Brave, Reverse Sexism, and Tropes

Shortly after Brave was released, Eric Wecks posted an opinion piece on Wired.com titled Brave is Bad Storytelling for Boys and Girls! It’s eye-catching, and having fought for improvements in storytelling for women I read his post truly interested to see what concerned him.

There was no need to push down on one side of the gender seesaw in order to lift the other side up. Pixar was too good of a storytelling firm to resort to such cheap tricks, until now. We can hope it is an aberration. I worry it is the beginning of the end for Pixar’s independence from the tired Disney gender narratives.

Who cares, right? In a world of rants, why waste your breath when a movie follows common tropes? Because the trope of the stupid, irresponsible male vs. the capable female is coming true in real life. Rates of college attendance among men are dropping, while they are rising among girls. Boys now lag behind girls at every academic level from kindergarten forward. A growing number of college age men self-report feelings of social awkwardness. The stories we tell may not be the only reason for these trends, but they certainly do not help. If we as a society start boys off with family films which show them that their gender is not capable and is only interested in meaningless play and violence, why are we surprised when young boys become just what we expected them to be? We told them they were socially awkward and incapable. For the sake of our boys we need to create new stories which avoid making them look capable at the expense of women and which avoid pushing them down in order to lift women up.

My biggest problem with Weck’s assertion is that one movie does not make a trope. Stories can only flesh out a limited number of characters – especially in a movie meant for children. To Brave‘s credit, even with limited screen time the King acted as the voice of reason in the tension between mother and daughter, and he is depicted as an amputee who still forcefully leads a warrior nation. In advocating changes in storytelling to raise the portrayals of female characters up to a level-playing field, women have pointed to consistent patterns – that’s what creates tropes.

I’d like to say more, but time is a precious commodity right now. Fortunately, a great blog post from author Keirsten White summed up some of my other reactions.

I saw some complaints that men were nothing but plot devices in the movie. Well, umm, they are characters. In a movie. So, yeah. But they are also side characters who, by virtue of being SIDE characters, are not actually main characters. WHOA. CRAZY HOW THAT WORKS.

Look, I know that reverse sexism is just as bad as sexism (okay, actually I don’t know this because I don’t think it happens enough to impact our culture with the same degree of pervasive and insidious influence as reverse-reverse-sexism [or just plain old sexism if you want to keep things simple, which, why would we want to do that?]) but this is not sexism.

This is telling a story with two female main characters.

What’s sad is that it is even remarkable. It shouldn’t be remarkable. It shouldn’t be a talking point. But it is, so let’s focus on the positive of Pixar creating a story with a girl MC that is universally accessible and non-alienating based on gender.

(We will leave artificial gender constraints for another rambling blog post.)

I’d love to see White’s rambling on artificial gender constraints. In the meantime, I’m writing a story about a strong female character. Nothing reverse sexist about that.

Fangirl

Tricia Barr took her understanding of brand management and marketing, mixed it with a love of genre storytelling, and added a dash of social media flare to create FANgirl Blog, where she discusses Star Wars, fandom, and the intersection of women within Star Wars fandom. She is co-author of Ultimate Star Wars and Star Wars Visual Encyclopedia from DK Publishing, a featured writer for Star Wars Insider magazine with numerous articles on the Hero's Journey. Her FANgirl opinions can be heard on the podcasts Hyperspace Theories and Fangirls Going Rogue.

Tricia Barr's novel, Wynde, won the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal for Best Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Ebook. She was also part of Silence in the Library's successful all-female creator science fiction and fantasy anthology Athena's Daughters, which is available now. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.
Fangirl

Fangirl

Tricia Barr took her understanding of brand management and marketing, mixed it with a love of genre storytelling, and added a dash of social media flare to create FANgirl Blog, where she discusses Star Wars, fandom, and the intersection of women within Star Wars fandom. She is co-author of Ultimate Star Wars and Star Wars Visual Encyclopedia from DK Publishing, a featured writer for Star Wars Insider magazine with numerous articles on the Hero's Journey. Her FANgirl opinions can be heard on the podcasts Hyperspace Theories and Fangirls Going Rogue. Tricia Barr's novel, Wynde, won the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal for Best Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Ebook. She was also part of Silence in the Library's successful all-female creator science fiction and fantasy anthology Athena's Daughters, which is available now. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.

4 thoughts on “Brave, Reverse Sexism, and Tropes

  • July 9, 2012 at 10:19 am
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    Tricia and Keirsten, I agree.

    While it is apparent in the quote you’ve given us, Tricia, that Wecks is uncomfortable with what he sees as an imbalance in Brave’s depiction of gender types, he also seems passionately concerned about the growing achievements of females versus males in real life. Weck’s points about real world change are well taken but suggest to me that Brave caused him to experience what women have felt throughout the long history of male-dominated movies. Surprise! It hurts to see your gender to be put down – most of all when you compare fiction with reality and discover that your male peers are failing in real situations during a time when they feel put down in popular media.

    Wecks makes one statement that stands out to me: “For the sake of our boys we need to create new stories which avoid making them look capable at the expense of women and which avoid pushing them down in order to lift women up.

    His theory is sound, but Wecks writes as if this issue is a one-way street and therein lies the age-old problem: females have long felt this way, sir. This statement repeats the point that women have been hammering away at for decades. Replace “girls” for “boys” and “men” for “women” and the statement is no less true.

    There are many films specifically directed toward making socio-political statements, including graphic portrayals of the merits and faults of both genders intended to provoke discussion or controversy. Throughout the history of movies, very few of these were animated children’s entertainments yet the fact that we are now paying attention to character portrayals in youth-oriented genres speaks to just how far we’ve come. Recognizing that there is a problem, particularly relating to the fundamentals that movies teach children, is the first step to real change.

    Brave is a comedic cartoon with a variety of characters and heroes. Many of its inhabitants are obvious takes on well-known, male and female stereotypes (the male suitors, the female servant, and the witch come to mind). Do those types seem Disney-esque? At times they did. Does Brave create a trope? No single movie does. I suggest that the broader shift toward more male-female equality in movie heroism is a process that, like massive social change, will only be accomplished over time. If Wecks wants to compare this cartoon to real life: college attendance was originally the exclusive privilege of males. The tipping of that scale towards more women than men in higher education has taken generations to occur.

    I do not agree with Weck’s assertion that a single movie marks the fall of Pixar from its lofty reputation as an innovative company, any more than I believe this movie alone can fix what is wrong with the messages media sends to our children. Brave may not be perfect (what is?), but it takes a step or two toward a courageous new cinematic world where girls and women can see themselves as heroines. If every movie stuck a toe into those waters, we have the chance to find a gender-balanced future so that, in time, we might all be able to simply sit back and enjoy our movie popcorn a little more.

    • July 9, 2012 at 7:03 pm
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      Well said. I should have had you write the post for today.

  • July 9, 2012 at 8:28 pm
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    I am afraid I have to disagree with your post Mary. It has become a common theme in many popular shows to downgrade men and Weck’s article is bemoaning that Pixar has joined this parade. This does make a trope. Weck never asserted that Pixar ‘created’ this trope with Brave – only that they are continuing it.
    Weck also outlines other Pixar films that portray a more positive and equitable relationship between the genders.
    It is your statements like “females have long felt this way, sir” , “college attendance was originally the exclusive privilege of males”, and “Surprise! It hurts to see your gender to be put down” that are examples of reverse sexism. The inequities that women have long suffered are in no way a justification for foisting inequities on men.
    Weck’s point stands. Let’s build positive gender role-models in popular media. I cringe when either gender is put down as a whole to build the other up.

    • September 4, 2012 at 8:17 pm
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      Yes, Cameron. Yes.

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