Does It Matter If the Heroine of 'Brave' Is Gay?

No, but it matters that she could be.

brave archery 615 disney.jpg
Pixar

Merida, the heroine of Pixar's Brave, doesn't want to marry. Not now, she repeatedly tells her mother, Queen Elinor, and perhaps not ever. Faced with the prospect of being forced to wed one of a trio of loutish suitors, she runs away from home in search of some way to change the "fate" she was born into. That's the radical thing about Brave: Merida is a Disney princess who doesn't want a prince.

She also happens to be a tomboy, a tough and sporty archer who would rather be riding her horse than wearing a dress. On Sunday, Entertainment Weekly's Adam Markovitz used these details to draw a connection between Brave—which racked up $66 million over the weekend—and another event in the news:

Today, crowds will line the streets of cities like New York and San Francisco for parades that mark the high point of LGBT Pride Month. At the same time, legions of kids will swarm into theaters to watch Pixar's Brave, the animated story of a young Scottish princess named Merida who goes to extreme lengths to avoid having to marry one of the three noblemen that her parents have chosen for her. 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?

While Markovitz's appeal to lesbian stereotypes is outrageous, his underlying question isn't. Merida really could be gay. She could be straight. She could be asexual. We just don't know. Over the course of the film, she shows romantic interest in neither boys nor girls; it's only by assumption that her parents—and, presumably, most viewers—think she's heterosexual.

Is this ambiguity intentional? Almost definitely. Pixar is notoriously meticulous—the Easter eggs and subtle references in each of its works are legion—and it's unlikely that the filmmakers simply didn't think to give Merida any sort of love interest. No, this is a deliberate sort of ambiguity. With that in mind, here are five ways of looking at Pixar's motivations for being so coy:

  1. Brave is about a daughter's relationship with her mother, and sexuality would only distract from the developments within that relationship.
  2. She is gay, and Brave is Pixar's subversive way to put a lesbian in one of its movies.
  3. Merida is a straight girl who likes to run and shoot and fight.
  4. She's neither gay nor straight; she's asexual. (This would be just as sexually radical—if not more so—than making Merida a lesbian.)
  5. The ambiguity is itself a message.

I'm partial to the fifth possibility because it works so well with the movie's overriding philosophy. Consider one of the film's most common motifs: the act of listening. Merida and Elinor are deaf to each other's thoughts and feelings, but yearn for the other to "just listen." Merida's incensed that her mother won't respect her interests and ambitions; Elinor can't comprehend why her daughter doesn't want to become "a lady." It's the kind of conflict that's played out between parents and teens for generations.

Then, look to the movie's end, when Merida—with her mom's blessing—gives a rousing speech to her father and his lords about marriage. She says that she wants to live on her terms, not the terms placed upon her. She wants the freedom to marry whomever she wants. She wants the right to choose her fate. These, too, are classic desires voiced by young adults searching for their own identities. But this talk about freedom to marry resonates especially well amid the current debate over same-sex marriage - so vividly, in fact, that it's tough to believe it wasn't an intentional association.

At its core, Brave preaches acceptance. It's about the compassion it takes to, as Merida and Elinor put it, "break tradition," to change both society's rules and the prejudices within ones' own mind. It's about the terrible things that can result when people—especially family members—don't try to understand one another. And it's about having the bravery to embrace one's own identity. Those themes resonate with struggles far and wide, but perhaps most strongly, these days, with those of LGBT people. The film doesn't need to tell us whether Merida is gay. It just needed to make us ask.

Update, 2:28 p.m.: It's worth mentioning that Salon's Andrew O'Hehir also wrote about this question yesterday. He argues that Merida is a "pre-sexual or nonsexual character"—obviously, we interpreted the movie differently—and I encourage you to read his piece.

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Chris Heller is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. He has also written for NPR, Washington City Paper, and Metro Weekly.

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