Pixar’s “Brave”: Why are We Forgetting Mulan?

Tue, June 26, 2012

Feminism, Mothers and Daughters

Princess Merida in Disney/Pixar’s new movie Brave is a strong girl. She has brains. She’s headstrong. She knows her own mind.

She is physically strong. She’s an accomplished equestrian. She doesn’t want an arranged marriage.

She’s smarter than the guys (except for when it comes to dealing with a magical witch).

The media buzz about an animated princess movie where the girl isn’t helpless or searching for a husband has been deafening, telling us that Brave’s protagonist Merida is a first.

Except that she’s not. My 12-year-old daughter and I saw Brave the day it was released (on our own dime), and I was expecting big things. While we both enjoyed it, and my sixth-grader loved comparing it to Katniss in the Hunger Games, I couldn’t help being a little disappointed because by comparison, there’s another Disney character I think is slightly better at giving our daughters a “feminist princess”  (Veronica, I had to borrow that phrase from you because it’s a good one!) who has many of the same attributes as Merida — Mulan.

While it’s true that Mulan isn’t technically a princess, though she has been marketed that way, I think it’s fair to compare them. Mulan has always been one of my favorites because: (1) there’s no stepmother/dead mother story line, (2) she’s more interested in pursuing her own dreams than finding a husband, (3) she’s smarter than all the soldiers who fight the Huns, (4) and she singlehandedly saves China. Those are good attributes in a girl!

So why are we ignoring Mulan? Why is Disney advertising it as the “first” with a female protagonist? I wish I had a good answer for that. Maybe they think our memories are short? And other princesses have fine attributes we can hope our daughters will emulate, like Belle’s love of books. While there are things in traditional princess movies that I bristle at (like Ariel being willing to abandon her family and give up her voice — literally and figuratively — for a man she falls in love with at first sight) –  there are others who also have redeeming qualities, like:

1. Danielle from Ever After. It’s a remake of the Cinderella story with Drew Barrymore, but in the end, even though she’s fallen in love with the handsome prince, Danielle saves herself and is essentially an equal in her ultimate marriage.

2. Enchanted. While she certainly doesn’t start out that way, Amy Adams’ character Giselle transforms into a woman who thinks for herself and realizes there’s more to a happy relationship than looking good in a big, white wedding dress.

3. Pocahontas. She’s not a traditional princess, but Pocahontas is definitely a woman who taught the menfolk a thing or two. Sure, she ended up marrying Captain John Smith, but she wasn’t out to find a man; she was an adventurer.

4. CinderElmo.  The gender roles are reversed for this Muppet  Cinderella story, but Kerry Russell plays a Princess who also balks at the idea of having to choose a man to marry at random at the age of 18. She finally gets decide her own fate after her Muppet father, the King, has his epiphany, “I can change the LAA-aaww!”

5. Tangled. This Rapunzel doesn’t need saving by the guy with “the smolder.” And I’d bet that Willow Smith is just a little jealous of how this Rapunzel “whips her hair.”

Interestingly, the aspect of Brave that resonated most with my daughter wasn’t the strong sense of self that Princess Merida brings to the screen — it was the story of Merida’s family and the bond she had with her mother. And that gives me hope as we enter the oh-so tumultuous teen years in our own castle.

Do you have a favorite “feminist princess?”

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11 Responses to “Pixar’s “Brave”: Why are We Forgetting Mulan?”

  1. Gina B Says:

    Personally, this movie (“Brave”) really stuck out for me. The difference here is that this is Disney’s first movie about mother-daughter relationship. No “missing”, “deceased”, “fake” or “evil” mother/stepmother. This in my opinion is a huge gigantic leap for Disney in my opinion, and it was one of their best films ever. (OK, I’ll admit, I didn’t see Mulan. It’s probably in our collection somewhere, but my girls have no been interested in every princess for some reason. )

  2. Ashley Says:

    I agree with Gina, because the focus was on a disconnect between the mother daughter relationship and rebuilding it, that was a huge point in its favor. And I don’t think it’s being billed as Disney’s first feminist princess, it’s getting a big push because its the first time Pixar made a female character the center of the story. I also think it handled the mother daughter story line really well and no one falls in love or gets a random boyfriend or husband along the way. Mom and daughter save the day, save each other, and learn a bit more about the other in the process.

    Mulan was about her and only her, and that was a great story, but it still relies on the old the trope of she picks up a boy in the end, and that’s what happens with pretty much every Disney Princess of recent history (93 to present day) they all want more, they all want to be independent and strong, but the story always comes back HEA kiss.

  3. PsychMamma Says:

    I loved Mulan, too, but totally agree with Gina and Ashley above. Even Mulan still wrapped the whole thing up with the “falling in love with the guy” traditional storyline. I also loved the fact that BOTH parents were present and loving and that the storyline of brave revolves around the tumultuous bonds of mother and daughter. We saw it Sunday, and my 6yo daughter is still talking with me about the messages of the story. When explaining it to her grandma on the phone, she said, “Merida and her mom both got mad and said things that weren’t nice. Merida wished for her mom to change, and she changed into a BEAR. To change her back, they had to say they were sorry and really listen to each other to fix their problem.” That’s a take-away message I LOVE.

    Thanks and huge kudos to Disney/Pixar! I loved Mulan and the others on your list, but Brave still rates as my favorite Disney movie ever.

  4. PunditMom Says:

    Thanks for all these great comments about the mother/daughter aspect of the movie. It really did resonate with my daughter — a 12 y.o. who is focusing more on how we don’t always agree, but that we still love each other. I wonder if Disney/Pixar will give us more movies like this for our girls?

  5. Debbie Owensby Moore Says:

    I agree with everyone why Brave is different. Merida’s role also makes it okay to remain single or marry someone of the same sex.

  6. Emily Says:

    I always loved both Mulan and Pocahantas and my daughter watched them a lot when she was younger. She was both Mulan and Pocahantas at one time for Halloween.

  7. melanie Says:

    I admit that I sort of liked the movie. I have a little princess diva at home that I am trying to show alternative perspectives to, and since I just got custody of her I’m behind on all the kids movies. I was just wondering about Mulan today, and am glad that I read this post today. One thing that I have to say about Brave is this…..Can for once we please just have a strong female character who is not a princess? What’s up with Disney starting off the movie with a forced marriage of like an 8 year old? Plus, can’t we please just watch a kid’s movie without all of the sex jokes, such as were in Brave??

  8. Angel tsunami Says:

    I’m going to agree with previous attend comments about the traditional falling in love line. In Brave, it was brought up but Merida stamped it out. In Mulan, we have the “happily ever after” of Mulan and her man.

    As far as Pocahantas, Disney shows a lack of interest in ANY historical truth and instead chooses the more romantic and possibly more “western history” friendly version of the story. But, that’s another can of worms. ;-)

    Overall, I completely agree! Disney needs more heroines, less princesses and more honesty as to what woman (and girls) are like.

    Thanks for your thought provoking post!

  9. Samantha Says:

    Just an FYI, Merida was not Disney’s first “female protagonist/heroine,” but Pixar’s. This was a big deal for Pixar, as it was the first female protagonist in one of their films, but also the first film directed by a woman, Brenda Chapman. “Brave” was inspired by her relationship with her daughter, and she was fired from the project halfway through. There is much speculation as to why that was, but “Brave” definitely was a big deal for Pixar. Mulan is not forgotten! Still one of my favorites and definitely has one of the best soundtracks to a Disney film!

  10. Susanna Says:

    I agree with the author of the article. While Merida is definitely a feminist icon Mulan is the one that actually came first. I disagree with some of the statements above saying that the Movie was solely about her when in fact the movie concentrates on the love she has for her father and how she’s willing to risk her life to protect him. Though I love Brave I believe Mulan should deserve rightful recognition for being the first true feminist character to come out of Disney. My daughter and I love both movies and I am very proud that she has chosen the two princesses as her favorite

  11. RAWR Says:

    Did people commenting here even see Mulan? Mulan was also about the father-mother-daughter relationship (that’s why she went she has an identity crisis and also went off to join the army).

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