The next time anyone complains that there aren't enough movies with female lead characters, I'm going to direct them to Entertainment Weekly for their answer. Because according to EW and writer Adam Markovitz, a strong, independent female who refuses to be corseted by gender roles is gay. Or could be. She could definitely be gay maybe.
In an insipid attempt at provocation, Markovitz contributes the post Could the heroine of Pixar's 'Brave' be gay? to EW's PopWatch blog. (h/t Roger Ebert) After opening with a forced parallelism of gay pride parades and kids going to see Brave, Markovitz writes:
The two events don’t seem to have much in common at first glance. But it’s quite possible that while watching Brave’s tomboyish heroine shoot arrows, fight like one of the boys, and squirm when her mother puts her in girly clothes, a thought might pop into the head of some viewers: Is Merida gay?
Actually, the first thing most people will think — at least I did — was: "Merida's cool! I wish I were that comfortable with myself as a teenager." She's a great role model for kids, especially girls. She's independent, demands respect, is headstrong but responsible, athletic, smart, clever, and complex. There's a bit of Belle from Beauty and the Beast in Merida, but she's mostly a unique creation in the Disney universe. But since she eschews a dainty princess existence for a rough-and-tumble adventurousness, this somehow makes her kinda-sorta a lesbian. "Her love of unprincess-like hobbies, including archery and rock-climbing," Markovitz writes, "is sure to strike a chord with gay viewers who felt similarly 'not like the other kids' growing up." Or she will strike a chord with the millions of straight kids who are "not like other kids" or the millions of straight adults who grew up feeling different than other kids or people who like rock climbing.
While Markovitz' misrepresentation of Merida (and Brave) is frustrating, its sexism is appalling. For all the attention drawn to Merida's physical activities, Markovitz is ultimately really hung up on her attitude towards marriage:
[S]he hates the prospect of marriage — at least, to any of the three oafish clansmen that compete for her hand — enough to run away from home and put her own mother’s life at risk. She’s certainly not a swooning, boy-crazy Disney princess like The Little Mermaid’s Ariel or Snow White. In fact, Merida may be the first in that group to be completely romantically disinclined (even cross-dressing Mulan had a soft spot for Li Shang).
Maybe if Markovitz weren't so bent on justifying a gay reading of Brave he would have noticed that the three princes competing for Merida's rights are more than oafish — they're all hapless losers that would have driven even the airheadiest of all princesses to make a beeline for the forest. But more to the point, this is an incredibly regressive way to interpret Brave. Merida not wanting to commit to marrying someone she doesn't love = Merida's gay. Because in the entire history of cinema there has never been a straight woman who has balked at being merely an object to married.
What I find fascinating about this line of logic is that if this were a boy character and he chose not to fawn over some princess and wanted, instead, to hang out in the forest with his horse, he'd be seen as a boy being a boy. Immature, maybe, but, you know, girls are icky! A girl asserting her independence, meanwhile, is a lesbian since only lesbians want their freedom from a gender-repressive patriarchy. And only lesbians like climbing rocks, duh.
Most people who go to the movies can agree, I think, that American cinema needs more films with women in the lead. In fact, that was one of the reasons so many people were quick to jump on Bridesmaids as this movie that everyone must see to encourage more movies like to get made. Yet I don't recall anyone claiming any of those characters were gay, even when they were making shit jokes. Was it because those characters wear pink dresses? Or because their exploits are in advance of a hetero, status-quo-restoring wedding?
While Pixar shouldn't receive universal praise for Brave (their handling of the director change from Brenda Chapman to Mark Andrews was pretty terrible), it did make a really good film featuring a female protagonist that balances adventure, sentiment, and empowerment in a way no other "Disney Princess" film has before it. And it clearing $66 million at the box office this weekend is a testament to its appeal to both girls and boys. This should lead us to talk about what Pixar did and how it can be replicated to make more, better movies with strong female headliners. Instead, in an inane grab at clicks and social chatter (which I admit I bought into), we're arguing over whether Merida is a lesbian based on a sexist, regressive interpretation of a strong, aspirational character that rebels against sexism and gender stereotypes.
Congratulations, Entertainment Weekly, you have officially become irrelevant.
(Photo courtesy Disney/Pixar)