The Iconmaster

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Brave and the Individual

June 23rd, 2012

(Some spoilers below.)

Not every Pixar movie lends itself to extended discussion, but in my opinion two do: The Incredibles, and now Brave.

Based on its trailers, I think many of us were expecting Brave to deliver a typically American story: bold heroine rejects the outmoded strictures of her time, meets resistance, ultimately triumphs and leaves everyone else a little wiser in the end.

That’s not Brave.

This is a good thing; because once you think about it, that typically American story is not especially sound. Though we conceive of ourselves as individuals, we necessarily live in society. We have to contend with families, neighborhoods, governments, workplaces, schools, teams, industry associations and more. We don’t usually get to pick and choose which society’s rules we want to abide by. In fact, we almost never do. We can at best nudge them in new directions, very slowly.

But this freedom to “nudge” reveals a profound degree of responsibility. Because all these societies are made up of us, they can only be of our making. As children, our instinct is to refuse responsibility for anything we did not “directly” cause. As adults, we begin to comprehend just how much of the world is on our shoulders. As we learn from another Pixar movie, the first rule of leadership is “Everything is your fault.” But it’s also the first rule of adulthood.

I do not operate every vehicle on the highway. But I take advantage of and contribute to a way of life that depends on the automobile. Thus, traffic congestion and air pollution are “my fault.” I don’t employ underpaid third-world workers, but I buy the products they assemble. Thus, their situation is “my fault.” Maturity may be nothing more than embracing a wider and wider view of what ought rightfully to be considered to be my responsibility — including responsibility for institutions we did not choose and might never have chosen given the opportunity.

This is Merida’s journey in Brave. She must move from a position of “It’s not my fault” to “This is all my fault.” She begins with rejecting the fabric of her society (made very explicit in one of the film’s central metaphors!), but ends with both embracing it and nudging it along.1 Merida’s tale is much more interesting than the mere iconoclast’s journey, because her story is ours too. Like Merida, we have to learn how to become our best selves within a wider society. What does it mean to be brave within that framework? That’s the question Pixar has put to us here.

(Besides offering food for thought, Brave is exciting, beautiful and touching. You should see it.)

  1. Bigger spoiler: Merida is allowed to marry for love, but as I understood it must still eventually marry for the sake of her kingdom.