You Make Me Wanna Be BRAVE!
She has the most beautiful wild-and-wonderful curly red hair! When I was young, I wanted curly red hair just like hers. No, I’m not talking about Merida, firstborn of the Clan DunBroch from Pixar’s latest animated movie Brave – I’m talking about my own firstborn daughter, Karen Chapin. Our youth pastor was the first to let us know of her striking resemblance with the latest Disney princess when he reported on it in the youth ministry newspaper!
Seriously, my daughter Karen’s hair is just as beautiful as Merida’s – no, it’s more beautiful, because it’s real. Merida is a made-up character on the movie screen – my Karen is a real, living, breathing, brave young woman who has had to face her own “my mom is a bear” moments. We’ve been anticipating the release of the movie for months and it came out just in time – the weekend after my birthday. We dragged our four daughters out of bed last Saturday morning for a matinee with the family and our closest friends. We enjoyed the wild adventures of Merida, firstborn of Clan Dunbroch, especially the way the movie broke with common fairytale gender roles and happily ever afters.
Since my girls are all teenagers now, I didn’t have to read a “Parent’s Guide to Brave” (though for parents of younger kids, I highly recommend this one). I heard the movie was supposed to be a “Feminist Bet” – flipping on the traditional fairytale script by refusing to feature a prince charming. Some have already written on their disappointment with the way the men are portrayed in the movie, but I thought the story was brilliant on many fronts.
(Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, what follows may reveal more details than you are ready for…)
The Power of Story
One of the functions of fairytales is to expand our imagination, and Brave does a beautiful job of this. As Madeline L’Engle writes in Walking on Water, “it was through story that I was able to make some small sense of the confusions and complications of life. … Story was in no way an evasion of life, but a way of living life creatively instead of fearfully.” Brave invites us to live life creatively instead of fearfully – even when we are faced with uncertainty for the future, unpredictability in the moment, and unfortunate pain from the past. Brave invites us to hold onto our heritage and learn from our cultural past without being trapped in tradition. Brave invites us to imagine a world where we make better choices than those who have come before us. “This ability to make choices, to help write our own story, is what makes us human, even when we make wrong choices, abusing our freedom and the freedom of others. The weary and war-torn world around us bears witness to the wrongness of many of our choices” reminds L’Engle.
The ferocious bear Mor’du is an example of the wrongness of many of our choices. Her father’s retelling of the fateful day when he lost his leg to the fearsome bear becomes the woof of the fabric of Merida’s imagination as she finishes her father’s tale for him around the dinner table. Perhaps it’s his fear of the powerful bear from his cultural legends that inspires him to give Merida a bow and arrow as a young lass, for even princesses need to learn to fight. His encounter with Mor’du that fateful day only serves to reinforce his choice to arm his daughter with the skills necessary to protect herself from the horrors of the world.
The traditions passed on to Merida through her mother’s storytelling of the warring clans become the warp in the fabric of her imagination. These stories keep the reality of our propensity for wearying ourselves through fighting and war in the forefront of her mind – and it’s her mother’s fear of war among the clans that motivate her to uphold the cultural tradition of arranging marriages to keep the peace. After all, that was the life she chose and it worked out well for her. But her fear limited her imagination.
The Power of Tradition
Tradition has many functions. When held onto out of fear it can suck the life out of us. But, when listened to as story, tradition can make us wise and even help to expand our imagination. Elinor holds onto the tradition of arranged marriage for her daughter out of fear of war breaking out in the kingdom. Merida grows up listening to the stories of her cultural history and the warring clans, but initially rejects them because they were tied to the confining tradition of arranged marriage. Yet, in the midst of rejecting the tradition of arranged marriages, Brave challenges our imagination about arranged marriages by showing us the obvious bond of love between Queen Elinor and King Fergus – whose marriage was also arranged. Arranged marriages often serve as a way for families, tribes, clans, cultures and kingdoms to live in cooperation with one another. When people are bonded by marriage (and hopefully love) the odds are they will learn to live well together.
Queen Elinor is a strong leader, which is apparent as the leaders of the clan look to her for final decisions. She chose to exercise her leadership role within the confines of tradition and the artificial societal restraints imposed on her and she expected her daughter to do the same. But Merida wants to make a different choice – she wants to change her fate. Her father seems uncertain about the cultural traditions as he encourages Merida to develop skills that were traditionally inappropriate for women, but he’s not quite ready to go up against his wife and challenge the tradition of arranged marriage. So, Merida, who listens well to the stories and rules of tradition, chooses to challenge tradition in her own way.
In accordance with our laws, only the firstborn may compete for the hand of the fair maiden. -Queen Elinor
I am Merida, firstborn descendant of Clan DunBroch, and I’ll be shooting for my own hand!
While Brave is filled with images of strong women, some have criticized the portrayal of the men in the movie as upholding negative stereotypes of men being weak buffoons. The men are the one’s making the jokes and flipping their kilts to moon one another. But I wonder what’s so wrong with a bit of humor? After all, laughter is the best medicine. My husband uses humor to process new ideas and to deal with his discomfort with change. Humor is also a defense mechanism and a way of processing pain. Humor bypasses our logical and analytical faculties, sneaks around our fears and our pain, and allows truth to seep in through our emotions. King Fergus had experienced significant pain and fear in his encounter with Mor’du. Should we be surprised that his character is the one to provide the comic relief? I wonder if sometimes using humor is one of the bravest things we can do when faced with the uncomfortable and unmanageable realities of life?
I’m not sure I agree that the men are portrayed as weak. Are we calling King Fergus weak because Queen Elinor’s strength is in diplomacy? King Fergus was strong enough to survive a bear attack – is that not good enough? And the clan leaders are celebrated for their cooperative friendship that served to keep the peace for many years – is that not a strength worth noting? When I first started dating my husband he was a brand-new Christian. I was asked by one of my pastors if he would be able to be a strong spiritual leader. My husband is a very strong man in many ways – and spiritual too! But, his strength and spirituality are expressed differently than patriarchal Christian gender norms prescribe. Does that make him any less of a spiritual leader? His strength is in his serving and giving and providing, as well as his dry sense of humor, not in teaching or leading or diplomacy. He sacrifices so much for our family, and I can guarantee you that if a bear attacked, he’d give his right leg to defend us. If we want to make room for strong women leaders in society, perhaps we need to make room for weak men – or at least for men to be strong in a variety of ways that don’t always conform to church or cultural gender norms. We don’t all need to be strong or be the leader in the same ways at the same times.
King Fergus was known for his physical strength – he is the Bear King, but it isn’t his physical strength that saves that day. After all, one of the morals of this fairytale has to do with the legend of Mor’Du and how his desire for power through physical strength is his undoing and leads to war in the kingdom. While Elinor and Merida need healing in their relationship, Fergus and the Prince trapped in the bear body of Mor’Du (which means death) need healing and deliverance as well. Fergus is bent on revenge and the Prince is trapped in a living death by his prideful choice of seeking power over others. Death and revenge are not good places to dwell in life. Just as Merida and Elinor are blind to their own versions of pride, Fergus and the Prince are blinded by their pride as well. And what is the remedy? The power of a mother bear’s love.
Some argue that Brave is simply a mother-daughter tale and may not have lasting appeal among the boys and men in our society. I hope they are wrong. While the conflict between Merida and her mother certainly feature prominently in the story line, there is enough adventure and complexity in Brave to inspire us all and expand our imaginations. We need more good stories to help expand our imagination. We are living in a highly anxious society that is, like some of the characters in Brave, fearful of the worst case scenarios for our future. We live in a world where many of our personal decisions, societal laws and religious activities are borne out of fear. When all we can imagine is the worst case scenario, we stop imagining and start escaping.
The Power of Memory
Remembering our past rightly is a difficult task and Brave shows us the complexity of this task. Merida’s parents only tell her part of the story – and these memories and stories are uses to control and protect, and define their existence in so many ways. Miroslav Volf in The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World notes, “By distorting our memories of wrongs committed or suffered, we insulate ourselves from unpleasant truths about ourselves.” As Merida follows the Will-O-Wisps into the beautiful and dangerous mystical forest, the truth is revealed about her cultural history and the true identity of Mor’du. Her father’s memories of the wrongs done to him by Mor’du shape his identity, defining himself as The Bear King. But equally so, his identity is chained to the injuries he suffered and shapes the way he reacts to others – including his wife-turned-mamabear! Remembering rightly is a critical feature of healing for broken relationships. We must learn to live with the past without it’s wounds being kept open by the blade of memory. We must find ways to be reconciled to our past so we will not be chained to the pain and blinded into reacting without thinking.
The frightening deliverance scene in the majestic forest, while scary and intense, is magical in so many ways. But, some Christians criticize the use of magic in fairytales and fear that exposing our children to make-believe magicians will lead them to rebellion. After all, “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.” (1 Sam. 15:23) But don’t we all want the easy way out sometimes? We want someone else to do the work for us, we want to find a system of belief (magic, religion, politics) to set things right for us. We want the power to be great leaders or the power to change our fate – but we look for that power in the wrong places. That’s not how God created the world to work. God created us for relationship and it’s in the context of healing broken relationships on the individual level and the societal level that we will set things right and find healing for the world. God invites us to be cooperative friends in this healing process. While I do believe witchcraft in general is not good, even God uses our turning to witches for good purposes – to show us where our faith has gone awry, to turn us to depend on the one power that is strong enough to overcome all evil – the power of love. And God is love.
The Power of Love
King Fergus and Queen Elinor give us an imagination for a cooperative relationship of love where gender roles don’t have to be strictly adhered to. When love overcomes our fears, we can find a way to live together in peace and imagine new ways to live lives of creative goodness for the sake of others. We identify with the characters in fairytales when they reflect our reality – even the reality that sometimes men are buffoons. But they also call us into a new reality and expand our imagination for new ways of thinking and being.
In the end we see Merida is just like her mother in many ways, but she is also just like her father. She turns out to be quite the skillful diplomat as well as a fierce warrior. I wonder, will movies like Brave help us make room for more generous expressions of what it means to be male and female? Can we be OK with “weak” men? Can we give up our traditions and our desires for power and revenge imagine new ways to change the world for the better?
Some are concerned about the scary bears and rightfully so. Parents of young children should be cautious about taking them to see this movie. Parents are the best judge of when their own children can handle the intense themes and imagery of Brave. We love the bears in Brave and I wouldn’t change a thing about how they are portrayed in the movie and the part they play in the story. After all, isn’t there a scary bear living inside of each of us?
Brave helps me want to face the beastly bear that lives inside of me, to recognize any harm I’ve done to my girls when I’ve forgotten who I am and given in to my less-than-human nature. Brave inspires me to work with my family to repair the brokenness in our relationships, to seek healing from our wounds from our families of origin, and be better human beings. Brave encourages me to give my girls a voice and an imagination for new ways of cooperation in the Kingdom and new ways of loving.
Thank you, Disney Pixar, you make me wanna be Brave.
You don’t have to know how to wield a sword or shoot a bow and arrow to be Brave. Sometimes the bravest thing we can do is lay down our pride and mend our broken relationships.
In honor of two brave friends who tell stories well and help expand our imagination about what it means to be cooperative friends of Jesus, I’m giving away two more books this week to six people who sign up to receive monthly updates. I will select six winners who have signed up to receive monthly updates and contact them via email to make their book selection. I will also be posting book reviews of these books. If you are selected as a winner and want to submit your own book review, I will post your book review here as well. Here are the choices:
|Unladylike: Resisting the Injustice of Inequality in the Church by Pam Hogeweide
|Adventures in Churchland: Finding Jesus in the Mess of Organized Religionby Dan Kimball
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