Don’t Settle for Being Brave
And I don’t think I’m alone in this. I live in Los Angeles, where billboards for Brave tower over me everywhere I go, and I have yet to hear a single friend say they’re not excited about this movie. And when they say they’re excited, what they really mean is, “Let’s get serious and just bring the whole Kleenex box, because you know this is gonna be a claaassssssic Pixar cry-fest.” A cry-fest in the best sense. All of us—from average “I love The Expendables” dudes to highbrow “Wes Anderson is just too mainstream now” film snobs—all of us recognize there’s something special about this movie, even if we don’t yet know exactly what it is.
Part of the appeal may be the girl hero. At least, it is for me—and not just because I’m a grown-up girl myself. Many film critics and culture watchdogs have already written at length about the number of Pixar firsts in this movie—first female protagonist, first princess, first fairy tale—so rather than blather on about the socio-political importance of a proactive princess in the Hollywoodland of passive Bella Swanns and Anastasia Steeles, I’d rather just focus on the appeal of Brave—okay, okay, Merida—as a character, just a person on a journey. Granted, her femininity is significant, since—according to the trailer, at least—her journey has something to do with her spirited defiance of traditional gender roles.
But her age may be a more crucial element in her characterization. She stands at the threshold of adulthood and, with it, all the expectations of domesticity and “settling down.” She doesn’t want to be married; there doesn’t seem to be a romantic interest. (Quite the opposite of Disney’s princesses past, and perhaps quite different than what many of us young evangelical women have been taught in Sunday school.) She represents a true hero, something to aspire to—not just for young girls, but for grown men and women.
The word “hero” gets tossed around frequently. People in Hollywood, and likely the Pixar folks up in Emeryville, Calif., tend to define it in mythologist Joseph Campbell’s terms: “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” (For those of us who did not study the classics or literature in college, we may be familiar with Campbell as “that one guy who is constantly referenced in the DVD extras of Star Wars.”) Campbell analyzed world myths and broke down their key beats into something popularly known as “the hero’s journey,” outlined in his famous book Hero With a Thousand Faces. As a Christian, there are many aspects of Campbell’s universalist philosophy with which I disagree, yet in it there are as many brilliant insights that ring true. In Campbellian terms, a hero is not defined by her state of being. A hero is defined by what she does. She hears a call to adventure. She resists the call at first but then meets someone or is put into a situation that changes her mind. She crosses a threshold into a new world full of terror, excitement, allies, enemies and tricksters. She endures ordeals and tests, is purified by sacrifice and returns home with the power to transform the world just as she has been transformed.
The trailer for Brave succinctly summarizes the Campbellian call to adventure: “If you had the power to change your fate—would you?” It’s an intriguing question, and rather than engaging in an esoteric debate about predestination versus free will, for which I am hardly qualified and for which this is hardly the forum, I’d rather focus on its idea of change. According to Campbell, a hero is not defined by her state of being but rather by the change in her state of being. And the hero’s journey is not about character growth. It is not about being a better person. It is about complete and total transformation. You see, no one goes to the movies to watch someone undergo a few stressful situations and change a little bit as a result. We go to witness revolution. Rebirth. Resurrection.
Thus, a good story—and arguably a good life—isn’t about being brave. It is about doing brave. Living brave. Making a choice. Crossing the threshold. It’s not about waiting in a tower for your prince to come and whisk you off to a Cinderella castle. It’s about going on a journey, facing your deepest fears and surrendering yourself to the possibility that in attempting to change your fate, you will inevitably be changed. And perhaps also discovering, along the way, that sometimes coming home can be as brave a quest as going out into the world.
So let’s not settle for being brave. Let us instead aspire to do brave things. Let us live boldly. Let us transform the world as we have been transformed. Heady words, but grounded aspiration for young girls as much as it is for old men. While I have not yet seen Brave, I suspect this idea is the spine on which its story bends.
As for so-called fate, well, I don’t know. But if “fate” should decide to bestow me with a fast horse, curly red hair and mad archery skills ... I’ll take it