Brave new chauvinism

Masculine narratives and the foibles of Brave's brand of feminism.

Here’s a challenge, think of a film that meets the following three conditions:

  1. It includes at least two women
  2. Who have at least one conversation
  3. About something other than a man or men

If you can, then you've just succeeded in identifying one of the disappointingly few films that pass the Bechdel test, a litmus for evaluating female presence in cinematic narratives. Though more films pass the test than when Bechdal first proposed it in 1985, a worrying percentage still seem to believe that women aren't worth portraying except in relation to men.

Pixar’s latest film, Brave, would therefore seem a welcome respite. Not only does it pass the Bechdel test, but shuns a romantic interest in order to focus on the relationship between the protagonist, Merida, and her mother, Queen Elinor. This is a feat for Hollywood, where it's commonplace for protagonists to have a mother in the grave, and eloquently articulated mother daughter relationships are vanishingly rare. Brave is also something of an off-screen feminist landmark, if a belated one, as it's the first Pixar film to be directed by a woman, and their first to feature a female protagonist. It all sounds so promising, but, as considerable as these achievements are, they're not enough to salvage the film.

Its downfall began in October 2010 when, 18 months before the film’s release, then director Brenda Chapman was replaced by Mark Andrews. It’s not unheard of for Pixar to tip up the director’s seat and "artistic differences" were cited, but, considering the gender issues, it’s hard not to see the move as politicised. Chapman herself has written that "sometimes women express an idea and are shot down, only to have a man express essentially the same idea and have it broadly embraced." It’s doubtful we’ll ever know the full story, but no one was surprised when Chapman jumped ship for Lucasfilm as soon as Brave was released.

This release, it turned out, bore no clearer feminist message. Yes, the film’s focus is the relationship between two females, but the source of their conflict, Merida’s refusal to get married, is an gendered boomerang that makes a valiant feminist swoop only to swerve right back into orbit around an androcentric discourse.

Worse still is Brave’s portrayal of men, every one of whom is a useless, bumbling moron. Hear that rustling? That's the sound of proponents of straw feminism puppeting hay hands together in glee. True feminism is about equality, not the superiority of either sex, and pathetic male characters only weaken feminist narratives by giving the impression that feminine strength is only an illusion caused by the lack of worthy comparisons. Admitedly, the battle of the sexes has always been popular comedy material, and such sexism might have been forgiveable, if it weren’t for the fact that the female lead we are offered is less a power woman, and more an immature, self-absorbed and obnoxious "you go-girl" drama queen, or should I say princess. That crash wasn't the straw feminists, but my head making acquaintance with the wall.

Contrary to the mantra with which Hollywood’s mutters itself to sleep, physical strength is not strength of character and power is not empowerment. Merida is a text-book example of the distinction, for despite her prowess at horse back archery she has absolutely no agency. Instead of making effective choices that can transform her situation, she alternates between tantrums and tears, runs away, and inflicts a terrible transformation upon her mother. Her desperation to "change her fate" throws the kingdom into crisis in, yet, in gross contradiction she lunges madly after "wisps", magical creatures that are rumoured to "lead a person to their fate". Even her moment of resolution is a hollow parroting of her mother’s message and comprises of delaying marriage rather than true emancipation. Granted, Merida is a little more mercurial than her Disney princess cousins, but she’s just as passive. Perhaps for the first time in the history of the two blurry companies, Disney has made a better stab at being radical than Pixar. It’s 14 years now since Mulan took to our screens, but as a feminist role model she was leagues ahead of Merida. Yes, the film did sing that it would "make a man out of you", but by its conclusion Mulan had reasserted her identity as a women and single-handedly saved the film’s feminist credentials, not to mention China, though her ingenuity, friendships and intellect.

This is a point worth spelling out - giving a woman a weapon doth not make her a feminist role model. Hanna Rosin, in her review of Brave for Slate, suggests that the cultural ambivalence our society projects towards women in positions of power is the consequence of a misconstrued association of “dominance with physical force. In the hunter/gatherer origin myth, men control the resources because they have more upper body strength.” Thus explaining Hollywood's history of casting steroid dripping biceps on legs for their male leads. It also makes sense of the recent wave of sword-swinging, arrow-stringing, silver-screen heroines. For in Hollywood's twisted little mind, empowerment and heroism are equated with giving a character the ability to kill people. The trend reminds me of nothing more than the shoulder padded suits adopted by women in the 1980s - film, it implies, is a man’s world and to survive there women need to adopt stereotypically masculine traits. Of course, the other, supposedly commercial, reason is to offer boys female characters that they can relate to. Hollywood is bed-wettingly terrified of estranging its young male audience, yet considering its history of doing exactly this to girls, constrainting its female protagonists for these reasons can be given no name other than chauvinism.

Which is not to say that it’s wrong to cast women as fighters. As a woman who spent much of her youth sneaking into my neighbours' garden to retrieve homemade arrows, I’m a strong believer in challenging gender roles, whether this is supporting women who adopt traditionally "masculine" traits or men who adopt "feminine" ones. Yet it’s blindness to believe that welcoming women to the fight is the only viable form of feminism. Giving equality to women does not mean making them men with boobs.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that the dominant narrative form in western society is a largely andocentric one. In her delightful Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula Le Guin traces the masculine narrative form of the hero, the fighter, back to our hunter gather origins. She argues that male ‘lawgivers' have 'decreed’ that “the proper shape of a narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK!” the story bulls-eyes an ending like an arrow to a mammoth’s heart. As narrative structure dictates the fit of characters, for a woman to be at home in these stories she has to pick up the bow and, as Le Guin charmingly puts it, "THOK". Yet this not the only narrative form. Le Guin contrasts the hero’s story to the narrative as a “carrier bag/belly/box/house/medicine bundle” in which conflict and struggle may be seen as “necessary elements of a whole, which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.” Traditionally feminine traits look great within the cut of this story, put the hero inside the carrier bag and he looks like a "potato".

Yet before I give the impression that Brave is a complete feminist flop, it has to be noted that a rather ironic character holds the film back from certain disaster. For whilst Merida’s life might be made hell through her mother’s constant nagging of "a lady rises early, doesn't stuff her gob and does not place her weapons on the table", it turns out that this particular lady is quite clearly the sovereign of kingdom, household, and all Scotland’s brain cells, not to mention the only person with the diplomacy to prevent all out war. In this way, Elinor is not only Brave's true feminist role model, but its secret protagonist, as the only character who under goes transformation (literally) and learns from the events of the narrative. Chapman herself has revealed in interview that “marketing made Merida the ‘main character’, but in my mind, I always considered Merida and Elinor equal.”

For an animation studio defined by inviting mould-breaking protagonists to the limelight (previous Pixar protagonists include a by-gone superhero and crotchety old man), it’s unforgivable that a middle-aged woman isn’t allowed to even share the central role. Hollywood might have grudgingly make way for a svelte Katniss, but apparently once women are past their phase of peak reproductive readiness, their only real chance of a look-in is as a supporting role or villain. This is pure insanity when one considers the fact that last year over 50 per cent of cinema seats were filled by women, but not surprising when one realises that during the same period 82 per cent of Hollywood’s behind-the-camera roles were filled by men. It's not radical to argue that something has to change.

Earlier this month the New York Time’s Room for Debate section was dedicated to a discussion on how women can gain influence in Hollywood. Chapman used the forum to speak frankly about her removal from Brave, as "a story that came from my heart, inspired by my relationship with my daughter – it was devastating". “I think it's a really sad state. We're in the 21st century and there are so few stories geared towards girls, told from a female point of view." Her rallying cry was to urge women in film to "Mentor. Inspire. Move forward together." Increasing the number of female filmmakers in this way is the most important change to affect, yet as their voice grows I hope that they will sometimes use it to tell stories that deivate from the one-size fits all narrative form of the "hero". For while there will always be a place for the femme fatale and female fighter, women deserve stories in which we can be empowered without relying on boobs or brawn.

Brenda Chapman (centre) at the premiere of Brave

Emma Geen is a freelance writer. She tweets @EmmaCGeen and blogs at www.emmageen.com

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA