Adventure Is In Here: Hostility and Wish-fulfillment in Pixar’s “Up” – Part II

Charles Muntz

Does the film really suggest that Ellie has always imposed on Carl’s true wishes? Does the house really just symbolize Ellie herself, as the filmmakers suggest?  If so, we could certainly appeal to Freudian psychoanalysis for an explanation. Freud tells us that it is quite natural to harbor a hostility toward the people we love the most, and in their death we project that hostility onto ghosts of the deceased, claiming that they want to harm us. In our case, the house may stand in for a ghost enacting hostility by emasculating Carl, weighing him down when he could be enjoying his adventure.

As enticing as this analysis may be, this house can’t merely symbolize a person, or even a marriage, not after that montage depicting their struggles with money. If we want to understand the house as a symbol it will be more useful to extend the analysis to encompass the domestic in general, because the relationships that go on under a roof are just one strand in a web woven out of multiple social and economic realities.

America’s historical arc is unique when it comes to capitalism’s long-game strategy and how we have ended up with the type of domestic life we live now. Karl Marx notes in Capital Vol. 1 that early American capitalists had a hard time paying laborers a low wage because the demand for labor in such a rapidly expanding economy was so high. As a result, many workers in the early republic were able to save enough of their wages to embark on to the frontier and live free of wage labor. But even in America this could only last for so long. Capitalism has since bound the worker to her job. A blown-out tire here, a new roof there, the ebb and flow of savings – all of these unexpected, uncontrollable realities pull Carl and Ellie back into the orbit of struggling domestic life. An adventure deferred.

When we add this financial struggle to the concept of the “domestic,” it reveals an inner tension, a dialectic of the home. On the one hand the home is a space where relationships are nurtured, flourish, expand, and grow. On the other hand, the home is a confined space, a money pit, an enormous responsibility that makes us reliant on our paltry paychecks, binds us to our jobs. The domestic sphere is the site of all the joys in life, but it is also a symbol of life’s biggest stresses.

Yet even from the beginning, Ellie seems poised to weather this struggle better than Carl. Ellie realizes that the best way to deal with life under capitalism is to consider domestic life an ersatz adventure. Instead of evil villains and treacherous landscapes, the domestic adventure’s more prosaic obstacles mold us into self-sacrificing, mild-mannered, and compliant people. The montage would also have us think that these obstacles and struggles strengthen marriages just like adventures strengthen heroes.

So, if the house, as a symbol, weighs Carl down, we can’t just chalk it up to his expressing a hostility toward a person in a dream. Carl may resent her devotion to the domestic life, or the responsibility that defers his adventure, but Ellie is not the only thing keeping him in that house, away from South America. Domestic life and all the economic impositions that come with it constitute the weight of the house.

It is finally Ellie who sets Carl free to do the adventure the right way. When Carl opens her Adventure Book and sees that Ellie thought of the domestic as adventure enough, he begins his recovery and stops letting the house hold him back. At the end of the grieving process, the ghost stops being hostile. In Carl’s dream world, the house is emptied of all the items that weigh him down to the domestic, and he finally comes to terms with the death of his wife. Relieved of one source of tension, he is free to enact his deeper hostility toward the real target – neoliberal capitalism.

 

There is something of a nod to the opening stage directions of Death of a Salesman when we see Carl’s house surrounded by imposing construction of new buildings, skyscrapers, towering next door to his puny house. Wealthy, prim-suited developers are eyeing Carl’s property for commercial use and apparently enlisting their uncommonly polite and considerate construction workers to mediate. Carl’s rancor is in full grumpy force. Yet this aggression toward the developers is not merely a reaction to being squeezed in by urban development. Carl’s grief over his wife (and whatever hostility, resentment and guilt that go along with being a recent widower), and the realization that he has nothing to show for his long life, both give fuel to his spite.

And as comical as it is to see Carl letting his leaf-blower do the talking, the film makes it seem irrational. The grumpy old man trope is humorous enough to take the edge off for a time, but the film crosses into a very serious tone when Carl assaults an earnest and helpful construction worker for trying to help him fix the mailbox he accidentally knocked over. This act exposes the roots of his animosity: Carl clearly needs to work some of his own stuff out. His grief is wrapped up together with anger, bitterness, guilt, vulnerability, and all these entwined emotions stand in the way of, not just emotional progress but economic progress.

Another way of putting it is that Carl’s unconscious tensions surface in an ugly and disruptive way when he assaults the worker – too disruptive for a Pixar film not to take us into the fantasy world. And what finally makes the movie yet another neoliberal accomplice is the fact that it suggests that the proper place for violence is not in the real world but in the fantasy world, or, like psychoanalysis, the dream work. Our unconscious is a collection of energy and desire that we cannot unleash on the world without severe consequences. When we keep repressing and repressing as a way to avoid those consequences, our mind can’t handle it anymore and it lashes out, just like Carl. However, if dreams function the way they’re designed – according to psychoanalysis – they enable our mind to release this unconscious energy in the dream world so that we don’t have to suffer the consequences of lashing out in the real world.

As we already noted, Carl’s adventure in Paradise Falls is a dream work where he works out his unconscious tension. He pursues the adventure that domestic life prevented; he comes to terms with his wife’s death. And let’s not leave out our nonagenarian villain, Charles Muntz. We said earlier that Muntz is an “other” that Carl defines himself against. But taken in the context of his struggle against the developers, we can see that he is a distillation of the self-interested, single-minded, profit-motivated capitalist. He is Carl’s dream version of the developers. Muntz pursues, rationalizes, and uses force to get what he wants. He is relentless, unscrupulous, and rich. Carl’s victory over Muntz is cathartic and satisfying. The dream has done what real life couldn’t: brought defeat to the oppressor.

But let’s look a little closer at just how the dream does its work. In other words, how does it release the tension, untangle the contradictions of domesticity and injustices of capitalist development? Carl resolves everything in the dream that he is incapable of resolving in the real world. He gets over his wife’s death, he goes on an adventure, he gains a surrogate son, and he enacts the hostility toward capitalist forces that he’s built up all along. However, in real life, these things are all wrapped up together and cannot be untangled. In the dream, however,  he is able to succeed in all these things by separating out the conflicts. In the dream Carl’s grief over his wife is completely separate from his conflict with Muntz, whereas capitalism and relationships are entwined in the real world of the domestic. In the dream when Carl sheds all the consumer items that weigh his house down, he is separating these two aspects of the domestic; i.e., he untangles another contradiction. Freed of the financial burden of domesticity (or its symbols) he pursues the the villain, our ersatz capitalist, in yet another untangled contradiction.

In the dream, having your cake and eating it too is required to resolve contradictions. Whether or not this works in the dreams of real people is something for the real psychoanalysts to deal with. For our purposes, the dream, as it is represented in the film, is really the function of ideology. The ideolo-dream prevents the film and the audience from having to face the real contradictions of capitalist society.

Were we to ignore the fact that this film is a product of a neoliberal-friendly film industry, we might say that the film deserves credit for revealing the coldness of the beshaded developer’s eagerness to profit off of his worker’s injury and take advantage of Carl’s vulnerable financial position. We might even say that the film represents the injustice of neoliberalism’s full capability of expropriating your property one way or another, even if it means using the courts to do so. The law is always on the side of the neoliberal. When you play chess with neoliberalism, your opponent has all queens. In this sense Up exposes neoliberalism as accurately as a cartoon can expect to. We ultimately see just how powerless the world of neoliberalism renders a man like Carl. But the job of the movie industry is to spirit us away from those problems into a land of resolved contradictions. The satisfying catharsis let’s us breathe a sigh of relief and face the world like Ellie, more compliant, better behaved, and content with the lemons life has given us. Let us not fail to note, that when Carl finally lets go of Ellie as that house rises through the clouds, he is also letting go of his house, just what the developer wanted. Our sigh of relief comes when the process of accumulation can resume unhindered.

It’s not to say that adventure films are merely an “escape” in the way that we talk about people going to see movies during the Great Depression. “Up” is not trying to give us temporary relief from our everyday mundanity. The film is giving us a chance to enact our own hostility; it’s just that the proper place to work out your hostility is at the movies. The adventure here is both an escape and an enactment of hostility. In “Up,” the violence is enacted on the right people – the greedy capitalists! But this is the work of Dreamworks. While acknowledging the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism, it provides the site for us to enact our hostility and act out our catharsis: in the imagination, far away from the real world. This is the flexibility of neoliberal capitalism. It can allow a critique; it can allow an attack. It can weather exposure because it knows that subjects can find an outlet (Disney) for that hostility that not only won’t harm it, but will generate more profit. In its relentless pursuit to privatize everything, it also privatizes our imaginations.

 

 

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Adventure is in Here: Hostility and Wish-Fulfillment in Pixar’s “Up” – Part I

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All good adventure stories are alike. They awaken us to a new world where our best qualities are allowed to thrive, a world in which our latent courage, loyalty, and derring-do are given free reign. Where we can be the heroic person we know we are but that society just won’t let us be. Yet as awake and alive as we want the adventure genre to make us, these stories belong in the territory of fantasy, dream, wish-fulfillment, and when we delve deeper into this realm, we find that the wish to test our virtues masks deeper more troubling desires.

Pixar’s Up is no different. It has all the qualities of a good adventure.  On the one hand, just like a coming-of-age youth discovering and testing the virtues endorsed by the adult world, our hero, retiree and widower Carl Fredricksen, discovers his own latent courage, selflessness, and loyalty. He stands in stark contrast to the greed, pride, and fraudulent spirit of his idol-cum-nemesis Charles Muntz. Because Carl and his young side-kick Russell have proven themselves worthy of all the virtues of adventure, they emerge, quite literally, the true inheritors of the “Spirit of Adventure” blimp while Muntz falls to his death inheriting just a handful of balloons – too few to float his corrupted spirit.

The same scene shows Carl and Ellie’s house also disappearing through the clouds. And though we know the house is falling, the ambiguous perspective allows us to interpret the house as rising into the clouds. As the house clearly represents Ellie, so we can assume her spirit, embodied in the house, rises to heaven.  It also provides closure to Carl whose heroic development is hindered by his clinging obsession to the house. It’s only when he empties the house of its weight (i.e., baggage), and launches to save Russell, that he has finally inhabited the role of adventurer, leaving the weight of the house, Ellie, and his marriage behind.  So, while most adventure tales may serve as coming-of-age tales, this one is just as much a coming-to-terms tale.

If we dwell on the house and the balloons as a symbolic team for a bit longer, we might observe an opposition. The balloons (adventurous spirit) float Carl away, but the house (memory of his wife) weighs him down.  On one hand, both the house and the balloons are meant to represent the spirit of adventure. When Carl and Ellie first meet as children the house is marked “Spirit of Adventure” as well as little Carl’s balloon.  On the other hand, we might observe then that each symbol has a different version of adventure associated with it: the “real” adventure modeled on Charles Muntz, and the real “adventure” of modern domestic life.  (We will go ahead and say that the former is the ideal adventure and the latter is the domestic adventure.) This symbolic coupling doesn’t appear compatible, and in fact, the house seems somewhat inimical to Carl’s original idea of the ideal-adventure. Take the early scene when Carl first meets Ellie in the house and his balloon floats up through a chasm in the second floor. Carl must traverse a fragile plank to retrieve this symbol.  He abruptly falls through the wood plank and breaks his arm, unable to retrieve the symbol of his ideal-adventure.  The house continues – throughout that masterful montage – to represent the obstacles to Carl’s ideal-adventure.  The realities of modern life – money, marriage, domesticity – continuously defer the dream vacation/adventure to Paradise Falls. As the film presents it, Carl is seduced by two different types of adventure: the ideal and the domestic. His devotion to the latter makes the former impossible.

It’s hard not to pick up on a couple messages here: 1.) Modern life only allows us to achieve the ability to go on adventure when it’s too late. When Carl finally purchases tickets to Venezuela, he and Ellie are way past the age to do anything but sightseeing and turning in early, to say nothing of the fact that her death is the cruel and final impediment.  2.)  Domestic married life prevented him from the adventure that he had always meant to take. Toward the end, after he has finally placed the house in its intended place and Russell has gone off to save Kevin, the snipe, Carl picks up Ellie’s “Adventure” book and finally realizes that she considered their domestic life the real adventure. On the one hand, he had felt like he let her down by not going to South America, but on the other hand, we get the impression that despite Ellie’s enthusiasm for the ideal-adventure, she was much more intent on the domestic-adventure.

The rest of the film takes the form of a fantasy adventure, and it stands in stark contrast to the realism of the early part of the film with the montage. Yet everything about the dream-like, ideal-adventure is bound up with the tensions of Carl’s real life. His ideal-adventure is not an escape; rather it encodes all the hostility that has built up in Carl’s life.

 

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If it isn’t an accustomed rule in the film world that any time a house loosens and detaches from its foundation and sails away into clouds, finally landing in some strange Eden, a dream has ensued, then it should be.  Add to this that Carl picks up three unlikely companions on the way.  And while no flying monkeys haunt and harass the four, there are some pretty sinister, if ultimately harmless, talking dogs.  So, if we are in the dream world then we are in the strange matrix of wish-fulfillment, displacement, secondary revision, etc.  As such, we must look beyond that strangely coherent surface of the adventure and try to understand, like Freud, the dream-thought, the real-life tension, that underlies it all.

 

If we refer to IMDB’s trivia page for our film, or if we just watch the film again, we will see an interesting physical connection between Carl and Russell involving their half-tucked collars.  We do not need much discussion to come up with the conclusion that Russell is a more ideal young Carl, or what Carl wishes he could have been at that age.  Instead of tramping around with a single pathetic balloon and a pair of goggles like Carl did as a kid, Russell effortlessly discovers the rare species of snipe that has apparently eluded Charles Muntz, Carl’s childhood idol, for decades.  Russell dangles from a rope (a couple times) dodging darts in a literal/figurative dogfight; flies solo to save his companion; gets captured, tied up, threatened; and finally saves the day.  Russell is innocent, loyal, and brave, and most importantly for our purposes, unwilling to stand by while Carl sulks over a girl who isn’t even alive.  Russell is Carl’s childhood wish fulfilled.  Russell goes on the adventure that Carl dreams he could have had had he never been seduced by the domestic-adventure.

Our villain, Charles Muntz provides us with another dream element: the double (or “uncanny” depending on how Freudian you want to be). Charles and Carl, for all etymological purposes, are the same name.  In many ways Charles Muntz is Carl’s evil double in this dreamscape, and as such he is the adventurer Carl must define himself against.  Carl finally possesses the heroic qualities he must to fulfill the ideal.  Carl’s innocence stands in stark contrast to Muntz’s experience, but Muntz’s experience has not been shaped by noble motives. Muntz is motivated by greed, pride, a desire for fame, and the need to redeem himself from being exposed as a fraud.  He is only self-interested.  Throughout his adventure, Carl discovers self-sacrifice, loyalty. As such, his ideals and the qualities he finally embodies enable him to wrench the spirit of adventure away from the corruption of Charles Muntz.

We shouldn’t hesitate to note that there are no women in Carl’s dream-adventure. Only boys and old men in this wish-fulfillment (unless you count the female bird named Kevin). The absence of any female actors in this adventure make it a masculine undertaking. Yet the presence of the house is a female imposition on this fantasy crusade. It’s emasculating and it’s always in the way. Carl redeems his spirit only when he empties the house, gives up his uxoriousness, meets up with his pals, and takes a more active role in fulfilling his adventure.

Part II: Hostility and Neoliberal Capital

 

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You may, like me, remember your first trip to the library in the first grade where you saw the long line of small white books with the thick-lined, geometrically shaped Mr. and Miss characters on the front.  These characters are drawn as if they were meant to advertise generic kid’s cereal from the 80s, and in the spirit of hipster nostalgic consumerism, you can now walk into your cool local bookstore, or, god forbid, Urban Outfitters, to find a coffee cup with the red squared Mr. Strong on it.

My two year old son received three of the books in this series as a gift a while back – Mr Tickle, Mr. Messy, and Mr. Mischief.  I hate reading these books because they’re long and annoying and not particularly well-written.  When my son picks them out, I try to hurry through them by skipping lines, but we’ve read them enough times that he catches it and corrects me like he’s the one teaching me to read.  However, as much as I dislike the books, the more I read them, the more I realized that there is some serious messaging going on here.

Ostensibly, these books were popular because they teach young kids what certain character traits look like in a person, so when they move on to chapter books or young adult books, they will be able to articulate that a character is not just “stupid” but she’s, I don’t know, “uppity.”  The characters in these books by Roger Hangreaves fully embody whichever characteristic is on display.  Mr. Messy is messy, and as such he is uncomfortable with cleanliness.  Mr. Mischief plays tricks on people that are funny but destructive.  And so on.  At bottom each of these books is really about identity.  Each character has one characteristic that defines them and nothing else.

Take, for example, Mr. Mischief, which is incidentally my son’s favorite of the three.  Mr. Mischief goes around and plays tricks on people.  He saws the legs of Mr. Happy’s chair so that he falls down when he sits; he tricks Mr. Greedy into eating a cake made of cotton, mud, and toothpaste; he fills up Mr. Funny’s hat with molasses and so on.  Mr. Mischief can’t help it; he’s mischievous by nature.  But when a wizard casts a spell on him, causing Mr. Mischief to suffer all the mischief he gave out to others, we think that maybe he’s learned his lesson.  He refrains from mischievousness for a whole week until he can’t stand it anymore.  He sneaks into Mr. Fussy’s house and cuts off half of his mustache.  Mr. Mischief is and will always be mischievous.  No lesson, no punishment, not even magic can change his identity.  That one characteristic drives his nature.

Mr. Messy’s story is similar.  When two ambiguously gay men name Mr. Neat and Mr. Tidy clean up his house and give him a bath, Mr. Messy says that he may have to change his name.  But unless these two guys move in, we are pretty sure that Mr. Messy isn’t going to change.  But the point is the same, and it raises the question of identity.  If Mr. Messy changes his name, he might be a completely new person.  Will the core of his being have changed?

It is important to note that the good characters are not encouraged to change.  Their stories do not present any obstacles to their identity; they are encouraged to stay exactly who they are.  It’s only the negative qualities that are met with disapproval and the need to change.

So, what’s going on here?  Essentialism is what’s going on.  Essentialism is a broad topic, but when it comes to the politics of characterizing people, it refers to the idea that every person has a core quality that makes them who they are.  Strip away everything, change their environment, their historical situation, and you will not change the core of that person’s identity.  Romantics and conservatives love essentialism because it deals in things like allegory, the idea that things on earth have a part in a bigger story, and the idea that things do not fundamentally change.  Essentialism, however, becomes a real problem when it begins to justify class hierarchies, racism, and imperialism.  When people define another group of people by an essential inferiority, it often leads to the idea they need to be conquered, enslaved, or exploited for profit.  Southerners essentialized African Americans as inferior in order to justify a paternal master to take care of them.  People today think that Muslims are essentially violent and that the only political system they respect is a brutal one.  (See: Bush Doctrine and Zionist support of Israeli occupation.)

I am not saying that Robert Hangreaves is a racist, imperialist, or neoliberal.  But these books raise issues about identity and character definition that are more complex than they seem on the surface.  If Mr. Mischief can’t change, what does that say about people’s abilities to learn lessons?  What does this message say about the person convicted of three consecutive crimes in California?  Is it in the core of his nature to be a criminal?  If Mr. Messy can change his messy habits but has to change his complete identity, what does this say about the consistency of a person’s identity?  Does a person have to change their whole identity, the core of who they are, just because they decide to change one characteristic?  This is a question that Evangelical Christianity have to deal with when a person converts, and it’s need not be coincidental that this is a story about washing oneself clean.

These books may be good at building vocabulary and providing beginning readers with an ability to articulate behaviors.  But like all books, I don’t think that it’s too early to accompany these books with discussions that instill the idea that all people are more than one thing.  We certainly don’t want our kids to grow up thinking that reducing people to the one characteristic that sticks out to them, especially because they will be inundated with enough reductive accounts of women, gays, immigrants, minorities, and Muslims in countless other non-book media.

Kids can learn about the differences between essentialist and deconstructive identities later.  Oh, and why not just go ahead and explain to our kids that calling a person with dark skin and a big nose “uppity” is just something we don’t do anymore.

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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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Header Image

The header image to this blog is from a mural on 2nd St. in Albuquerque painted by Thomas Christopher Haag, a local ABQ artist.  His mytho-irreverence kind of reminds me of Freud’s Totem and Taboo, which I’ll get to later.

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