“Brave” and the Dad Problem for Strong Female Characters

Posted: June 29, 2012 in Film, Literature
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

[As a brief sidenote before I get any snarky comment about it:  I’m aware there is debate, especially in feminist theory circles, about the phrase “strong female characters” and the mere flipping of gender roles and denial of femininity and all that.  That’s all fine and good for grad seminar or the like, but I’m looking at this through the eyes of a father who wants to continually expand his daughter’s experiences of what girls can be like.  So, yeah, strong female characters it is.]

Modern Primate just published my article on Disney/Pixar’s Brave, which you can read here if so inclined.  It is less of a generic film review than a response to a few overly positive reviewers who seem to be falling over themselves to congratulate Disney for finally creating a princess character who isn’t stereotypically girlish and driven by desire for romance and marriage.  Sure, the film has this element, which is a huge deviation from past Disney princesses, and Merida is certainly a strong, non-traditional character in a lot of ways.  Despite this, the film is very conservative overall in how gender roles, patriarchy, and parent-child relationships are portrayed.

One of the things I took note of that I think bears more consideration is the portrayal of Princess Merida’s father, King Fergus, and what that means for how the film may or may not challenge traditional gender norms.  I wrote:

In the close of the film’s action, King Fergus is shown embracing his beloved wife and daughter as the patriarch whose role has not really changed throughout the film’s crises.  There is little new understanding between father and daughter or husband and wife because Fergus is a mere caricature.  Because of the way the story’s world is set up, and the lack of development of Fergus, very little of importance can change due to Merida’s rebellion, recklessness, and bravery.  While she may indeed be a strong female lead character, her story ends as a lesson in traditional values.

This gets at something I believe is a problem in the bulk of films and novels with strong, young, female protagonists (which I should mention are nearly always heteronormative, something I won’t go on further about here).  It is something I feel gets overlooked because critics focus mainly on the particular character’s actions and personal development and not the underlying relationships and supporting characters.  What I’m talking about here is the father who is usually: a. authoritarian, or b. well-meaning and fun (but detached emotionally), or c. absent.

For example, the father in Brave, King Fergus, is buffoonish and funny, obviously loves his kids via being just like a big kid himself, but he is also hardheaded and, ultimately, he remains the patriarch.  While the film does a lot with developing the relationship between Merida and her mother, the relationship between father and daughter is relatively static.  The issue with this is that whatever power Merida gains through being a strong young woman is not a question of  a shift in power in relation to the patriarchal context (though the film does allow for a loosening of the tradition of arranged marriage).  It also reinscribes the traditional distancing of fathers and daughters in family relationships.  Girls work things out and talk with their moms; dad is there to do fun stuff, act silly, and lay down the law and punishment when necessary.

This seems true of many portrayals of dads in stories with strong young women as the lead character.  A young woman’s character development rarely requires a paternal relationship beyond these traditional playful and disciplinarian roles.  As a father, this is a disappointing flattening of what the realities of being a good dad are.

If the father in stories of this sort is not portrayed in such a stereotypical manner, it is invariably because he is absent (usually dead), which isn’t exactly an improvement from the audience perspective of a dad.  While absent parents and orphaned kids are very common in such fiction (and kid/YA lit in general),  it seems rare to have the one missing parent be the mother (notable exceptions exist, but those that jump to mind are usually in realist, adult fiction not targeted to girls or young women).

I’m not sure why this works out this way.  While traditional norms are often broken in characterization of young women and their relationships with mothers, fathers and father-daughter relationships seem to remain mired in old-timey caricatures or absence.  While this tendency may be a necessary plot point, it is too prevalent to not be more than that.  I’m also not fine with any generalized argument that complex, developing relationships with fathers aren’t important for strong young women.   It is almost as if the development of a young woman into a strong character requires an absent or distanced father (because that way the story doesn’t have to directly engage with the embodiment of patriarchy?).  Which is too bad because I would argue that this does not allow for a full consideration (within the traditional hetero family structure in the bulk of such stories) of the what the possibilities for a young woman’s character development are.

In thinking about this, I realized all of my personal favorite films and books of this type seem to fall into this same category so far as treatment of fathers (ie, Jane Eyre, The Hunger Games, studio Ghilbi films, etc.).  I’m trying to think of counterexamples, but I’m coming up empty.  Any ideas?

  1. Whitney Phillips says:

    I tried, but can’t think of any examples of a one-note father figure coupled with a strong female lead. I wondered if maybe Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a counterexample –Buffy’s dad is seen I think twice in the first few seasons, and is only ever mentioned in passing otherwise– but then realized that although her dad is absent, her Watcher takes over the father-figure role, and from the very beginning of the series is given a complex treatment, complete with sexual desire (never towards Buffy) and vulnerability and indecision and grief and pretty much the whole spectrum of emotions/behaviors.

    I think part of the issue is that films with static fathers –whether they be childlike buffoons or simply authoritarian– implicitly forward a static patriarchal order. Like you said in your MP article, it doesn’t matter what King Fergus does, he’s in charge and there’s nothing that can change that. There is in other words no need to convey movement within his character, because there’s no ROOM for movement within his character. What this does is create a one-dimensional world that doesn’t allow for the possibility of change, not any real change, certainly not change that extends outside the domestic sphere, as you also point to in the MP article. Under this sort of logic, female leads can make a mess in the kitchen (figuratively though also literally), but ultimately it’s still daddy’s house, ultimately the kitchen will get picked up and the girl will either be sent to her room and/or will learn a valuable lesson about being more careful indoors.

    Which may also provide an explanation for how/why truly strong female leads are fatherless (either through death or some form of abandonment). To build upon the above metaphor, it’s like the character gets plucked out of dad’s house (i.e. patriarchal circumstances) and dropped into the woods or something, which on one hand HURRAY, no dad (i.e. patriarchy) telling her what to do, but also no need for her to interact with –read: challenge– the figures that have been artificially removed from the equation. So even though the character may be strong/complex, she’s not given the opportunity to take stock of the walls around her, or more importantly to ask why they’re there — the first step in challenging ANY status quo, particularly in relation to gender.

    • nightwork says:

      This is really well-put. Agree 100%. I thought about Buffy and the Watcher (forgot she even had a dad) when writing this up, and I think there’s sort of a alternative case for father figures being relatively complex in relationships with fictional young women (Leon in The Professional is another one that came to mind). Not sure what to make of it though.

      • Whitney Phillips says:

        The other problem with Buffy as a counterexample is that Giles leaves the show for most of season six because he worries that Buffy is too reliant on his support, and decides she needs to gain some independence (I forgot about that part until sitting down to write this response). Buffy is furious at first (she’d just died and gone to heaven and was pretty grumpy about everything), but ends up learning and growing or something.

        How much the show’s lagging ratings/network shift (from the WB to UPN, before the two merged as the CW a few years later) impacted Anthony Stewart Head’s decision to leave the show (though he does eventually return during the seventh season, just in time for the series finale) is a different question –it never felt fully organic to me– but still caused this weird hiccup where suddenly the only way Buffy could become strong was if her surrogate daddy was gone. So in the end, the show provides a really strong example of your basic claim.

  2. sarahsss says:

    Great point. There are aspects of the movie that I liked but you’re right that the basic conservatism upholding patriarchy and heteronormativity was present and accounted for in the film. Per your challenge: Atticus Finch and Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird; maybe Mr. Bennett and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice (although he’s got a bit of the comic relief/father-figure going on and one of his flaws is that he’s not strong/patriarchal enough–okay talked myself out of that one). I’ll let you know if I think of others but, you’re right, most of the best dad/daughter relationships I can think of being portrayed involve fathers who die or are absent (Mr. Murray from A Wrinkle in Time, etc.) or whose masculinity is somehow compromised (re: Mr. Bennett, Cinderella’s father, “Belle”/Beauty’s father).

    • nightwork says:

      It has been so long since I read To Kill a Mockingbird that I had to read the synopsis on wikipedia to even consider that suggestion.

      The dead/absent father (and mother in many cases) seems to be by far a more complex thing than the flat, authoritarian or doofus dad. It allows for a romantic idealization of what father-child relationships should look like, but it also usually reinscribes the patriarchal order even though the patriarch is gone.

      The flipside, which Brian P pointed out, is the absent mother for male leads, which is worth thinking about. In the case of something like Finding Nemo, this actually turns out to be a relatively complex relationship, but I’m guessing that isn’t always the case [redacted reference to The Little Mermaid cause she isn’t a boy].

      For me, I’d just like to see some good fiction for kids that features strong female leads who have relationships with a complex dad character. Like real-life girls do. But there just aren’t many out there.