Volume XIII, Number 2, Fall 2017

"Merida and Mother Bear: a Lesson in Feminist Cultural Pedagogy" by Zsófia Anna Tóth

Zsófia Anna Tóth received her PhD in British and American literature and culture from the University of Szeged and is currently an assistant professor at the Department of American Studies, Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. Her general research interests are film studies, cultural studies, gender studies, literary theory, humor theories, English and American literature, and American cinema. Her main research field is concerned with the representation of female aggression and violence in American literature, cinema and culture. Her first book entitled Merry Murderers: The Farcical (Re)Figuration of the Femme Fatale in Maurine Dallas Watkins’ Chicago (1927) and its Various Adaptations was published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing (UK) in 2011. Her current research field is women’s humor as well as questions of the relation between humor and gender, more specifically the art of Mae West. Email:

In my paper, I intend to investigate the figure of the mother bear as an agent challenging ideals of (traditional) femininity, limits of humanity, and hierarchical organizations of family structures in the Disney/Pixar’s animation Brave (2012). As theoreticians of the genre highlight, fairy tales, children’s fiction as well as animated films (literature and fairy tales: Tatar 1987, Hunt 2004, Garry and El-Shamy 2005, Zipes 2000 and 2006; animated films: Levorato 2003, Brode 2005, Booker 2010, Lury 2010, Pallant 2011, Whitley 2012, Cheu 2013; Zipes, Greenhill and Magnus-Johnston 2016) traditionally portray the bear as either a male1 or a negative character, and most typically a male antagonist. Therefore, the creation of a female bear fulfilling in an empoweringly positive role in the plot qualifies as a subversive act of canon revision. In Brave the great antagonist is embodied in the figure of Mordu the evil male bear, whom nobody can defeat since as a human prince he wished for and earned (while transforming into a bear) the power of ten men. Although he appears invincible, a Mother Bear defending her child can eventually defeat him with the help of a little cunning. It takes Queen Elinor turning into a bear, inhabiting a posthuman trans-species form, to fight Mordu on an equal footing, and in the end restore equilibrium in the tale’s fantasy realm.


Figure 1


Brave fits in the line of Disney/Pixar feminist fairy tale animation films which advocate women’s causes featuring powerful female figures and characters of a feminist leaning. As I argued elsewhere (see Tóth 2017), although Disney has often been criticized for reiterating patriarchal family romance scenarios, the animations’ female characters are often endowed with a “strength of character in pursuit of excellence and self-fulfilment” (Brode 168) – like Merida and her mother (Bear) – and are complemented by weak male figures whose authority is undermined by the empowered heroines (Brode 176-177) – such as Merida’s bear-hunting father. I agree with Amy M. Davis who heralds the “infectious” political powers of the wicked women, these “strong, independent, intelligent female characters, [who] are potentially indicative of just how much feminist ideology had entered into mainstream American middle-class values” (175). Rebecca-Anne C. Do Rozario describes “Team Disney Princesses” (who came after the death of Walt Disney) as “sportswomen” characterized by “[h]eroism, egalitarianism and autonomy” (47), excelling in physical powers, freedom of thought, and a “progressively proactive” performative agency (57). Do Rozario’s closing remark permeates the story world of Brave too: “[t]he Disney kingdom may still seem a man’s world, but it is a man’s world dependent on a princess” (57). Even Jack Zipes, one of the most ardent critics of Disney’s commercialization of magic, calls Brave a “feminist fairy-tale film” with a strong role model, clearly different from the “Barbie princesses” (2016, 281). Merida was created by screenplay writer Brenda Chapman, also the first female director of animated films at Pixar, who was taken off the film she called into being because of creative disagreements. Nevertheless, Chapman succeeded in getting through a non-didactic feminist message about the empowering effects of mother-daughter bonds depicted with “tenderness and compassion” (2016, 281, 282).

At the beginning of Brave, the female protagonist’s unfeminine identity performances are contrasted with the mother’s exemplary feminine behavior and conservative ideals of ladyhood. However, with an unexpected twist of the traditional Bildungsroman plotline, it is not the daughter who comes to adapt to the mother’s traditionalist standards, but the reverse occurs: through the intermediary of human-to-animal shapeshifting, the mother-turned-bear becomes similar to her daughter by learning to accept her offspring’s subversive value system and way of thinking. The tomboy heroine Merida facilitates a trans-gender, trans-species, trans-generational encounter, and by virtue of the shared humanimal life experience, the mother-daughter relationship is rearticulated together with the general concepts of filial and familial bonds. The problematization of mother-daughter ties, relatively infrequent in Disney/Pixar films, is not resolved by annihilating the adversary (unlike in fairy tales where monstrous mothers get killed to guarantee the daughters’s happy endings (eg. “Snow White”, “Hansel and Gretel” etc.)2) – but it rather takes place through the transcendence of cultured human embodiment. The same-sex intergenerational conflict ends as the mother queen teaches and is taught thelesson that the shedding of femininity might be more beneficial than tragic and that the resulting androgynous humanimal encounter might eventually point towards a “feminist cultural pedagogy”, in Angela Carter’s sense of the term (see Snowden 157).

Brave was the first Disney/Pixar product that openly brought to screen a feminist cultural pedagogical agenda. Merida opened the way for Anna, Elsa, Judy Hopps and Moana. Before her, the Disney/Pixar heroines’ “ambitions [were] invariably derailed when romantic dilemmas supersede[d] them”; no matter how “active, engaged, and smart” they were, “they ultimately prioritize[d] romantic, heterosexual love and standard norms of beauty as the most prized achievements their characters – and by implication their audiences – [could] hope for” as Kim Snowden put it. (160-161) With Merida none of these things stand any more: she is not a typical beauty and not interested in becoming one; she is striving to avoid marriage by all cost, and she dares to risk her mother’s transitional ursine metamorphosis for the sake of spreading feminist views. Disney has been criticized for commodifying a standardized formula for fairy tale films which involved a “sequential plot that relies on a woman/girl being rescued by a worthy man; the inevitable resolution based on heterosexual marriage or betrothal; and secondary characters, usually funny animals, who inform and elaborate this primary narrative and guarantee its outcome” (Snowden 162). Brave was the first of the company’s artworks to replace a male rescuer with a female protagonist who is responsible for all the major actions, stays out of wedlock, and is not accompanied by a funny furry sidekick with a penchant for musicals, but by an animal figure who is her equal: an imposing bear, at once the embodiment of an angry mother, a maternal savior and helper figure, and a self-ironic source of comic relief (when, despite her beast form, she tries to hold on to feminine mannerisms, only to highlight the artificiality of cultured human gender performance).

Brave is a story that reinvents fairy-tale film tradition in the feminist manner of Angela Carter. (The idea of riding away with Mother instead of a male lover in the end evokes the finale of Carter’s Bluebeard rewrite, “The Bloody Chamber”). The representation of femininity in terms of a juxtaposition with bestiality also reminds of the carnivalesque grotesque tradition. (Zipes calls Brave a carnivalesque version of “King Thrushbeard”, a tale reminiscent of The Taming of the Shrew” (2016, 281).) Brave functions for teen viewers in the cinema much in the same way Snowden believes Carter’s work works for students in the classroom: it “allows us to deconstruct the way the apparently neatly defined roles work in traditional tales but also opens up a discussion about the complexities of feminism and postfeminism, and breaks down dichotomies and stereotypes concerning female sexuality, agency, and women’s happily-ever-afters.” (166)


Figure 2


Merida’s is an unusual coming-of-age story in that her rite of passage is not about the pursuit but the refusal of marriage, not about the respect but the challenging of parental authority, and not about the perfection of the human form but an experimentation with the animalistic one. Snowden compares werewolves to “women who stray from the path and are comfortable in the forest, who are kin to the wolves, recognizing themselves in these animals’ otherness” (171). Merida and her Mother Bear’s bestiality works in a similar dimension. Merida feels most comfortable in the forest, and her kinship ties with the wilderness are crystallized in the figure of the bear who represents, in most cultures, “the king of the forest” (Bieder 51; Nagy 2006, 111). While inside the castle Merida suffocates from her mandatory feminine confinement as if she were imprisoned, yet she seems ecstatically joyful throughout outdoor adventures such as wandering in the forest, horseback riding or mountain climbing. Her intimacy with the forest is deepened by her shared experiences with her Mother Bear. The woods are not only more of a home and a locus of liberty than the civilized sphere of the fortress could ever be, but they also teach a lesson easier than any regular educational environment. Similarly to Little Red Riding Hood3 and Rosaleen, who walked with a wolf and a werewolf respectively, Merida wanders with a bear to reach “her transition from child to young woman” via “her journey through the forest” (Snowden 172). Yet this time, the beast does not stand for an erotic male partner facilitating the girl’s sexual awakening but an older woman. Her mother (bear) helps her realize that there are other options available beyond the heteronormative reproductive scenario of the compulsory happily ever after’s dead end. Relying on each other’s comfort and understanding instead of men’s, both women, mother and daughter alike, go through a journey of awakening and “reclaim female subjectivity and agency by embracing the Other within the self” (Snowden 174), even if it entails trans-species metamorphosis and the vulnerable companionship with the non-human other that is, actually, your flesh and blood.

According to “Karras, […] a successful feminist character […] embraces both the feminine and her female sexuality but does so outside of patriarchal understandings of these qualities” (Snowden 176). Accordingly, Merida is not a traditional object of the male gaze but a young woman “who not only looks back but is not punished—indeed, she is rewarded—for doing so” (Snowden 176): she dares to look in the eyes of anybody and anything, be it human, animal, or supernatural, male, female, or transgender. Merida and her Mother provide us with a rich variety of gender performances available for women and reveal a wide array of “feminism’s heterogeneous forms.” (Snowden 169)

Sarah Wilde claims that the contemporary repackaging of Disney Princesses, like the case of Brave shows, surpasses many traditional notions of gender, as they evolve from heroines without a life story to empowered and autonomous protagonists (132). For Merida, loneliness does not equal the pathetic state of being an unmarried singleton, a pathetic spinster but rather an empowering autonomous person of her own, additionally, being independent of human influence she can revel in the company of her horse or Mother Bear. Her characterization shifts the focus from feminine attractiveness to “archetypal masculine traits of control, dominance and skill” (Stewart in Wilde 140), which breaks with traditional dichotomies of gendered behavior (Wilde 141-142). “Merida defies stereotypical gender codes, utilizing themes of conflict and adventure [while…] proactively confronting the challenges she must face, instead of waiting for her prince to save her” (Stone 45 in Wilde 141). I agree with Wilde that Merida, like the new Disney princesses, adopts from Propp’s character theory (1968) the function of the hero who embarks on a journey and endures grueling tasks, and dispels the Cinderella-like passivity of princesses by refusing to be a damsel in distress or a prize to be won, roles traditionally assigned for fairy-tale heroines “tested by their physicality, a beautiful face, and a perfect temperament” (Wilde 142).

Although Wilde is more interested in Merida than Mother Bear, she calls Queen Elinor a “false villain” – who first appears to be an opponent to her daughter’s happiness, but gradually emerges as a helper figure – (142) and hence poignantly refers to her kinship with bestial male figures like Mordu. This also reveals a despotic aspect of herself surfacing in her relentless control of her family and her kingdom and her demands for a patriarchally-assigned perfect feminity, a tyrannic side of her ego she must defeat in order to come to terms with her humanness and acknowledge her daughter’s freedom. Elinor is “the Queen Bear” (instead of a queen bee) and her daughter is tomboyishly agile, while the men around them are presented as troublesome children, dumb and emotionally unstable (a male suitor throws a tantrum when he does not win the competition and is rejected by Merida) and illustrate the workings of “feminist humour and power over the narrative” (Shifman and Lemish 2010 in Wilde 142), a rare feast up to that point in Disney/Pixar products.

Merida usurps the status of a first-born male heir within her family: she excels in heroic feats coded as masculine (from archery to cliff climbing and an expert handling of the phallic sword) and relates to even her mother more in terms of a bear fight than a kind gentleness4 Despite the fairy-tale setting, the film offers a realistic depiction of mother-daughter relationships’ turbulent psycho-dynamics – that is beneficial for Disney’s key target audience: young girl viewers – who can find empowering identificatory models in this female coming-of-age story featuring a strong heroine and a strong mother ready to reformulate their culturally-assigned feminine positionality in a patriarchal world. In the memorable scene of the arching contest Merida, first in a male disguise, does not only defeat her male rivals but also wins the competition for her own royal hand, and hence steps on the road to freedom and autonomy. In a symbolic act, she rips her confining bodice in order to pull the string of her bow properly and stands defiant with wildly flowing hair while she defends her own right to decide over her destiny. Her untidy lock of flaming red hair escaping the scarf covering her head fulfils the same subversion of feminine dress code. Additionally, while shooting her arrow she accidentally wounds her face slightly, causing a scar, and hence damages her “‘beauty’, the essential quality of femaleness” in patriarchy (Craven 138). Furthermore, she embraces the identity of the woman warrior when – in one of the many mutual rescuing scenes of mother and daughter, and also a climactic episode resembling the Oedipal conflict – she raises a sword against her father who wants to hunt down her Bear Mother. Merida’s major transgender feat enables her to save her mother and unite her family by combining masculine skills with feminine crafts: first she is riding her horse while mending a tapestry she injured previously, then, after using her sword to defend her bear-mother against her father, she covers her mother with the mended, handwoven fabric, while crying and hugging her. In this finale celebrating androgyny, a combination of masculine might and feminine fragility allows the heroine to embrace her true self and her kin.


Figure 3


As Maria Tatar points out (1987), enchanted or bewitched husbands are frequent in the Grimm stories, and especially “ferocious beasts”, like lions and bears, often become the “consorts” of the “fairy-tale heroines” (176) (see eg. “Snow White and Rose Red”). According to Jack Zipes, “wild, roving beast[s] (wolf, bear, horse, raven, swan) in most of the animal bridegroom tales” represent “homelessness and undomesticity” (2006, 49). Although “[h]umans have called on bears for warmth, food, medicine, power and protection. An aura of sexual attraction between humans and bears has [also] long existed” in folklore and legends (Bieder 74). In a Bettelheimian psychoanalytical interpretation, dangerous, predatory animal husbands that incite fear and disgust offer the therapeutical means to cope with anxieties related to sexuality and offer a gentle initiation into the realm of consentual, mutually satisfying erotic delights. (eg. Bettelheim analyzes the Norwegian tale entitled “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”).

A woman’s transformation into a bear, on the other hand, usually comes as a punishment and is the result of her forbidden relationship with a male bear. These stories of female-to-bear metamorphosis can be found from North America to Siberia as well as in the Ancient Greece (in the legend of Callisto, ursine shapeshifting is the nymph’s punishment for letting herself be seduced and impregnated by Zeus) (Bieder 70). The above examples attest how it holds a feminist significance that Queen Elinor turns into a bear not through the intervention of a man or a male bear but her human daughter. Thus, the focus is not on her being sexually attractive as a female but on solidarious same-sex allegiances. Through animal metamorphosis women can relate to each other and can affect each other mutually beneficially while helping the other grow both as an independent subject as well as a member of the transpecies collective. The “magical object” that triggers the metamorphosis is a feminine symbol of maternal caretaking: the daughter feeds the mother a little circular cake with a red center – resembling a breast with a nipple.

As several ethnographic and anthropological studies have shown, the world of bears and humans as well as those of the natural and the supernatural realm run in parallel and sometimes overlap with each other in the folklore of such distinct peoples as the Native Americans Inuits or the Russian Syberian Hanti tribes. According to these belief systems you cannot kill a bear because of hatred, anger or revenge but only as a last resort as self-defense or mere necessity if food is scarce. Humans must respect bears as honourable kin to keep the natural balance, calling them “little brother” (Nagy 2006, 136), “big brother” or “animal bro” (Nagy 2014, 347) with taboo words filled with a nearly religious admiration. In Disney’s Brother Bear a young boy, Kenai, is transformed into a bear as a form of punishment to teach him a lesson about how to be a decent human being. His bestial education turns out to be so effective that in the end he choses to remain a bear to restore the natural balance he disrupted by killing a mother bear, the cub of which he decides to raise alone. (Booker 71) Chris Pallant praised the film – a “story of a boy who became a man by becoming a bear” – for its presentation of the animal’s point of view, “which challenges the assumptions about the bear’s place both within the animal kingdom and in relation to humankind” (Wells 2009b, 45 in Pallant 116) by introducing a “moral bilateralism” (characters having both “‘good’ and ‘bad’ qualities”, no strict binary opposition between them) (Pallant 123). Queen Elinor’s transformation is similarly for educational purposes, inviting her, along with the spectators, to rethink women’s culturally prescribed duties along with humans’ ecological responsibilities, challenging masculine and speciesist hegemony alike. (See also Cheu’s and Brode’s analyses where the bear embodies the racial other, as well as Whitley’s discussion of Brother Bear as anthropocentric “eco-kitsch” (94-95).)

As discussed by Robert E. Bieder and Zoltán Nagy’s ethnographic and anthropological studies, bears represent for Native American and Russian alike sacred healing power, spiritual protection, raw force, and shape-shifting and life-renewing abilities. (Bieder 40-76) The male bear is always viewed as the king or czar of the forest, while humans are only visitors in his realm. While the bear has a very complex “genealogy”: part human, part animal and part God (Mandelstam-Balzer 190 qtd. in Nagy 2006, 107; Nagy 2014, 341), it is nevertheless similar to humans : it owns a similar skeletal structure, a unique personality, possibly an intelligent mind, and even a soul (Nagy 2006, 133; 2014, 339). However, it is also radically different, bordering on the transhuman or the supernatural, transcending human physical and perhaps intellectual capacities (as legends of bears’ omniscience suggest) (Nagy 2006, 135; 2014, 340, 341). Hence, Queen Elinor by turning into a bear transcends the traditional realm of women with the help of her daughter, Merida, and really turns into the ruler of the natural woods and the civilized kingdom alike. The Mother Bear assisted by her tomboy daughter represents the promises posthumanism and trans-species transgressions hold for feminism.


Works Cited

  • Andrews, Mark and Brenda Chapman, dir. 2012. Brave. Written by Brenda Chapman et al. Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios.
  • Bettelheim, Bruno. 1991. The Uses of Enchantment. The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Penguin.
  • Bieder, Robert E. 2005. Bear. London: Reaktion Books.
  • Booker, M. Keith. 2010. Disney, Pixar, and the Hidden Messages of Children’s Films. Santa Barbara: Praeger.
  • Boxer, Sarah. 2014. “Why Are All the Cartoon Mothers Dead?” The Atlantic July/August Issue. Accessed July 12, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/07/why-are-all-the-cartoon-mothers-dead/372270/.
  • Brode, Douglas. 2005. Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment. Austin: University of Texas Press.
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1 The figure of the bear in children’s literature and animated films is generally male, just to name a few examples: the Teddy Bear, Smokey the Bear, Winnie the Pooh, Rupert the Bear, Baloo in The Jungle Book (1967), Disney’s own Brother Bear (2003), DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda (2008), Hanna-Barbera’s Yogi Bear (1958). Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears (1985-91), the Care Bears (1981), Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Pocahontas (1995) (the bear even having cubs) also feature female bear characters. In a Blackfoot Plains Indian tribe tale, The Bear-Woman, an enraged woman turns herself into a bear and attacks her family when her husband kills her bear lover (Silver 99, Underberg 135). In Ted Hughes’ tale How the Polar Bear Became (1963), a female polar bear always wins a beauty contest against the other animals, but her vanity and white racial superiority ends in self-imposed exile to save her purity, whiteness and beauty (Grenby 25-26). The latest popular children’s hit, Masha and the Bear (2009-2013), features a naughty little girl named Masha and a -single father-type bear struggling with her. (For a list of fictional bears see Hunt 2004, Griffin 77) The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales mentions a number of bears including Beowulf whose name means “Bear”, Lisa Goldstein’s Brother Bear (1995) inspired by Goldilocks and a Native American legend The Girl who Married a Bear, Basile’s tale The She-Bear, and Janosch’s children’s books about a little bear and a little tiger who became friends (Zipes 2000, 269).

2 As Sarah Boxer claims “[t]he dead-mother plot is a fixture of fiction, so deeply woven into our storytelling fabric that it seems impossible to unravel or explain,” (2014), while Amy M. Davis finds that “powerless” Disney mothers as well as absent or weak parents are in accordance with the “folk and fairy tale tradition” (102-103). Allison Craven thinks that Disney heroines typically have “bad or non-existent relationships with mother figures, but great loyalty and affection to father figures” (128). Lynda Haas, while trying to rehabilitate Disney mothers, cites Irigaray claiming that “the whole of our Western culture is based upon the murder of the mother”, who is either typically “absent, generously good, powerfully evil, or a silent other,” but obviously “either sentimentalized or disdained; their identity and their work simultaneously erased, naturalized, and devalued,” (195-196). Boxer and Davis agree that the development of a child’s personality is triggered by the missing (of the) mother, because her non-presence makes the child mature, “forcing” the protagonist to become an “independent adult” (102). Bruno Bettelheim famously argued that the death of the good mother and her frequent substitution with an evil stepmother in fairy tales actually helps the child resolve her conflicts with her real mother, who is obviously not good and angelic all the time. (Boxer 2014)

3 Alessandra Levorato, in Language and Gender in the Fairy Tale Tradition, discusses a Chinese tale (1979, Chiang Mi) entitled “Goldflower and the Bear”, which is actually the Little Red Riding Hood story except with a bear whom the girl outwits and kills in the end (11).

4 Lynda Haas explores Chinese-American mythological understanding of mother-daughter relationships in terms of tiger fight. (208-209)