime, the marketing of “Brave” presents its own potential irony. Pixar has partnered with select Sports Clubs (including locations in Boston and New York) for the “Change Your Fate Workout,” a promotion “designed to encourage participants to channel their inner bravery and transform their bodies,” crows the press release. “Take control of your own destiny!”
Probably not the kind of progress all the beauties, mermaids, and princesses had in mind.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at ethan