Boys & Brave

The Princess Paradox… I’ve written about it before: That troubling line I walk when my son expresses an interest in all things pretty princess.

It’s not that I tow the gender-stereotype line. Oh, no. In fact, if you think that for even a second, it’s clear you found your way here via some strange internet wormhole and can see yourself safely out the door. No, I’m all for things pink and pretty for my kiddo as long as he digs them. I just have a really hard time reconciling the fact that the majority of princess paraphernalia out there props up the same tired stereotypes: helpless young girls who rely on either magic or a man to save the day, and can only find happiness in the arms of a prince. Not exactly the ideals of girlhood I’d like for my son to be exposed to.

While these princess stereotypes have the potential to be incredibly damaging to young girls, I feel that in large doses, the same can be said for young boys. While it all may feel like fun and pretend play, it doesn’t take much for the not-so-subtle lessons of these fairy tales to sink into our subconscious.

I don’t want my son growing up thinking that girls need to be saved and that it’s his role to do so. But when the majority of princesses being promoted live up to these stereotypes (Thanks, Disney!), what’s a mama to do?

Enter Brave. This movie has received a lot of attention due to the fact that it’s the first Pixar film with female protagonist. And she’s independent. And clever. And feisty. And, well, brave. The heart of this film is one we’ve seen before – that of the changing relationship between a girl and her mother. Of course, it’s told in its own unique way –  not every mother/daughter story out there centers around bears after all.

But there’s more to it then that, and it was never more obvious than when I finally took my son to see Brave. I wasn’t quite sure what his reaction would be. He’s both a huge Pixar and princess fan. He can quote Cars and Toy Story with the best of them, and I’ll frequently find him playing princess with his best friend. (Although, now they call their game of pretend “castle.” – much more egalitarian, natch.) I didn’t preface Brave as a princess movie, eager to see what his reaction would be. And so, we settled in to our seats and watched.

His reaction? To be honest, it was a little mixed. Immediately after the movie was over, I asked him for his thoughts. He said the movie made him sad. He went on to explain that he felt bad about what happened to Merida’s mom, and that whole middle part (which I won’t spoil too much for the 3 of you out there who may not have seen this movie yet) – where the mother/daughter contention rises to its height and then slowly begins to work itself out – made him feel bad, both for Merida and her mother.

But then, days later we were driving somewhere in the car, when his little voice piped up from the back. “Hey, Ima. Remember that girl from that movie? Brave? She was so cool.”

He didn’t say much more after that, but I could tell the movie was still working its way through his mind. A few days later I found this on his art table:

Merida shoots an arrow at the bad bear

He drew a princess…doing something. Usually, when he draws a princess (either an unnamed one or, most likely, Cinderella) she’s just standing there, doing nothing. Juxtapose this against his drawings of superheroes, where they’re engaged in some sort of action. It speaks volumes that Merida is not only a princess, but she’s one that inspires him to portray her as active rather than passive.

Since then we’ve talked a bit more about the movie. He mentions how awesome Merida is with her bow and arrow, and how he wants to shoot a bow and arrow as well one day… just like Merida. So, yes. It’s just one movie. But it’s a movie that shows that princesses, and by extension girls, are capable of more than just being pretty and waiting for a man to come and help solve their problems. Merida finds herself in a difficult situation, one she works on solving herself, rather than hoping it is solved for her. This message? It’s hugely important for young girls – offering them a different version of what it means to be a princess and what it means to be brave. But it also provides a fresh and different way for boys to view girls. They’re not just supporting characters, needing to be saved or only good for a laugh or two or a few words of wisdom. They can be the heroines, the saviors, the ones at the center of it all.

While many people are rightfully praising Brave for the message it sends young girls, I need to throw my own appreciation for providing my son with a more realistic, multi-layered, and “cool” version of a princess. If there were more girls like Merida out there, perhaps the Princess Paradox wouldn’t be so tricky to navigate after all…

9 thoughts on “Boys & Brave

  1. I have not seen Brave but I found this post really cool. We saw Tangled and I was charmed by the mix of femininity and strength in the female character. So was my son. It’s proof boys like these movies.

    My son is recently starting to feel empathy with movies and I notice it can make him sad too. I’m trying to navigate that world. It want to make sure he keeps that part of himself intact.

  2. I raised a daughter and she and her husband have a boy who is 2 and a half. He’s a happy guy and is doing fine. I appreciate your comments on “Brave” (I am one of the 3 people who haven’t seen it, although I have seen a couple of trailers). I also really like the picture your son drew. It’s excellent! There’s a lot of vitality in that picture! Thanks for including it.

  3. I was really excited about taking my boys to see Brave, as I also have a little one who wants to be a princess (and be saved by a Knight *sigh*)… and it was nice to see a strong female character, but I was pretty disappointed that she had to come to the realisation that she was ‘selfish’ for not wanting to get married, and she decided to sacrifice herself for her kingdom, before her mother told her not to. I think it was a shame that the female character had to think of being sacrificial, whereas a male character wouldn’t have been put in that position in the first place. But maybe I’m just picky. My boys didn’t mind the movie, but they were terrified of the bears (even my very grown up 7.5yr old) so that coloured the whole experience for them which was a shame. But yeah overall, it was refreshing to see a movie with a strong girl lead.

  4. *pointing to self* Yup, another mom here whose son plays “Princess” at home.

    We haven’t seen “Brave” yet, because my kid is 3 1/2 and I’ve been told there are some potentially scary parts, but I do agree 100% with what you said here in regards to female characters being important for how men see women, too. I get so tired of telling my son, over and over when we watch TV, “Not all women want to be saved like that. Or need to be.”

  5. Great post! It’s so important to consider the impact on boys of stereotyped portrayals of girls and women. After all, if boys believe these images are true, inequality between the sexes will never be remedied.

  6. Pingback: A year in the life…day 203: Princess Duplo Rage « The Life and Times of Bossy Boots

  7. What pathetic nonsense. After years of hollywood nonsense that measures men by their ability to beat up and kill other men, we now have the standard extended to women, and then largely for the titillation of men. Where once girls were supposed to aspire to artificial standards of appearance and femininity, they are now expected to also handle any weapon and take down large muscular men in unarmed combat. When hollywood, with live actors or cartoons, manages to celebrate genuine heroism, then you have a case. Meanwhile, go for your life in encouraging effeminacy in boys; it could help to keep down global overpopulation, especially if we can promote violence in women.

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