Brave vs Finding Nemo: Pixar Is Still Stuck On Traditional Gender Stereotypes

ByLaura Hankin

In trailers for Pixar’s new movie Brave, the filmmakers trumpet the gender of their latest protagonist. For the first time in the company’s history, they have made a movie centered on a female, and they want you to take notice. “She’s a girl!” they practically scream. “But she just wants to shoot arrows and be free! Look at this spunky Scottish lass with her repressive royal family and her plethora of suitors! Did you get the memo that SHE HAS LADY-PARTS?!?” Pixar’s insistence on marketing the movie this way perpetuates the limiting myth that, while stories about boys can cover any number of topics, stories about girls must focus either on the traditionally female (like falling in love), or on struggling to break out of that which is considered traditionally female.

Here’s a quick sample of some of the other storylines Pixar has explored over the years: a (male) superhero forced into a life of normality takes on a secret mission (The Incredibles). A (male) fish searches the ocean for his captured son (Finding Nemo). A (male) geriatric attaches a bunch of balloons to his house and floats away to a tropical paradise (Up). Compare those to the plotline for Brave, according to its marketing: an independent-minded princess resists her mother’s plan to force her into marriage and ladylike behavior. Only one of those Pixar plotlines is truly gender-specific, and it’s the one about the girl.

Pixar has created plenty of interesting female characters who aren’t defined by their gender. Dory, the forgetful fish from Finding Nemo, immediately comes to mind. If Pixar made a movie about Dory, trailers would probably proclaim, “This (female) fish tries to navigate the sea with short term memory loss!" Not, “Dory doesn’t want to be a homemaker!” But Dory and the others like her in Pixar’s canon are relegated to being helpers or love interests, never main protagonists. Brave was Pixar’s big chance to show little girls that they too can be the center of exciting stories.

The  marketing move for Brave frustrates all the more because it’s somewhat misleading. Mild spoiler: The first third of the movie hews to the trailer, but it takes an unexpected turn when Merida, the flame-haired protagonist, obtains a witch’s spell that goes horribly awry. As she struggles to fix the spell’s unintended consequences, Merida’s adventures become much more universal, and much less tired. The film ultimately turns into a love story between mother and daughter, not beautiful princess and handsome prince. The gender roles plotline serves as a jumping-off point, but it doesn’t define the movie.

Yet that’s what Pixar would have you believe. Pixar obviously didn’t want to give away the surprise of the spell, and audience members will probably enjoy Brave more if they don’t enter the theater knowing exactly where the movie's going. But choosing to make Pixar’s first female hero a Disney Princess-type, and then marketing the movie as if that’s all she gets to be, does a disservice to girls everywhere. Pixar needs to make a movie about a heroine whose primary problem isn’t her gender. Dory Does Deep-Sea, anyone?