Freudian Political Agency in “Brave”

For anyone who doesn’t think that Freud is alive and well in children’s movies, direct your attention to the scene in Brave where one of the young triplet boys, metamorphosed into a bear, dives straight into the cleavage of the maidservant Maudie.  The point of view even switches to first person, zooming in on her buxom breasts as the boy drops in from the rafters, to reclaim his birthright.  With triplets, the queen Elinor would surely need at least one spare supply of milk, and, as is apparent through the close-up, Maudie would have been a suitable wet-nurse.  In normal times, these toddlers, who no longer rely on breast milk, mischievously torment Maudie by surreptitiously stealing desserts (a sweet alternative to breast milk) as they scurry away laughing, having successfully solicited her attentions.  This primitive flirting is akin to what Freud calls “sublimation” or aim-inhibited desire (affection); that is, no longer able to access their true desire, the breasts, the boys re-channel that energy into other, in this case parallel, pursuits.   However, as bears, they go straight for the main course – no tricks, no wiles, no inhibition, they just dive right in.  As animals, they allow the id to pursue the object of desire without any interference from the more civilized parts of the psyche.

By itself, this scene is a funny, almost too-obvious play on Freudian themes.  But how does it affect the main character, Merida?  The deeper we delve, the more we realize that Freud’s logic guides our heroine Merida’s coming-of-age.  We see Freud’s dream logic in Merida’s jaunt through the world of the magic spell, where her repressed desires rise to the surface.  We can even apply the same logic to the burgeoning kingdom itself as it solidifies its foundation – becomes more stable through the Freudian negotiation of opposing forces within.  In other words, the movie’s idea of growing up is Freudian, and the movie’s idea of civilization is Freudian.

The narrative bills itself as an adolescent girl’s quest for the freedom to control her destiny.  Let’s translate this – this is a story about Merida finding political agency by making her voice heard.  Merida feels that the constant princess training she endures silences her voice.  She equates her mother’s unwillingness to listen with the restraint on her freedom, especially when her mother is deaf to her refusal to marry.  She tries to force her voice on her mother and her kingdom when she pulls the stunt at the archery contest.  Merida associates this silencing with her mother and her duty as a princess, and the only time Merida feels like she has control over her fate is when she is freed from her mother’s lessons and allowed to practice archery on horseback and climb cliffs, all manly pursuits that she ostensibly learned from her father.  However, even though she associates freedom with her father and the skills he teaches her, she soon finds out that her father represents the opposite of freedom.   (Freedom/agency is found through voice.)

The connection between political agency and voice is crucial to the film, but it is different for men and women.  Notice how the men use language.  The triplets are mute; one of Merida’s suitors disdains to speak, another is unintelligible, and the other lets his vanity and short temper do the talking.  The adult men hardly provide a model of civilized language, as their arrogant and exaggerated exploits  are the only things that enable them to articulate.  Merida’s own father is incapable of giving the simplest of welcome speeches yet able to reach higher levels of articulation when he dramatizes and even rhymes about his battle with Mordu.  To say the least, these men have no regard for the civilizing function of language, and left to their own devices they would be in a constant state of war, as their bragging leads to blows, and their inability to solve simple diplomatic problems with nuanced language leads to war.  The men are quick to dispense with the uses of language, as Lord MacGuffin expresses just before the four tribes nearly break into all out war:  “No more talk.  No more tradition.  We settle this now.”

These are not civilized men; they are primitive, and they live and rule by the pleasure principle.  If a person is ruled by the pleasure principle, he goes after the object of his desire without thinking about the consequences.  We associate this principle with animals, like when dogs hump people’s legs in front of people.  Were a human being to go up to another human being and forego small talk and flirting, and just dive into her breasts, this human being is slapped, thrown out of the bar, and beaten up by the other human being’s boyfriend.  Because living in human society according to the pleasure principle is ultimately more painful than pleasurable, humans developed the capacity of the reality principle as a way to think about how to get the object of desire without getting embarrassed or destroyed.  This is where language comes in.  An adept reality-principled male can talk himself into bed and out of a fight, all by repressing the desire to get it on and destroy a sexual competitor long enough to make it happen.  Freud calls this the “self-preservation instinct.”  In a civilized society, we might call this “diplomacy.”

The men who rule the society in Brave do not know anything about the self-preservation of diplomacy.  Their political agency is gained through inarticulate violence, which makes for very tenuous bonds between tribes.  Unlike Merida, these men do not need to have their voices heard in order to gain control over their fate, they merely need the strength of their urges.  Consequently, it doesn’t take long to figure out that the destiny of these tribes does not rest on the shoulders of the men, but on the women.

So if the men grab hold of their destiny through inarticulate violence, how do women gain political agency in this society?  It is one of the movie’s brilliant acts of misdirection that we, along with Merida, think that she will gain her freedom in the same way men do – through meritocratic strength of arms.  We briefly think that her actions will transcend gender roles and revolutionize her society.  But her glorious display of skill at the archery contest is met with an ear-dragging to her room by her mother.  The path to self-determination and political voice that is open to men is closed to Merida.  She must find her path through the confines of gender roles.

Her acceptance of these confined gender roles is part of her coming-of-age.  A coming-of-age narrative always involves a young person finding a place for herself, and a voice for herself, in the adult world.  In order to inhabit this world,  the character must free herself from childish illusions.  If we look at the illusions that the young person must grow out of, and the reality that they must conform to then we can see the ideology of the narrative more clearly.

Merida’s childish illusions consist of two things.  1.) Merida thinks that she can earn control over her life the male way – through violence and warfare.  2.) Merida thinks that earning freedom consists of rejecting the prescribed obligation she has to her family, tribe, kingdom.  On the one hand, this film does not condone blurring the distinction between male and female roles.  On the other hand, it is decidedly not a proponent of neoliberal meritocracy and individualism.  This movie rejects the idea of meritocracy and individualism at the same time that it reinforces stable gender roles.  (It should also be said that Merida’s most blatant misreading of her reality is the idea that her mother “was never there for her.”  However, I think that Lili Loofbourow does an excellent job of following that illusion to the end.)

Merida finally comes to terms with these gender roles when she comes to terms with her true desires.  Her childish illusions are surface desires, a reaction against her mother’s repression.  It takes something like a dream to uncover her real unconscious desires.  Any time a movie like this veers into a world of magic, as Brave does when Merida encounters the witch for the first time, the magical quality of the film resembles dream logic in which animals talk and people transmogrify, and emotions run hot.  In other words, when the movie wanders into the realm of magic, it wanders into the world of dreams.  And in this world, the unconscious has free reign.

If you’ve ever encountered Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, you may know that at the bottom of ever dream is a wish-fulfillment.  If you’ve ever encountered a feature length, animated princess story or fairy tale, you probably know that almost every instance of magic also pursues a wish fulfillment, be it a genie granting three wishes, a poison apple, an oddly concocted potion, or a monkey’s paw.  And, just like in dreams, the magic never leads directly to wish fulfillment the way the dream/wisher expects.

Which of Merida’s unconscious wishes are brought to the surface and fulfilled?  Despite the fact that Merida wishes to “change my Mum,” her true wish, as revealed in the magic scenes, is to be in solidarity with her mom.  Like in a dream, Merida is capable of doing things that in the “real” world she would otherwise be incapable of doing:

1.) Though Merida is resentful towards her mother, her jaunt in the magical/dream world reveals her “identification” with Elinor.  As a bear, Elinor is silent and incapable of nagging Merida.  This allows Merida to show off her ability to navigate nature, an ability she uses to warn Elinor-as-bear of poison blueberries and infested water, and teach her how to fish.  By shepherding her mom-as-bear through the wilderness, Merida inhabits the role of nurturer and fulfilling the wish to be like her mom, to fill the feminine role of mother.

2.) The dream/magic world also reveals Merida’s unconscious hostility toward her father.  The hostility toward her father stems from the fact that her father leads her to think that she can achieve freedom the male way without providing the route through which she can gain political agency.  When Fergus discovers them in the castle, Elinor’s bear instincts kick in and instead of running or protecting Merida, she startles us by attacking Fergus.  Elinor’s brief attack on Fergus is something Merida subconsciously wants to happen.  It may be merely the resentment she feels for the illusion he instilled in her, and it may also express a sympathy for Elinor who takes much more responsibility for the kingdom than Fergus.

3.) Finally Merida is allowed to defend her mother against her father when she shoots the sword out of his hand and knocks him down off his wooden leg.  Symbolically the father’s primitive excesses – his penchant for violence, resorting to arms – threaten to kill Elinor, without whom the kingdom would fall into chaos.

In saving Elinor, Merida has not only come to terms with her relationship with her mom and her place in the kingdom; she has realized the importance of the role of the female in this fragile kingdom.  Her role now is to prevent the excesses of the males and to carry the torch of the reality principle, so that civilization can survive and progress.  Her conscious wish was to gain control over her destiny by “changing” her mom.  Her real wish was to be like her mom.

And, as the movie suggests, her mom is the best role model Merida has.  Elinor is the superego to Fergus’s id.  Not just because she pulls people by the ear when they lose control of their senses, but because she establishes the ideal.  The superego is sometimes called the “ego-ideal” because it is the mind’s idea of the ideal self that it strives to become.  When Elinor tells Merida that “a princess strives for perfection,” she models the ideal for her.  Yet it is not just a personal ideal that she models, but a public ideal.  Merida’s journey through the movie is a social journey, and her coming-of-age is not just a sorting out of her inner psyche, it’s a particular formation of the psyche that is guided wholly by society in which she is born.  Herbert Marcuse argues that the type of civilization and the class in which one is born has everything to do with the formation of the psyche, and this film makes that argument as well, though it makes the point in a much less radical way.

In order for this civilization to move forward, Merida must inhabit the role of the woman that she inherits, and no other role will suffice.  Though this is hardly progressive messaging, it does fly in the face of movies like The Incredibles which express a staunchly neoliberal message of meritocracy and individualism.  Instead, the world of Brave demands that everyone play their given part.  On the one hand, it’s a dharmic and communitarian movie right up the alley of someone like David Brooks.  (It is also quite progressive in form considering the reactionary portrayal of mothers and daughters in other princess movies.)  On the other hand this is a Freudian message at its core in its advocacy of a balance between impulse and repression; in its need to uncover repressed desire; in the necessity of repression to move civilization forward.

Merida bookends the narrative with a few talking points about fate.  In one sentence she suggests that fates are “interwoven like a cloth.”  Certainly this message lies in the movie’s communitarian-obligation theme and is supported by the symbol of the tapestry that Merida rips out of anger and repairs out of repentance.  Yet these sentences about fate reveal how tightly interwoven and complex political agency is within any given system.  By saying that some people are led to their fate she implies that political agency is attained passively, not aggressively as she attempted in the beginning.  And even though Merida says, “Some say fate is beyond our command.  But I know better,” this doesn’t mean that she has control over her future.  She goes on, “Our destiny is within us.  You just have to be brave enough to see it.”  Translation – we are born into our destiny, and we have to (be brave enough to) accept it.

Merida’s political agency is limited by two things: gender roles and class boundaries.  The unfortunate message-behind-the-message of this film is that it reinforces class boundaries as well as gender boundaries.  Merida, and we, can be happy that she has accepted her fate.  What’s not to like.  Elinor is powerful in her female role.  Fergus may be a great warrior, but every other administrative duty is presumably delegated to Elinor who keeps the kingdom running efficiently enough to make Sheryl Sandberg proud.  She is satisfied in her role and shows no sign of discontent in her marriage.  Who wouldn’t want to be Elinor?  The answer: her daughter, the only one privileged enough to even think about rejecting it.

Even if the film silences the voices of the underclass, (Maudie is the only one from the underclass who speaks, and her voice is ignored by the triplet princes, who see her quite literally as a sex object) it is satisfying to see a princess reject the notion that only a prince can make a princess fully inhabit her role.  Brave should be credited with taking the romance out of being a princess and replacing it with maturity and sacrifice.

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