Saturday, June 8, 2013

Merida: A Strong and Honest Female Role Model?

Last year when Disney Studios added the newest epic animated feature film “Brave” to their stable of girl-focused and romantic animated epic motion pictures, the film was released to theaters to a very wide embrace by fans of the studio, and it ended up being one of the (on average) three films I saw that year in a theater.

This post is actually about Brave, but before I can address my points in that area, I have to digress into a completely unrelated set of thoughts and observations because that is how I roll. You, the reader, are encouraged to read this digression largely because you might enjoy reading it but mostly because I asked you nicely and I spelled all the words correctly.

Another point in favor of you actually reading all of this instead of just skipping ahead to the bits about Brave would have to include the fact that I have made considerable efforts at being amusing while at the same time keeping the threads of this post and its observations on-topic, and that my Nanna would very much appreciate you reading it.  Just saying...

Film Viewing Habits of the Australian-American and Parenthood

My altered film viewing habit is an interesting (to me) statistical anomaly that may very well be one of the prime markers of old age and change - largely because it represents a major alteration of lifestyle.

In my salad days it was not uncommon for me to take in fifty or more movies a year at theaters, but now three is actually on the high-end of the statistic. Film has always been a weekend passion for me and especially good film, though I found after having children my willingness to tolerate bad film had somehow and without warning evaporated.

In fact my newly noted inability (or perhaps unwillingness?) to tolerate this sort of thing has altered my own personal entertainment patterns to the point that, it has partially redefined what I consider to be acceptable and polite behavior.  This is particularly true as it applies to my interaction with tradesmen and managers at service-providing institutions.

A perfect example of this change can be found in instances where I find myself sitting in a theater and the film turns bad; the previous incarnation of me would have tolerated the badness, even looking for something good in order to replace that bad opinion.

The present-day incarnation of me is a lot less likely to seek out the good in the bad.  In fact I am very likely to calmly retreat to the box office and insist that they return my money for the ticket AND provide me with a sincere apology for selling me said ticket!

This reaction is, I suspect, largely prompted by my growing acceptance that life is short and, for me, growing increasingly shorter, and that being the case when I am confronted with substandard or what I personally feel are unacceptable standards, such as the clearly flawed and inadequate efforts on the part of everyone involved in creating the complex series of events that resulted in my purchasing a ticket to a movie called "Bring It On" for the massive amount of $12.50 that, while I could get the ticket cost refunded, still left the matter of the 35 minutes I spent watching it in the theater which I could not get refunded to me.

My best mate Geof says this new behavior is a manifestation of the snobbery with which I was raised - an observation that may appear on its face to be an insult but which, I can assure you, was actually intended as a compliment.

The proof is in the pudding, and in this case the pudding is that when Geof is contemplating viewing a movie he often will text or ring me to ask if I have seen it first, and if so, what did I think of it?

Geof believes that my opinion has distinct value. He feels that it serves as an assessment that is far more reliable than the commercial efforts of movie reviewers both online and in print in other words. You hear that Mister Boston Globe Managing Editor?! “Distinct Value!”

The Changing Measure of Tolerance

As I aged and began the complicated process of procreation - which I define as a planned team effort between my wife and I in which I pretty much did all of the heavy lifting - it all comes down to the vanishing of my previous willingness to seek out reasons to be pleased by that and other social experiences.

I don't want to fluff-over the whole having kids thing like most adults of my generation tend to do, because it was not the simple practically automated experience it is often presented as. I can assure you that a lot of serious effort when into creating our children!

Being a parent is complicated
There was the planning out of the genetic markers to be passed on; sculpting of physical appearance and other important traits; allocating brain structure components to ensure spectacular results in the areas of memory, learning retention, hand-eye coordination, and the many other complicated elements that are absolutely required when your aim is to create brilliant children.

When you consider that most of the actual engineering that went into the design and creation of my son and daughter took place at night, with no safety nets, no OSHA supervision, utilizing the sort of focus and concentration not to mention patience that is normally only found in Pokemon Games, and you cap that off with the observation that almost all of the work took place in an environment that was hot, sweaty, tightly enclosed and noisy (when we were doing it right anyway), I am confident that you will easily appreciate the effort and self-discipline that was required to obtain the favorable results that we did, and for which I take nearly full credit.

Since you understand the care and effort that was taken in actually creating the children, the ongoing concern that we have and the responsibility we have accepted in providing them with a proper upbringing and education, including passing on proper moral values should not come as much of a surprise, right?

Modern Parenthood

There is an easily defined division in society when you reach this point in the circle-of-life; it rapidly and automatically sorts the good from the bad and you quickly discover who is a good parent and who is not.

The simple definitions are almost always the best, and in simple terms there are the 10% of parents we all know we are part of that do an excellent job of creating and raising their children, and then there is the remaining 90% that is made up of everyone else - basically they being couples who are destined to take up their ignoble place as follows:

The Victims of Parenthood - this class consists of 70% of the remainder, widely perceived as casual parents of the sort that get the job done with noted success.  There is nothing wrong with this group or this segment of society!

In fact the legitimate case can be made that while the previously mentioned 10% from which our own children are placed represents the grease that keeps the world and our society functioning, this even more important 70% arguably represent the cogs, gears, dust bins, conveyor belts, and other machinery with which society simply cannot function lacking.

Besides that, just where do you think all of the support personnel sourced for everything from corporate culture to the military comes from? India?

Well, alright you have me there; a significant percentage do in fact come from India, but that is not the point; the point is the answer to the following very crucial question: If they did not exist, would YOU want to do their job?

Ozzy Osbourne (left) and wife Sharon (right) - with first wife Thelma Riley Ozzy is dad to Jessica Starshine Osbourne Hobbs (1972) and Louis John Osbourne (1975), and adopted dad to her son Elliot Kingsley (1966). With second wife Sharon (pictured), Ozzy is dad to Aimee (1983), Kelly (1984) and Jack (1985).

Joking aside, for most couples family comes first - or it should.  Especially if you are a rock star.  Just saying...

The 50K Volt Cattle Prod

The Fifteen Minutes Brigade - the remaining 20% of parents who provide their society with the literal momentum to move forward in the form of crucial elements of offspring who help reinforce and define the meaning behind the expression “15 Minutes of Fame” while at the same time offer us the badly needed examples with which are formed the moral values and fears of our own children (Go to bed now or the Smith boy will climb through the window and slice off your thumbs!) and how was that for a really good run-on sentence?

Before you throw down your computer and declare “That bloke is doing nothing but repeat stereotypes and it is all utter nonsense!” consider this: if you throw down your computer it will probably get broken!  But I see your point. 

The 20% in all of its many subsets really does do a lot for our culture and for the society of the world. Or is that world society? I get the two confused; I know that they both mean different things, but there you have it.

The important thing for you to understand is that this remaining 20% is clearly divided into smaller groupings that range from the far-left to the far-right and all that exists in-between on the moral spectrum.

Portions of that divided population being very valuable to society (some might even argue that they are crucial considering that one of the smaller elements measuring less than half of 1% is the group from which Presidents spring), this and other factors are thought to be behind the unilateral justification for the unspoken support for which this group is clearly provided by society in general.

To be clear here, this is the grouping made up from the parents of the children who are absolutely
necessary - one is tempted to say critically important - to the ongoing battle against boredom in western culture and society.

They are the segment of society from which politicians, actors and actresses, law enforcement, musicians and singers - in fact entertainers of all types - and in particular from which talk show hosts and other role models spring forth! It is therefore a worthy effort and one we can feel if not proud, than at least not ashamed, for supporting in its fullness.

One very good example of our continuing support for the 20% is the Rhodes Scholarships (and the slightly less well-known but no less important Marshall Scholarships) that are largely responsible for ensuring that the temper tantrum popularly known as the American Revolution did not result in the permanent loss of the exchange of popular-culture to the point that Americans are unable to appreciate British Humor.

It would be an absolute crime if the American palate evolved to the point that it was no longer able to understand the subtleties of Dawn French (French & Saunders / TheVicar of Dibley / Jam & Jerusalem), Billy Connolly aka The Big Yin (The Boondock Saints / Lemony Snicket's A Series of UnfortunateEvents / Gulliver's Travels), or Alastair Mackenzie (Monarch of the Glen / Snuff-Movie).

There are other awards, prizes, efforts, subsidies, make-work programs (Congress anyone?) and the like but we need to get off the train at this stop because the rambling digression that this post has become actually ended up somehow taking the right train and thus has resulted in our arriving in about as close to the address we wanted in this neighborhood anyway, so here we go!

The Disney Effect

When Brave was released my daughter was still 14-years-old, but more important, she was still on the side of 14-years-old that retains that innocent and wide-eyed view of the world that happens to be just about the best thing about being a 14-year-old that there is.

That being the case, taking the family to see Brave not only made perfect sense, but it also provided what has to be the best opportunity to expose a still formative 14-year-old to a strong but positive female role-model -- well, OK, technically that would be a strong but positive ANIMATED female role model in a film, but still, you get the idea.

Now here is the thing... I knew that the character of Merida in the film was a strong and positive female lead character and, hey, let us be honest, a HERO of a female lead role and character.

I also knew that with the exception of Lara Croft (pictured left and whose role in the most recent prequel, though a bit on the breathy side, was still WAY better than how she was portrayed in the first game in the series) there are so few primary and lead characters in film OR in games that are both positive AND happen to present the character with both a realistic body type and the sort of emotional flaws that are often found in general in the human population, that no matter how you sliced it Merida was a good role model.

Not that I wanted my daughter to be running around the woods behind our house with a bow and bunch of lethal arrows looking for a werewolf to slay or anything...

The thing is I really and genuinely liked and admired the character of Merida - who is played and voiced by the Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald. You might recognize her from some of her other roles, but I mostly know her as the second-cousin of my mother-in-law, and for her appearance in a variety of interesting roles in film and on TV.

For example she played the character of Helena Ravenclaw (aka the Grey Lady or the Ghost of Ravenclaw) in the Harry Potter films, and she was Carla Jean Moss in the film No Country for Old Men which I liked a lot but mostly because Tommy Lee Jones is one of my favorite actors.

She was Evangeline in Nanny McPhee, Diane in Trainspotting, Mary Maceachran in Gosford Park, and Kelly Drummond in the film In the Electric Mist, but the role for which most American movie and TV viewers are the most likely to recognize her voice from would have to be that of Margaret Thompson in the Sopranos-influenced epic mob/OC tale Boardwalk Empire.

Before you even think of going there, I freely admit that yes, it did happen.

When Brave started and we began to become immersed in the characters that were being presented and introduced to us on screen as the voice of Merida narrated I experienced an inappropriate mental vision - a fleshy snippet if you will - of an attractive and well-endowed but very nude young woman standing in the middle of a dress shop surrounded by couture that was decidedly of the 1920's era.

That was it - there was nothing blue about it - and while I knew that this was a memory of something that I had actually seen somewhere, I could not place from where.

At first I thought maybe I was seeing someone who sounded like Merida, but clearly not, and as I was not aware of who the actress was who was voicing the character on the screen (I would have made the connection instantly if I had known) I was at a loss to explain it.  So I leaned in and whispered to my wife “Does her voice sound familiar to you?”

Nucky and Peggy from Boardwalk Empire - the voice caused great confusion for me.
Yvonne gave me her patented and secret Pirate Smirk which is itself too cute for words (you have to see it to understand but it is a very endearing expression that never fails to cause my heart to race) and she says to me: “Can't get the naked girl out of your mind?”

Right, let me explain something first... My wife knows me.  She knows me well. She knows me better than any other human on the planet, including my mother.  To my wife I am an open book of well-worn if dog-eared pages. Emotionally I may as well be a DNA printout, because that is how well she knows me. But this? This was too much.

As convinced as I was that she knew me, I really sincerely did not think she knew me THAT well, and I freely admit that for the briefest of moments I was absolutely convinced that my wife was somehow able to read my mind.

“Ahrrrrr?” I said.

“Shh!” my daughter Autumn hushed.

“There is a special place in Hell for people who talk in movie theaters,” my son Peter cautioned.

“It's Nucky's wife Chris,” Yvonne whispered back.

“Nucky's wife is not named Chris, her name is Margaret,” I replied.

“No, you're Chris!” Yvonne said in exasperated whisper.

“Shhhhh!” Autumn hushed.

It finally clicked into place for a Kodak Moment...

The reason I was seeing that naked girl was because that naked girl was now the ginger-haired heroine on the screen. Her voice was triggering the memories, and the disturbing bit was I had not been able to make the connection.

Now the connection was made the mystery was solved, and I could go back to enjoying the story.  But then I mentally paused to consider something.

“How do you know I wasn't seeing an image of her with Nucky in a pink dress in a restaurant?” I asked.

“Shh!” Autumn hushed.

A Positive Role Model

The character of Merida - if you have not yet seen the animated motion picture Brave from Disney - is that of a teenaged young Princess. 

This sort of Princess...
Not the Princess Di sort of Princess mind you, more like the two girls from the mini-series A Game of Thrones sort, being that she is a member of the ruling family of a small mountain holding (actually there are a lot of similarities to AGoT if you think about it, and I was).

She was innocence and light and coincidentally also happened to be on that side of fourteen I was previously hinting about; the side of fourteen my daughter was at when we were seeing Brave. 

It is a fleeting all-too-brief period in which the young girl has an imperfect understanding of the world and how they relate to it yet retains the wide-eyed innocence that when combined with a wide-ranging optimism and the notion that life, whatever life means, is wide open and full of opportunities for them.

Oh sure, life will beat that out of them pretty quick once they get past High School and enter University, but hey I am one of those fathers who thinks that we should nurture that outlook for as long as we can, so providing a role model - even an animated role model - of a girl who has a genuine girlishness about her, and who was not carved with a surgeon's blade to present the unrealistic (I personally think it is also unattractive) hourglass shape... Well, you get the idea.

Not this sort of Princess...
Merida had a lot going for her. For one thing, she had a wide-eyed fascination for the world. Of even greater importance she was not allowing the world to dictate to her who she was.  While that really was a foundation element for her character it also happens to be a big deal for girls that age.

Of course I am speaking only from the slightly less-than-confused position of an observer, but I remember being a fourteen-year-old-boy and I cannot imagine that the process of surviving that stage of life is any easier for girls than it was for boys, right?

Rather than spend her days knitting or cross-stitching (or whatever it was that girls did then) she had a favorite war horse she liked to ride whose name I am pretty sure was Angus, and she had her bow and arrows - after watching the movie a bunch of times and paying close attention to her weapons as only a true SCA Geek will do, I have come to the conclusion that her bow is a composite recurve and maybe just a little on the small size for her height.

A capable girl with the right tools makes for a pretty awesome hero!
In addition to her bow and arrows, Merida had a biodag (it is pronounced beedak) that was around 25cms (or roughly 9 inches) in length, which would have been appropriate for her height. The Biodag is a traditional weapon for the affluent Highlander of which Merida would have been considered, and was often kept in a sheath with one or more smaller knives, attached to a special dirk belt which was called a criosan biodag (pronounced creeshan beedak) - which we actually see in the movie.

When you factor in her bow, her knife, her horse and other pets, her sense of adventure, and a willingness to promote the idea that just because that was not the way that OTHER girls looked at life did not mean that it was wrong for HER to look at life that way, you get the whole package - a great role model for girls.

Then you add in her intelligence and quick grasp for the solution to avoiding the wedding she clearly does not want right now - watch the video above - and you really see the hero in the girl!

Disney Meddles

Due to all of those positive images and qualities, Merida very rapidly became the hero for little girls of a certain age everywhere. Not only that, she became the hero of the parents of little girls of a certain age everywhere.

Obviously we cannot wish for our daughters to be an animated ginger-haired girl princess from some out-of-the-way holding in the mountains of Scotland, but by gosh we can hope that our daughters would have the positive self-image, the adventuresome spirit, and the genuine pure quality of soul that this girl has.

Clearly Merida was not interested in experimenting with the drugs in the medicine cabinet in her parents bathroom. She had no desire to obtain a tramp stamp before age 18, and her idea of a good time involved fresh air, and not a YouTube of a girl enjoying fresh air - hey, it had to be said.

Disney decided it was time for Merida to join the ranks of its other Princesses...
The blokes at Disney are far from stupid, and they quickly realized that in Merida they had found their next Disney Princess.  The blokes at Disney are dumb as a bag of hammers.

The reason I say that is that having recognized Merida as the next obvious recruit for the Disney Princess Brigade, which includes luminary princesses celebrated on a site(1) Disney created just to celebrate their other princesses who are drawn from previous epic animated movies, including Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Belle (Beauty and the Beast), Cinderella, Jasmine (Aladdin), Mulan, Pocahontas, Rapunzel, Snow White, and Tiana (The Princess and the Frog), adding Merida to the troop makes a lot of sense.

In fact adding Merida to the Disney Princesses does make sense, it is just how they decided to do it that makes no sense!  And therein lies the rub. They recognized in Merida the qualities of a Disney Princess, and then they took her and gave her the required makeover in order to turn her into a Disney Princess.

Basically ALL of the qualities that made her popular in the hearts of the young girls who found in Merida a hero and a role model are the antithesis of the qualities that are found in a Disney Princes!

Look at the following BEFORE and AFTER image and you should pretty much get the idea:

Her first procedure was cosmetic eye surgery to add a more almond-like appearance to her eyes in order to remove the rounder peasant-like eye shape so typical of the Scottish Highlands.  After she healed up she next went under the knife to have her cheeks re-shaped, raising the upper ridge of the cheekbones in order to present a more striking and pronounced facial shape.  After she healed from that, plastic surgery for her mouth obtained the more desirable bow-shape and a smaller mouth size overall. 

Her hair was heavily treated to smooth it out and add curls, and a lapband procedure followed by liposuction to shape her hips and belly more in line with the patented "Disney Princess look" almost completed the package.  All that was left was to have her undergo breast augmentation to create a bustline that was more sympathetic to the off-the-shoulder dress, and voila!  A Natural Disney Princes!  Total cost in surgery and procedures: $190K.  Results: Priceless!

A friend of mine who works in a doctor's office reviewed the procedures that must have been done to get her to look this way (read the caption above) and worked out the total cost at something like $190K if she used a Hollywood surgery group with a solid rep.  She notes though that if she had the procedures done in Boston it would have only cost around $100K.

Though the miracles of modern cosmetic surgery an innocent wide-eyed hero of a girl who was the star of the film Brave is now a carved and artfully arranged "Hottie" fit to work the pole at the finest of gentleman's clubs.  Way to go Disney!

A Princess in the Rough?

In an email recently sent to the editor of the newspaper the Marin Independent Journal, the writer and co-director of the film “Brave” and the woman who helped to create the character of Merida, Brenda Chapman (I personally suspect that her getting an Academy Award for Brave was partly to recognize her help in creating this more realistic and healthy role model that is Merida), had this to say:

“Merida was created to break that mold -- to give young girls a better, stronger role model, a more attainable role model, something of substance, not just a pretty face that waits around for romance …

“They have been handed an opportunity on a silver platter to give their consumers something of more substance and quality -- THAT WILL STILL SELL -- and they have a total disregard for it in the name of their narrow minded view of what will make money.”

I think that we can safely paraphrase that sentiment in another way: Disney, this was a test. You failed.



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