I’ve never been much of a princess chick. Not only have none of them ever looked like me, but they are almost always passive, helpless, and silent, waiting for someone to come and rescue them from life. This has never been my style.
Enter my hero, Merida from Disney/Pixar’s film Brave (well, she looks nothing like me either, but just go with me on this) — spunky, obstinate, independent, spirited, intelligent, gifted, and perfectly capable of speaking and acting for herself. She’s feisty, quirky, graceless, and wild and she simply doesn’t fit in to the prescribed roles available to her. Boy, does she have a lot to learn. But that’s one of the things I love about her. She’s flawed and growing and not afraid (to adapt a saying from a dear friend) “to go through life hard.” Merida is certainly unlike any other princess unleashed by Disney. But I think that’s the point. Merida is authentic in a way no other “princess” is: she’s a person first, as opposed to a type, and that is key.
My favorite scene in the film is when Merida secretly enters the archery competition to determine which one of the clan suitors will be given her hand in marriage.
This scene speaks to me for a number of reasons, both as a woman and as a writer. Merida deliberately resists the conventions that seek to confine and define her. It isn’t so much that she doesn’t understand or respect these conventions; it’s simply that she feels she cannot follow them, at least not at this point in her life. She rebels against the fact that there are no other options, neither are any other options considered. When she rips through the ornate gown restricting her natural movements, she is in effect tearing through the cloth symbol of the suffocating life that awaits her if she bows to the pressure to marry one of the “men” on offer. It isn’t that she WON’T marry, she simply doesn’t want to marry in THIS way: because she is told to and has to for the sake of preserving tradition. Her reasons are good, even if she goes about defying them in the wrong way.
Words as much as arrows are Merida’s tools. Words are important to Merida; throughout the film we see her use them to express her feelings, articulate her needs, tell stories, think through problems, argue and curse and warn, and finally forgive and ask for forgiveness. She speaks, loud and clear; she isn’t a passive, helpless observer or victim. In the scene shared above, Merida proudly asserts that “I’ll be shooting for my own hand!” She states clearly and emphatically that no one can take from her what she herself refuses to give — her ablility to choose her own path in life.
And this is why I believe as a character Merida has such value and why she can serve as a model for women and writers. Merida lives in a world where story is paramount, where decisions are made and relationships are built upon the stories and roles of the past. These are important, both to her people and to who Merida is, but ultimately Merida’s desire is to write her own story, one in which she isn’t wholly defined by anyone else, but one in which she can coexist with the stories of those who have gone before, necessarily bridging with those elements that still hold true, but with the complementary freedom to write bridges to new ways of thinking, doing, and being, as well. The scar on her cheek in the close-up in the archery scene is telling: Merida is real, not a pristine untouched and untouchable beauty. She has been hurt in the past and has survived. She isn’t afraid to get hurt again fighting and speaking out for what she believes in. In this, she reminds me so much of the Madonna of Czestochowa, whose cheek is also marred and who serves a symbol for millions of people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, for resilience, perseverance and the growth, power, and quiet strength of character that come through suffering properly ordered.
As a result, one of the things Merida has to learn is that her words and choices have great power: to heal and bring positive change — by way of telling the truth and being honest — as well as to inflict great pain and destruction — through lies and uncontrolled anger. Merida has to confront the truth not only of her bad actions, but of her failure to use words accurately to reflect and illuminate truth: because of her pride, she chooses wrongly to use words to obscure and manipulate truth. As women and as writers, this is always the wrong choice and Merida’s journey shows us the cost — to self, family, and community — when we fail to act and speak in union with truth.
So often, bravery is based on the way the world judges actions. But Merida shows that true bravery first means letting go of pride and having the humility to acknowledge the truth about oneself, including one’s needs and limitations. This is a quiet, everyday type of bravery, but at times no less daunting than an all-out physical battle. Bravery also means refusing to be silenced when the core of who you are and what you believe is being violated. Bravery means using the gift of language and words to express yourself in clear precise truth, it means having the courage to hear another’s truth and listen fully and honestly without judging, and it means telling the story of that sharing and listening in the very best and most accurate way you know how. Being a woman and a writer requires the tempered kind of bravery Merida exemplifies every day, often on a very great scale.
I have a picture of Merida, poised to let that arrow fly with extreme accuracy and precision, to remind me to go through hard, and to tell the truth of my experience, in both words and deed, with all of the accuracy and precision I can muster.
As an extension of this reflection, my dear friend sent this Sara Bareilles song my way today — a very happy event. Entitled “Brave,” it seems to me an apt theme song for all of us “Meridas” in the world. I include it here as a thank you to K., who inspired this post, and as an inspiration to others who might be searching for the courage to let their arrows fly. Cheers, all.