Essay

Nourishing Narratives

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Warning:  If you do not wish to know details about the film, Brave, today’s blog is not for you.  Please come back tomorrow.   


Shelagh Gordon

 We often talk about the power of story, but how do we actually know which narratives are nourishing ones?

In thinking about that question, an internet kerfuffle about Pixar’s film, Brave, comes to mind. 

I saw the film on its opening weekend with my elementary school-age nieces and was pleased by a narrative that suggested that the lead female character might have a story beyond the marriage plot.  Indeed, the way the movie focused instead on the adolescent struggles common (dare I say, universal) to mother-daughter relationships was refreshing and well-explored. 

Initially, no one who has read women’s literature could really be surprised by Merida.  Princess Merida is a fine adolescent heroine, cut from the same “feisty” cloth as Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre, Jo March, and all their latter-day counterparts.  Not surprisingly, Merida is outspoken and opinionated, and like the Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, she wields a mean bow.  She claims too she does not want to marry.  All pretty standard 19th century fare.  Much as she resembles (and perhaps because she resembles) these heroines in brains, in physicality (after all, 19th century heroines did a great deal of striding over moors and through muddy fields), and in a rejection of the fripperies of female fashion, one is still brought up short when her suitors turn out to be three doofi who, unlike every convention of romantic comedy, remain untransformed into even datable (let alone marriageable) material for Merida.  Trained as viewers are in expecting even the most ludicrous of romantic pairings in movies to work out, it comes as almost an amazement when the film ends with Merida choosing none of the suitors—and the closing moments of the film given over to Merida and her mother riding together through the Scottish highlands. 

Sounds like one small step for feminism, even if the lead character is still a princess (that is a whole other wormy can).  Virginia Woolf and her “thinking back through our mothers” deal would probably be proud. 


But then I read Adam Markovitz, blogging on Entertainment Weekly’s “Popwatch,” who asked “Could the heroine of Pixar’s ‘Brave’ be gay?” Lots of folks weighed in on the question (go ahead and google away—Steven Colbert is, as expected, quite amusing, for example).  But what I thought was interesting was that in both Markovitz’s formulation and in many of the answers that followed in the media, the speculation keeps the focus on romance above all.  In other words—and despite what the film tries to say—who Merida is attracted to is more important than any other relationship she has or any other possible life story she might pursue.  Of course, I am not denying that sexuality is an important part of identity and story. But it is striking to me that Markovitz’s discussion is, in part, just another way of reinforcing a version of the “marriage plot,” rather than seeing the possibilities at which Brave’s ending at least hints. 

What lies in store for the Meridas of the world?  What if she really never does find romance or marriage or partnership? Is it no longer a fairy tale?  Is her life not “brave”? And really, to what other story might these Meridas aspire?

To answer that question, I want to end by enthusiastically commending to you a piece that ran in the Toronto Star recently. 

The Star decided to randomly choose an obituary of an ordinary person and chronicle the impact of that life.  They selected Shelagh Gordon, a 55 year-old woman who had died suddenly of a brain aneurysm.  Shelagh never married, she had a seemingly unimportant and uninspiring job, but she lived an extraordinary life.

I will urge you to read her story by simply saying that I have seldom been as moved by the power of one human life. 

And I will say this as well:

Merida would have admired Shelagh, I think, because Shelagh had the bravery to love tangibly—in big ways and small—and fiercely.   

May the same be said of us.  

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

4 Comments

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Thanks for this insightful piece, Jennifer. The undertone of "love whoever you want" was certainly there in the movie, but I agree with you that the movie failed to imagine much beyond the … let's call it the "attraction plot." When will we get a heroine who is passionate about her work and about public service for its own sake? I think the more powerful and deeply disturbing undertone of this movie, however, was the sense that all the males are silly, volatile, immature, crude, violent, and completely incapable of organizing themselves, let alone maintaining a humane society. They depend on the calm wisdom of the queen to rein them in whenever they get stupid. Good thing the mother and daughter in the film work out their "issues," or this would be one more kingdom that succumbs to male-induced collapse. If this is a parable for our times, we are in much deeper trouble than we thought.

  • Jessica Bratt says:

    Great post, Jennifer. Thanks.
    I haven't seen the movie yet but was merely pleased to see a new cartoon heroine with frizzy curly hair. 🙂

    Lots of athletes/companies/events make appearances at Children's Hospital here and it's one part genuine goodwill and one part great PR for them….and just yesterday, Pixar came and showed Brave in the entertainment center for any kids who could make it downstairs to see it (especially since most of them won't be leaving the hospital to see it anytime soon). Some of the movie's animators were there in person making drawings for the patients. And they were giving out hats that said 'Brave' on them, which seemed especially fitting for the kiddos in wheelchairs with pumps and tubes and iv poles in tow. The movie was a nice respite in their day. I watch them and wonder if they will one day realize that their own stories–no matter how short or unusual–are just as glorious in their own way as anything they'll see on the screen. Maybe they know it already. In any case, I loved the piece on Shelagh and wish that more stories of 'ordinary lives' could be told with such dedication!

  • Jennifer L. Holberg says:

    Thanks, Jessica, for your kind comments.

    And Debra, I absolutely agree about the portrayal of men in Brave. It is too bad that the only alternative seems to have been to make them so repellant. It's rather 19th century too, to be honest: the civilizing influence of the woman necessary to "tame" the wilder men. It would have been a far stronger narrative to have some men that were unsuitable for Merida, but not generally unsuitable. Anyway….one step at a time, I suppose.

  • Jason Lief says:

    Jennifer,
    Thanks for the post. I took my kids a few weeks back and enjoyed it. Not quite WALLE standard but good enough. I have to disagree with Debra a bit. The father did represent a sort of untamed, undomesticated, humanity – but he always invited his daughter to take part. I think he was the one who first supported the idea she not have to marry. Sometimes those who are "uncultured" end up being the most progressive among us. Notice I said sometimes…

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