By Dorothy Fortenberry
(Editor's Note: Playwright, teacher and overall badass Dorothy Fortenberry sent me this great piece on Pixar's new film Brave. I know we're not doing an issue right now, but I thought it'd be nice to have some other voices on here from time to time. Anyway, hope you enjoy it. )
Over a post-movie cupcake last week, through more than a few tears, I said to my husband, “The thing about Brave is that the mom is there. She's THERE.” In a world where Disney has seen fit to dispatch with the mothers of Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, Pocahontas, and Bambi, there is something revolutionary about a film where the mother not only lives, but behaves like a real character – making choices, making mistakes, and fighting bad guys. It's not as formally inventive as Wall-E or as elegant as Up, but for pure politics, Brave is truly something special. I also think it can't be a coincidence that Brave opened the same week that the Atlantic published Anne-Marie Slaughter's article “Why Women Can't Have it All.” (Or, apparently, as she wishes it were called, “Why Working Mothers Need Better Choices to Be Able to Stay in the Pool and Make It to the Top.”)
Both the movie and the article say things that shouldn't be surprising, in fact, that should barely be interesting, but we live how we live, so they are.
To address concerns that both have provoked: yes, they are totally and unapologetically about elites. Slaughter is working in a tiny, rarefied slice of the world, and she acknowledges it: “I am writing for my demographic – high-educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. . . We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.” Brave is a movie about a princess, and her mom is, as expected a queen. They don't really challenge their privilege and if there are repercussions for women farther down the ladder than Merida, those are way beyond the scope of the film. And, look, I certainly hope we'll soon see Pixar release a movie whose main character is a female marmoset or geologist or spatula, but I don't think it's an accident that they went traditional on this one. When you've made twelve movies in a row with male protags, you take your change where you can, and I would bet that the American families consuming Brave in their air-conditioned movie theaters have more in common with a medieval princess than they do with dirt-eating serfs. I think Slaughter might be both too optimistic and too pessimistic about the power of elites when she says that “We may need to put a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart.” But I will say that the one person I know with an important, high-powered job who also telecommutes regularly in an environment that supports family-related flexibility works for a bunch of women at Planned Parenthood. Whose CEO is a woman and a mother and the daughter of a powerful woman, so, maybe, there you go.
Beyond merely portraying life of elite women, Brave and Slaughter demonstrate a central truth parenthood that is, like, the most obvious thing ever, but yet, we never see it in fiction: this stuff takes time. The actions of parenting can be pushed and squeezed somewhat, and if you have a job you can do at 8pm, maybe you can take your kid to the pediatrician's at 2, but, all of it takes time, and time is a finite resource. Slaughter's prescriptions for pushing back at the barriers mostly sound great to me – especially undercutting the culture of “time macho” in which people work late hours at the office because people work late hours at the office. I'd love to live in a world in which family time was respected for both men and women, and where we videoconferenced and teleconferenced and worked (sometimes) from home. But if we define “having it all” (a phrase that Slaughter now admits she never want to hear again) as “never having to worry or make any compromises,” then no one, male or female, will never have it all, and Brave shows why.
The story begins and was deftly marketed as a classic hero's story in which the spunky, rebellious, and brave Princess Merida defies her parents' wishes that she marry a prince and goes off on her own. But the strange and wonderful thing about the movie is that she never goes more than a day's journey from her castle. Instead, to undo the curse that she unwittingly placed on her mother, she stays put and teaches her mother how to adjust and adapt to her new form: showing her how to eat, helping her with her changed body . . . I don't think it's too much to say that the main action of this hero's quest is PARENTING. And it takes time, it's laborious and funny and surprising and physical and, above all, time-consuming. There is a certain amount of sheer labor that goes along with parenthood that cannot be outsourced or scaled back, even as there is much that can, and Merida's plans to, dare I say it, have it all are disrupted by this unexpected need to care-take. She thought (and we thought) she was riding off into the sunset for adventure, but instead she is nurturing someone she loves, because adventures are better if you have someone to share them with. My hope, of course, is that by the time Merida reaches the age for considering kids of her own, the kingdom will have instituted family-friendly leave policies and she'll be able to take a few years off before re-joining the adventure track.
It makes me hopeful that Slaughter's piece is stirring up conversation, and I want to believe it will stir up actual change on the part of employers. It makes me even more hopeful to have an action heroine who is also a compassion heroine, in a fairy tale where personal fulfillment and family commitments are reconciled. Now, I only have two more desires: that men's struggles to be equal parents are shown honestly and not bumblingly, and that someone re-release Nora Ephron's first film This Is My Life -- the other best depiction of the challenges of working motherhood, adolescent girls, and what happens when your mom turns into a completely different beast.