What Exactly Makes Merida “Brave”?

Why do people get married? Love, right? Maybe not. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how there are many reasons for marriage as illustrated in the film, Brave.

Brave Poster

Pixar finally released a film starring a female lead!

In the Pixar movie Brave, which opened last week,the heroine is a young woman named Merida who is, of course, a princess. I’m actually not sure why Merida is even a princess except that the story is set it in medieval Scotland (and now she can be added to the Disney princess line-up and not be relegated to the sidelines like Mulan).

Much has already been written about Brave as yet another princess movie with untapped potential of actually crushing gender stereotypes. At least she doesn’t wear pink or long for prince charming or need rescued by prince charming, so there was some deviation from the princess trope.

In the end, (SPOILERS!) Merida rescues her mom and herself rather than needing the rescuing (if you ignore the part where she needs her three younger brothers to help her escape from her room in which her dad locked her).

I saw the film on Friday and instead of rehashing how Brave reinforces gender stereotypes, I am going to focus on the marriage in the film.

The gist of the film is that it is time for Merida to get married. She is to marry one of the princes of the other three clans in order keep the peace among the four clans. She is not interested in marriage and the men presented are, well, dolts. Love is not a prerequisite for this marriage. To find the best prince they hold an archery contest and even then, Merida shows them up as the best archer among them all.

What we see here is an alternative purpose of marriage, that is, marriage for political reasons rather than for love. It is only recently that love has been promoted as an ideal reason for marriage (read Marriage, A History for more). Even with this love ideal, there are other reasons people get married:

  • Pregnancy
  • Need health insurance or other financial benefits tied to marriage
  • Boredom
  • Everyone else is getting married
  • Immigration [1. I should note that the idea that marrying a U.S. Citizen automatically earns you a green card is false. It’s far more complicated than that and many married citizens have their partners deported.]
  • Political reasons or aligning families

Let’s go back to the case of Brave, where marriage is for political purposes.

Merida’s fate is to marry one of the princes from the other clans to keep the peace, but she wants to change her fate. It is unclear though what her fate actually might be. I’m led to believe after watching the movie, that her new fate is one where she marries for love. She doesn’t explicitly say she doesn’t ever want to get married–just not now and in this way rather than because she believes marriage is an outdated institution, wants to finish college and be established in her career first, or would just prefer remaining single. She just isn’t ready for marriage now.

What makes Merida brave isn’t that she goes deep into the forest alone or escapes a bear. What makes Merida brave is that she successfully avoids an (arranged) marriage. My guess is that we will learn that her fate is a love marriage in the sequel. What would make Pixar brave is to make a sequel that does not revolve in Merida falling love, getting married, or both. Conveniently setting the story in medieval Scotland, limits Merida’s non-marital options, so I suspect a sequel will have a prince charming.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Sociologists argue that social norms come out of our cultural values. If there is a social norm to marry for love, that must then come from a cultural value. What cultural value leads people in the United States (and the West) to marry for love?
  2. Much has been written about the gender stereotypes regarding Merida, but what about the gender stereotypes regarding the male characters and masculinity? After watching the movie trailer, what stereotypes are reinforced for men?
  3. Several reasons for marriage were listed above. Can you think of other reasons for marriage? Do you plan to get married (or are already married)? What reasons would you get married?
  4. In the United States and Europe marrying for love is more common than arranged marriages, but in other parts of the world arranged marriages are common. Do you feel Brave is being ethnocentric? For the sake of argument, assume that the big threat in the film is arranged marriage. Aren’t there many men and women living happily with arranged marriages who might object to the rather negative light the film puts arranged marriages in?