“Brave” (2012) part I: my rant about the “is she gay?” conversation

1 July 2012

Brave is not just a Pixar film with a female lead (two female leads, really), but one about a girl who doesn’t want to be told how to act, how to live her life. Merida wears dresses and likes to shoot arrows. She has long, gorgeous hair but wears it in a big mess of a red tangle. She runs and jumps and acts exuberantly rather than behave like a lady, as her mother desires. She finishes her father’s stories and can’t breathe in a corset. Most of all she doesn’t want to get married off to one of the three eldest sons of neighboring clan leaders.

So critics started a conversation about whether she’s gay.

“Because,” as Stephen Colbert put it nicely on last week’s Colbert Report, “any 15-yr-old girl who rejects an arranged marriage has got to be gay.”

Is it so radical for a girl to just want to be herself — before being crammed into other roles, like girlfriend, wife, gay, straight, tomboy, girlie-girl? Is it so radical to allow her to not define herself according to hoary stereotypes?

What is wrong with us that we’re so eager to slot children into sexual boxes? Is it so hard to fathom that some kids just don’t want to be sexual creatures yet? That some kids’ gender identities don’t fit into molds, and that those gender identities don’t necessarily signal anything about who they will want to sleep with down the road?

Now, I realize I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to watching media with a queer eye — when I sang the praises of the feminist potential of the Women’s World Cup last summer, it was partly because “whether or not they’re gay (and open about it), many female players have embraced butch haircuts or personal styles that signify at least tomboyness if not queerness — and this is good both for gay rights and for helping to blur a gay/straight binary.” I loved The Celluloid Closet for its analysis of how, in an era during which homosexuality was erased from film narratives, viewers scoured early American films for the slightest, tiniest evidence (clothing, effeminacy, a snippet of dialogue) that a character might be gay.

But hello, that was about adults.

Is it the most radical thing to allow kids to not be sexual — to allow them to express their gender freely without leaping to conclusions about what their gender performance signals about their sexual orientation?

I’m thinking here about my sister, who dressed as a tomboy till she was about 15. No, she’s not trans. No, she’s not gay. She just liked dressing as a tomboy. She wasn’t interested in playing any kind of boyfriend game just yet. Get over it.

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11 Responses to ““Brave” (2012) part I: my rant about the “is she gay?” conversation”

  1. Becky Says:

    Well I know it is difficult for some people to understand, as I have dealt with it all my life. I wear my hair boy short, I wear pants most of the time, I wear very little makeup (only for special occasions), and I am not traditionally feminine in any way. People are always amazed that I am very domestic, cook, sew, etc. I am just me. My husband seems to like me just the way I am. I am into comfort and being practical, just being me. Yet, I see people giving me the eye from time to time. Who cares? Stereotypes, PAH!

    • Didion Says:

      Yes! exactly! I think it’s even worse for little boys — just imagine a film being made about a 15-yr-old boy who doesn’t want to get married/ flirt with girls right now, doesn’t want to be all testosterone, likes pink. The crazies would be screaming about him being coded as gay (whereas I think the conversation about Merida might be well-intentioned but still seeks to cram her into a box). Except I knew all kinds of guys back in high school who were utterly flummoxed by the idea of girls and dudeliness and all that.

      Some kids just aren’t interested in sex. Surprise!


  2. I love Colbert’s response, which I had not heard. I guess my other fear is that so what if she is gay? I may be being too sensitive here, but I don’t want people thinking gay is a pejorative. Finally, how sad that we can’t think of independent women as heterosexual.

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, I’m totally with you there — and that’s what I meant about how I don’t want to sound hypocritical here, as I’ve often speculated about whether characters are coded as gay (which I see as a positive thing on many levels). Of all things, I never EVER meant to imply that it’s problematic if Merida turns out to be gay. I saw nothing about her as heteronormative; she’s just a really delightful kid.

      My problem was that there’s now a huge critical conversation and conservative backlash to the film based on this reading of the character’s sexuality, all of which misses the film’s major point: she just wants to be who she is! She doesn’t want to be married off, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg — she wants to not be crammed into a box. In response, the critics seem to be trying to label her sexual orientation.

      Does that make sense? If it had been a story about sexuality, I wouldn’t be so outraged — I feel like the film is ultimately far more radical because it seems to have provoked so much eagerness to get her into some kind of recognizable category.


      • Didion,
        Please let me apologize. Your story made perfect sense to me. I fear was reading it through the lens of one of the fools that felt it necessary to initiate a conversation around her sexual orientation, regardless of what may be developmentally appropriate. I loved your take on the matter, sorry I did not convey that better.

  3. fieara Says:

    I wore boys’ clothes and wanted to be a boy until age 11/12 when I started being attracted to them. Gender is much more complex than we think – or much more simple? I had sexual kinky fantasies at age 9 but still dressed as a boy.

    • Didion Says:

      Yes! exactly! I went through a period during ages 11-13 being absolutely furious about having to be a girl — all that news about periods and breasts and hair provoked such anger about the growing-up process. I’m not sure I wanted to be a boy — I think I just wanted to be a child forever, without all the nightmare of pubescence.

      Gender IS complex. And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that film and/or film critics have a hard time getting that.

      Thanks, Fieara!

  4. Ruth Shehigian Says:

    Are people seriously having this conversation? I just saw this movie and am stunned that thesis being raised as an issue. As a mother, a woman, really just a person, I saw a nice movie about maturing relationships between parents, a girl finding a way to grow up into herself and family dynamics. Gay? Are you kidding me? Who cares. But more importantly, why would we even discuss this?


  5. […] they’ve been preoccupied with two things about Brave: whether Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is gay, and whether we ought to complain that Pixar’s first girl-oriented film still makes its […]

  6. kathleen Says:

    just because she isn’t lady like doesn’t mean shes gay! my best friend is a huge girly girl with all the makeup and heels and hair and everything but shes gay and i act exactly like merida and im straght. not even joking! i am always fighting with my mum because she wants to be more of a lady and wear dresses that last longer than an hour without getting mud on them or ripping a hole in them. i have many best friends who are both girls and boys and they think im fine the way i am (although my friend (girl) got a little freaked when she dragged me to see brave and found out im exactly like the main character). im fiesty, crazy, headstrong, sporty (horse riding, tennis, archery, hockey, self defence) i stand up for what i believe in, fiery and according to my friends i have the biggest heart anyone can have. my dad calls me a wild child cause he dousn’t think anyone can tame me and he dousn’t really want anyone to, he likes the way my “spirit runs free”. my dad wrestles with me and play fights with me and he likes the way i am and dousn’t make any speculations. im not gay and im exactly like merida (not that theirs anything wrong with being gay) but my best friend who talks about christune lebutone shoes is. so i wouldn’t be so fast to judge if i were u. (who is christune lebutone anyway?). (there is one difference she’s scotish i’m irish)


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