While all around me went *squee* upon first hearing about this Pixar/Disney film set in Scotland with a feisty redheaded lead, I just sat back and waited. I try not to get my hopes up when it comes to movies with either strong female characters or set in Gaelic culture, let alone both. But all the hype had a certain charm.
There seem to be many feminists who take it to task for two things, often both. One the “why does the heroine have to be a princess?” Of course, marketing is the answer, and culture programs the populace for certain marketing codes to work. And in our society “princess” is a strong marketing tool when aiming at young girls. Of course, Disney is largely responsible for the programming to begin with.
I have no problem with it though, largely because if you’re going to subvert a concept you need to use the concept, and this does twist the concept quite impressively. In fact, even more than I had hoped. Certainly the concept of rebelling against social norms and gender expectations could be done in a story of a young peasant girl, these issues certainly bridged all classes, unfortunately. However, “princess” does sell and it allowed for certain story devices which would have been much different otherwise. We’ll get to the peasant girls’ stories at some point. (and I’m not talking the peasant girl who becomes a princess standard). In fact, we have that this year as well in The Hunger Games.
This actually brings us to a second complaint I have seen made by other feminists: Why in order to be seen as strong must female characters have to just be rebelling against societal expectations of women? To me this the answer is pretty self-evident ….because we do have to! Still, today. So why should we have a story set in Medieval Scotland where it’s not a problem. I’ve already discussed my belief that pretending that we had equality in the past that we, in fact, did not have such equality doesn’t really do anything to move us forward. I do believe that as girls growing up today are still getting horrible messages about their role in life, it helps for them to have heroines who actively fight such convention. This is not to say it doesn’t also help to have role models who live in worlds where such conventions do not exist, but I do not believe we can set those in a past which, in fact, very much did. Again, this year we got another young archer (don’t you wish you owned an archery shop right now?) who lived in such a world in The Hunger Games.
One of the things we need, in general, are more stories with strong young female warriors, that way all these issues can get covered. And stories with more strong female characters in them. But we can’t complain when sometimes these things don’t happen in all movies because we’ll always find it falling short somewhere.
I think the important part is while we have a princess, she’s not pining for her prince to come, in fact, that is exactly what she doesn’t want to happen. When the princes to come-a-courting, none are anything to pine for (although one thinks he is and we’ll come back to an issue with him and his father). But while the depiction adds humor, perhaps having one truly dashing who she still didn’t want would have worked just a bit better for me. She wants her own freedom, she challenges for her own hand.
But the real story isn’t about romance or denying romance, but rather on subversion of another Disney Princess story trope…the Mommy Issues. There is no Wicked Stepmother who must be thwarted here, there is a loving mother who is suffering in her own ways over the battle with her willful daughter. This isn’t about a family torn asunder by the death of the loving parents, but rather by the issues at hand. And this is a story about healing those tears. With literal use of symbolism of it. I see this as a rather touching subversion.
And this too is another reason I see the rebelling against convention aspect important. Because this isn’t just about giving a role model to girls but also I believe it speaks to parents. Because today many are still pushing unhealthy gender conventions. Conventions which are neither good for the future women girls are becoming but also often get in the way of them being the daughters they should be with the kind of parents they need.
I have a couple of quibbles. Okay, there could probably be more, as any movie set in a culture I care about but really the ones that stuck out were the woad and the horse. I think I already say enough about The Problem of the Woad already, but I have to say here, whether you believe it was ever used or not, it’s just an annoying anachronistic Scottish trope now (thank you Mel Gibson).
Okay, so the horse, Angus, was cute. And I realize that Clydesdales are the most recognizable Scottish horse now. But it’s a very modern breed, as Clydesdale originates only to the early 1800s. Yes, that source claims that they derived from knights’ chargers, as this is a common myth that the film and so many others take to heart. The problem it, it’s not remotely true.
“As for the large draft breeds. Most people who read this will know that the Belgians, Shires, Percherons and other really large draft breeds were bred as beasts of burden and not to be knight’s great horses, but I’ll repeat that fact anyway. The Great Horse of the middle ages was not a draft animal. Heavy draft horses are not intended to run fast, or carry big men in armor. They are bred to be steady and pull heavy objects such as a plow through thick clay to turn a field, or heavy dray wagons. They have a plodding gait and simply are not fast enough.” Medieval Horse Guild
The draft horse is derived from the Medieval rouncey type horse, the farm horse owned by farmers not nobles. A fine animal, smaller at that time (likely much like current draft ponies than the big guys) but not a charger. The charger was usually a clean legged horse, such as Andalusians, as can be seen in the art of the period. The exception is the feather-legged Friesian which is not a draft type at all despite the hairy feet. And there were a lot of different horses in Medieval Europe, including Scotland, most likely the type of horse ridden by Angus would have been different than he would have provided for Merida. Yes, Angus is cute. But so are Highland Ponies (which are, actually, probably also mostly from the rouncey) and the Icelandic which was possibly a very popular type throughout much of Europe before the gaited horse lost favor (and despite the link above, is actually the classic palfrey type). Or a fine charger if we wanted the horse to show her rebelling by riding one not deemed proper for a lady as a palfrey would have been (although “palfrey” does not mean “slow” or “unspirited”).
So yeah, I went off on a tangent that most probably see as trivial because horses are kind of a big deal for me and I’m often annoyed. I managed to avoid going into it too much in the Centurion review because there was so many other things to complain about.
On the other hand, the hounds delighted me. I also loved seeing the Pictish stones this time around, as much as they annoyed me in Centurion. That is about anachronisms too, they wouldn’t have existed in the time period of that movie, while some would have dotted the landscape in Merida’s time (although others would already have been buried from sight). It just seemed touching to me.
The modern, but cute, draft horses and woaded MacIntoshes aside, I utterly loved this movie and if I had a daughter would be thrilled if she loved it. I think there’s some reminders here for those who are raising daughters about control and conventions that still exist, as well. And it’s fun, which is an important bit if it’s going to convey all the lessons it strives to.
And, yeah, I really kinda wish I owned an archery shop right now. I hear there’s a sales boom going on.
copyright © Saigh Kym Lambert