I tend to lightly toss around terms that are meaningful to me, but may seem odd to outsiders, such as “archetypes” or “gothic”. To others, I may even sound more than a little obsessed. Focused on particular ideas would be more accurate, however. My entry into the world of the gothic corresponded with my studies of the British Enlightenment and, although archetypes can be found in stories dating from ancient times, my fascination with these tropes grew with the gothic monster. The gothic is and was a study of the shadow archetype of mankind; this appeals to my human core, to my understanding that I have a shadowy side to my persona that I fear and desire to keep hidden. I don’t want to acknowledge this side of me, but neither can I deny it. Denying it is, in fact, dangerous because it means I’m no longer in conscious control of it.
To exemplify this archetype, as well as some others, I’d like to discuss a movie of the past year I considered to be both well-done and important, albeit often misunderstood: Pixar’s Brave. To feminists, the brave female Merida is not a symbol of feminine power. To others, the lack of the typical romantic ending is a form of trickery [this response I read in forums--critics wouldn't dare to complain about a lack of someday my prince will come]. And to those on the cultural fringe, such as the Botkin sisters, Merida is hardly a female worth emulating because she creates yet another “unhealthy stereotype” for girls to follow–too feminist, in other words. Frankly, as a female, I find these opposite and varied reactions to be false, or even worse, to be obtusely missing the point.
The heroines that make up our post-feminist culture generally follow two models: women desiring to fill male archetypes–most notably the warrior archetype–or women discovering themselves through princes who rescue them. Both of these models imply a worship of the male and a degradation of the female. But ironically, the male idolatry we involve ourselves in has created a counter-phobic reaction against men because, ultimately, women will never be men, no matter how hard they try. And so we find ourselves at this strange cultural crossroads of reviling the feminine and masculine alike, rather than discovering the ways in which the sexes may mutually benefit each other in this modern egalitarian patriarchy we currently live in.
In Merida, we see a young woman who is consumed by the worship of the masculine. She’s wild; she’s a warrior; she resists all attempts her mother makes to cultivate her into a feminine princess. While her mother works behind the scenes to bring about a marital alliance that might save the clan, her father encourages his daughter to be as rough and tumble as her three little brothers. The masculine, or the animus, as Jung would put it, is ruling Merida’s person.
To run through the story very quickly–Merida turns to a witch for magic that will change her mother’s mind about forcing Merida into an arranged marriage. The magic, of course, takes a strange and dangerous turn when her mother transforms into an enormous female bear. Meanwhile, the plot of the hateful masculine is formulated through a warrior who has transformed himself, using the same magic, into a giant black bear. At some point in the past, this bear warrior has left Merida’s father as a one-legged warrior. Those of you who are familiar with archetypes probably already see where I’m going with this–the enormously dangerous male bear is Merida’s shadow. It threatens to consume Merida after she falls into its lair (subconscious, anyone?); it has already left her father as half a warrior, or half a man, in a sense, limping along on one leg. As a young woman who doesn’t want to be one, Merida doesn’t approve of men any more than she approves of herself or her mother. This hatred is demonstrated through her ridiculous male suitors. Are men really as foolish as these cartoon buffoons? No, but they’re certainly foolish as viewed through Merida’s mental filter.
This movie could have gone in any direction. Merida’s family could have produced a prince for her to marry. Merida could have become a female warrior, thereby fulfilling the deep feminist longings of women wanting to be men. But, no, the story writer chose to uphold the feminine. Merida’s mother, as the big black she-bear must defeat the warrior bear spirit that’s threatening to consume her daughter. After the mother accomplishes this, she changes back into her human form. Merida then has a renewed relationship with her mother, which also represents the feminine in Merida’s soul. At the end, the buffoons sail away, and Merida and her mother ride their horses off into the sunset, so to speak, and they’re together–united. Merida has been united with the feminine.
Will Merida ever marry? No doubt, if her parents present a worthwhile man, she will concede that the clan needs her to marry. But that’s speculation. Not every female is meant to marry, and that isn’t what Merida’s story is about. It’s about the restoration of the feminine in a girl who’s being ruled by her masculine side. It’s about the rightness of females and the beauty of being one. And it’s not about filling a personality stereotype or denying who one is at core. The mother acknowledges this–Merida is a female, but she’s a female unlike her mother. Still, a woman, of any personality, possesses a feminine spirit, and who would want it any other way?
Too many people would like it to be different, actually. And so, here we are, shuffling uneasily at this bizarre cultural crossroads in which we have learned that women are to be despised because they aren’t men, and that men are to be despised because they are naturally men. I applaud Pixar for defying the cultural norms and giving us strong women who are naturally women. Brave’s archetypes resonate with me, and they prod me forward and away from the crossroads, into the gothic forest of the subconscious, where my shadow waits–that female inside me that’s still waiting to be discovered.