The Disney Princesses have come under a lot of scrutiny for being (for the most part) a bunch of lovely but helpless lasses waiting for princes in shiny armor to free them from oppression. No matter how generous and kind Cinderella, Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty are, they can only become who they're destined to be with the help of a man, specifically one wielding a sword.
Disney Princess culture is so dominant that the glorification of these traditional, outdated role models has spawned an entire "anti-princess" movement, with mothers pledging to not allow their daughters to watch the Disney Princess films or get sucked into the profitable merchandising industry that makes princess costumes so ubiquitous at every playdate (and forget about Halloween).
I've struggled with the princess mania with my own seven-year-old daughter, but have found a happy medium by exposing her to all sorts of princesses, from the slate of Disney beauties (my favorites are Rapunzel from "Tangled" and Belle from "Beauty and the Beast"), to the much less conventional princess-themed stories like "The Princess Knight" (Cornelia Funke), "The Secret Lives of Princesses" (Rebecca Dautremer) and "Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots?" (Carmela LaVigna Coyle). And now, we can add Merida to the list.
Unlike most of her predecessors, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is neither cursed nor orphaned. She doesn't have an evil stepmother, a fairy godmother, or a maniacal enemy plotting her downfall. In fact, Merida has two active (and in love) parents, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Like most teenagers, she has a fundamental difference of opinion with her mother about what she should and should not be able to do.
"Brave" is not a fairytale romance. There are three potential suitors from the other clans in the kingdom, but none of those firstborns (even the long-haired dreamy one) is of interest to Merida. She's not interested in betrothal, marriage or love at all. She keeps her amazing curls wild and unkempt. In one scene, where Elinor forces her to wear a tight-fitting circlet, Merida defiantly pulls out a stray curl just to demonstrate her independence. She just wants to be left alone to revel in her talent for archery and a wee bit of mayhem -- absolutely not to be married off without her consent.
Even though it's initially in the kingdom's best interest for Merida to follow in her regal mother's footsteps and accept one of the clan heirs, she can't see beyond her own desire to be free (queue the William Wallace yelp for "Freedom!"). And what could be more genuine than a teenager who desperately wants to shake her parents, especially her demanding mother, by the shoulders and yell: "Just listen to me." Merida is self-absorbed at first -- what teenager isn't -- but that's authentic, too.
Merida's journey from misunderstood and misguided teen to loving daughter and selfless princess is a fantastic tale of both self discovery and of the bond between a mother and daughter. The great love story in "Brave" isn't about Merida finding her Prince Charming but about her realizing she actually has something to learn from her mother. Queen Elinor, in turn, transforms both literally (she turns into a bear, thanks to Merida asking a witch to help change her mom's mind about the betrothal) and emotionally into a more accepting and flexible mother.
Now that's a legend, and a heroine, this mother of three can stand behind. My own seven-year-old daughter is already feisty, strong-willed and occasionally defiant. I love that Merida is a different kind of princess for a new generation of girls who don't need to rely on the idea that one day their princes will save them. They can grab a proverbial bow and arrow and save themselves (and be nice to their mothers while doing so!).
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