How To Raise a Strong Girl

Last week I saw several social media campaigns urging people to go see Brave on opening weekend. “Let’s show Hollywood that girl-led movies can make money!” they said, as if increasing the number of girl-led films would make the world a more fair place for women. I did see Brave during opening weekend, because Howard writes reviews and needs to see films early. I wanted to love it, but I didn’t because it managed to gut-punch me in my emotional baggage about motherhood roles.

Today I decided to spend my afternoon seeing Brave again. My kids had not yet seen it, and I wanted to re-view the film leaving my emotional baggage at home. I bought tickets and then set to work, before we could leave I had to make progress on my shelving project. I donned my work gloves and plugged in my borrowed electric sander. There is a sort of magic in watching a power tool turn a sharp wooden corner into a smooth round one. I glided the sander over the edges of the boards and dust blew away. I was careful to keep the sanding surface away from all my limbs and thought gratefully of my Grandpa who used to take me into his big garage and let me work on projects with him. With Grandpa, I soldered, repaired bikes, used a lathe, sawed wood, and hauled rocks. Grandpa let any grandchild was interested participate in the work; there was no distinction based on gender. Because of Grandpa, I am not afraid to pick up a power tool and make things even if I have never done so before. This shelving project is my first time using an electric sander.

Afternoon came and we all trekked to go see Brave. The kids loved it. They laughed out loud at exactly the slapstick moments which didn’t work well for Howard and me. I loved it too. I loved it as much as I wanted to love it the first time I saw it, but didn’t. The mother character, Eleanor, has to be rigid in order to provoke Merida into taking action. A more balanced representation of motherhood would have ruined the film. The scene where Eleanor quells the room full of brawling men is critical to a hero moment later in the film when Merida turns and faces down the woman who turned all those strong men into jelly. Yes it plays to a stereotype, but it allows that one moment which I think is the epitome of Brave, mother and daughter staring angrily into each other’s eyes because they have mutually exclusive plans for the future. I’m exceedingly pleased that the central conflict of Brave has nothing to do with romance or finding true love. If there is another girl-led animated film without a major romance component, I can’t think of it. In the car on the way home, I was thoughtful with tears pricking at my eyes, while the kids regaled each other with the antics of the comedy characters.

I’m glad I took my kids to see it, they now have a new princess story in their minds which is in many ways the antithesis of a class ic Disney-type film. But, if I were to weigh what I did today for gender equality, the most important thing I did was sand boards. My grandpa is not around to haul my kids (both boys and girls) into his garage to use power tools, but they can see that mom fixes stuff. For every movie where the girl character exists to scream, there is a time when I am fetched to slay spiders. For every movie with true love in it, they see a hundred days where mom and dad snap at each other grouchily and the laugh together later in the evening. For every movie where the dad helpless to manage the household, they have the days when Howard cleans the kitchen and makes dinner. Seeing a movie present a different perspective can be truly powerful, as when a young Whoopi Goldberg saw Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek and realized that black women could be on television without being maids. These powerful, pivotal moments in entertainment matter. Perhaps Brave is one of those moments and can change the world for some girls. But if I want to raise strong girls of my own, I just need to live as if the equality I hope for them already exists. I need to gift them with pocket knives, bows, arrows, hair ribbons, and nail polish as their interests warrant. My actions should say that of course they can be what they choose to be so long as they are willing to work hard to get there.

Life is not fair. It never will be. No movie can make it so. But strong girls can see the unfairness and do what they want to do anyway.