Therapeutic Interventions in Brave Analyzed by Emily Howells

Does the 3D CGI computer-animated adventure fantasy film, Brave (2012), exhibit therapeutic interventions and Jesuit educational ideals in how to therapeutically assist strained mother-daughter relationships? The protagonist of this film, Merida, and her mother, Queen Elinor, struggle with their own personal fears and pride. These struggles are only confronted and dealt with when Merida and Elinor are forced to work together to save Elinor’s human life. Brave helps viewers to reflect upon their own complicated relationships to independence, feminism, acceptance, and forgiveness. The film can thus function as a parable told to us for the sake of transforming our own relationships to these themes that remain especially important to mother-daughter dynamics. This essay will explain how these themes function parabolically to create an example of exposure therapy, while the changes that occur in the protagonist are observable through a Humanistic lens, which will be discussed further. Parables can be understood as forms of therapeutic interventions because they give us time to process others’ experiences without direct reference to our own struggles. If film viewers are understood to be processing their own lives through what they watch, then we can begin to appreciate the therapeutic value of learning to read films more critically to tease out the meanings available in the artistry, and thereby open new vistas for our own transformations in setting about to re-interpret our own lives. Perhaps if the mother and daughter experiencing a tiff in their relationship were to sit down and view this film together, it may give them a different perspective and the opportunity to have new, productive conversations to begin moving forward.

According to the American Psychological Association (2020) and Grohol (2018), exposure therapy is a specific type of cognitive behavioral psychological treatment which is designed to help people confront their fears. Exposure therapy is typically performed by a licensed counselor or psychiatrist and involves the exposure of the clients to their fears. Clients who engage in exposure therapy typically have diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or phobias. People who fear certain places, people, objects, or situations tend to avoid these things that provoke stress, anxiety, and fear in them. The goal of exposure therapy is for the client to stop their defense mechanism of avoidance in confronting their fears and realizing that they are safe, despite the fact that they are encountering something they have built up with fear in their mind.

As previously discussed, this essay will be evaluating the film Brave through a Humanistic lens. McLeod (2020) describes the Humanistic approach, sometimes referred to as Humanism, as an approach which focuses on the whole person, while taking into consideration how unique each individual is. The Humanistic approach operates under some basic assumptions. Some of these assumptions are that people have free will, people are basically good and have an innate desire to make themselves and their environment better, and that people are motivated toward self-actualization. These basic assumptions of the Humanistic approach relate to the Jesuit ideals of magis, which means doing more for others, cura personalis, which means care for the whole person, and discernment, which is the Jesuit practice of figuring out what God wants from your life. These three basic assumptions are seen within the protagonist, Merida, throughout the Disney Pixar film, Brave.

Merida embodies the humanistic approach, as her goals throughout the movie are very similar to the basic assumptions that guide humanist therapeutics. First, she exemplifies the assumption that people have free will; people have the choice to make their life what it is and everyone has different paths to choose, but it is their choice. Merida exemplifies this as she fights for her right to have free will throughout the whole movie in her fight for independence and to be herself. Merida does this while using the word “fate, which indirectly translate to being “God.” Throughout the movie, she relentlessly tries to figure out, and shape, her fate. In this way, Brave is offering people a meditation on discernment. Discernment is the Jesuit practice of figuring out what God wants from your life. Second, she exemplifies the assumption of Humanism that people are basically good and have an innate desire to make themselves and their environment better. She depicts this assumption as she continuously attempts to better herself and those around her, as well as her society, throughout the entire movie, by making strides to improve her situation. In improving her situation, she also helps the suitors who are brought to her, as they later confess that they did not want an arranged marriage either. Lastly, she exemplified the third assumption, which is that people are motivated toward self-actualization. Self-actualization essentially translates as reaching one’s full potential, and having achieved a sound state of psychological growth, fulfillment, and satisfaction in life. Self-actualization is at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, with esteem needs, love and belonging, safety needs, and physiological needs falling under it. Merida is working toward self-actualization throughout the whole movie, as she knows who and what she wants to be, but is struggling to achieve that. By the end of the film, Merida achieves self-actualization. How Merida reaches the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy will be discussed throughout this paper.

Brave is set in a very realistic looking 10th century Scotland in the kingdom of DunBroch where Merida’s mother, Elinor, and her father, Fergus, are the reigning King and Queen. It is made clear from the beginning of the film that certain expectations are set for Merida, and women in general, in this animated Scottish world. Gendered schemas are seen in the beginning scene of the film, as Elinor disapproves of Fergus gifting Merida her own bow for her sixth birthday. As a focused two-shot of Elinor and Fergus is seen, Elinor states that Merida should not have a weapon because “she is a lady,” as Merida is seen shooting her bow in the background of the two-shot. This scene is used as foreshadowing of the relationship between Merida and her mother throughout the film, as Elinor’s motherly love and feeling of societal pressure are both apparent. As the film then flashes forward to the present day, where Merida is now a teenager, these gender schemas continue to be built upon. Merida gives a summary of what her life has been like, explaining how she has three little brothers who are free to do whatever they want and how she is constantly being scolded for not being a perfect princess. A series of moments of Elinor scolding Merida for her “unladylike” behavior play over the film, as Merida is seen overeating, ungroomed with her red mane all over the place, and shooting with her bow and arrows. The aspect ratio of these scenes remain a fairly large rectangle. Merida continues to defy her mother and society’s gender schema and plans for her from the beginning stages of this movie, as seen in these first scenes, which is the beginning of her illustration of the themes of independence and feminism.

According to Etaugh and Bridges (2018), feminism is “the belief that women and men should have the same political, legal, economic, and educational rights and opportunities.” Throughout history, women in society are often perceived as being lesser than men. Major strides have been made in tackling the obstacles in the way of women’s rights, however sexism is still frequently seen in society today. For example, women are still paid less to do the same jobs as male counterparts. Feminists typically advocate for reform to enhance fair and equal rights and opportunities of men and women. Feminism is an important theme illustrated throughout the film Brave in the heroine, Merida, in her actions which resulted in a new way of life for women in Scotland at this time.

Additionally, Brave shattered glass ceilings in the realm of feminism in the Disney Pixar film world. Brave is the first Disney Pixar film with a female protagonist. Disney Pixar’s previous films starred male protagonists, such as Woody in Toy Story, Nemo in Finding Nemo, Sully in Monsters Inc., and Lightning McQueen in Cars. The portrayal of a female protagonist who was a princess, but not ashamed of expressing her less elegant, tomboy self in her unkempt attire/hair and love of the woods and archery was a major win for feminism. Another groundbreaking development for feminism in Brave is that the director Brenda Chapman was the first female director of a full-length Disney Pixar film. These milestones, accompanied with the advocacy for reform by Merida in the film, more of which will be discussed further in this paper, contribute to this film being a groundbreaking work for feminism.

Merida also began to express a central theme in the movie of independence in these scenes, as she struggled to escape from society and her mother’s expectations and be her own person. Independence is a goal that many individual’s hold, especially teenagers toward their parents. There is no exception to this generality in the Disney Pixar world. Merida’s independence is highlighted in the beginning scenes in which she enjoys doing outdoorsy activities by herself, as well as in the fact that she refuses to eat what she is arranged for dinner as she is seen obtaining a plate mounted with desserts. She also is seen showing up late to events in which she must sit in a throne next to her parents, and does not present herself as a typical princess or how her mother would please. These are just a few of Merida’s strides at independence that we see in the beginning of the film. She continues to cross even larger milestones in terms of her independence as the movie progresses.

As the movie continues, Merida is informed by her parents that suitors will be arriving at their castle to battle for her hand in marriage. Merida is outraged and hurt by this information, telling her parents that she will not go through with it and that they cannot make her before she storms off. Her mother follows her to her room, where she explains the history behind why Merida must marry, only to receive more discontent from Merida. The conversation ends with Merida telling her it is not fair, while her mother tells her, “It’s just marriage, it’s not a big deal.” This scene continues to show the conflict between mother and daughter and the strain being placed on their relationship, as well as how casually the society in this movie viewed marriage. This scene also utilizes the Humanistic approach, as Merida desperately wants to carve her own, unique path in life and is embodying individualism.

Not long after this scene, the suitors begin to arrive. Elinor forces Merida into a tight, form-fitted dress, with an attachment that keeps in and covers Merida’s long, curly red hair. Merida complains that she cannot breathe or move and that the outfit is too tight, only for her mother to say that it is perfect. This symbolizes the messages society sends to women regarding the phrase “pretty hurts,” how natural beauty is not enough, as well as enhancing that princesses (perfect women) have a flawless hourglass figure. The misenscene element in the costume is representative of the beauty standards society expects of women. Merida chooses archery for the game in which suitors will compete for her hand in marriage, and upon lacking performance from the men, she decides to shoot her own bow. Merida hits the bullseye every time, despite her mother begging her to stop.

The camera cuts to a scene in the castle in which Elinor and Merida are arguing about Merida’s actions at the games. Merida tells Elinor that everything is always about and what she wants, never about Merida and her wants. Elinor likens Merida’s behavior to that of a beast. In response, Merida tells her mother that she would rather die than be like her, and likens her mother to a beast while using her sword to cut a tear in the family picture between her and her mother. This action symbolizes the strain on the mother-daughter relationship at this point in the film. Elinor throws Merida’s bow into the fire, which furthers the symbolism as the bow represented Merida’s independence and feminism values which her mother disliked. This scene depicted the greatest strain in their relationship in the moving, and is the climax of their disagreement.

A reverse angle shot shows Merida crying as she is riding into the green, desolate forest on her horse. The sky and her surroundings continue to become darker and darker as Merida rides deeper into the forest. The lowkey lighting displayed in this scene depict the subdued feelings Merida is battling with, as she is being forced to enter a life that she does not wish to live. This scene uses scene structure to exhibit the message that Merida and her mother’s relationship have reached a peak strain. As she continues further into the forest, little blue shadowy figures called Wisps are seen guiding her deeper into the forest. These Wisps are symbolic to Merida as they were seen early in the movie when Fergus gifted Merida her first bow. When Merida first saw the Wisps as a child, her mother informed her that Wisps led one to their fate. The movie has now come full circle, as Merida is desperate to carve a new fate for herself so she follows the Wisp once again, just as in the beginning scene of the film. Her house neighs aggressively, as in to warn Merida not to follow the Wisps, but she continues anyway. As she follows the trail of Wisps, she is led to a door, which the sun, that was not previously visible in the dark and cloudy forest. is vibrantly shining on. Upon entering the door, she meets a witch who gives her a cake that will “change” her mother upon eating it, as requested by Merida.

When Merida returns home, her mother eagerly greets her as she states that she was worried about when and if Merida would ever return. Merida gives her mother the spelled cake and labels it a “peace offering.” Upon eating the cake, Elinor becomes very ill and turns into her bedroom, where she morphs into a bear. This is a major plot twist in the film. The cinematic irony in this is that Fergus is the King who is notorious for killing bears, as it was a large bear that took his leg. Merida refuses to accept that her mother’s new bear form is her fault, and blames the witch who did it. Her mother, unable to speak, aggressively roars in her face. Merida and her mother escape the castle with the help of her three little brothers, in order to find the witch who did the spell to undo it. The primary expressive effect of this shot is that Merida has turned her mother into a bear and now has to struggle to help her escape so that her father does not kill her mother in her new bear form.

Merida and Elinor were unable to locate the witch, but she left them the cure to the curse: “Fate be changed, look inside, mend the bond torn by pride.” Unable to decipher what this means, Merida and Elinor camp out in the woods. This is where exposure therapy comes in. In this time, the two bond as Merida teaches Elinor how to hunt and enjoy the forest. Elinor is forced to experience the lifestyle her daughter loves, a lifestyle in which she personally fears and dislikes so much. The fact that Elinor is forced to do things she previously feared for her daughter elicit the semblance of exposure therapy. It is apparent in Elinor’s mood, first disgusted at her daughter’s hunting as she turns down a fish she caught, then thoroughly enjoying the time and beginning to fish herself and play with her daughter in the water, that the forced exposure to a situation in which she feared and detested caused her feelings to begin to change on the subject of her daughter’s lifestyle. She began to see that the life she feared for her daughter allowed her to be more capable and durable in a variety of situations in life. Despite the fact that Elinor was a bear in this scene, it still depicted the beginning of a mend in the previously torn relationship between the mother and daughter, as the mother was forced to understand her daughter’s lifestyle. This scene also exemplifies the theme of acceptance, as Elinor is beginning to accept her daughter for who she is. Lighting is also important and meaningful in this scene, as the lighting is brighter when Elinor and Merida are enjoying their time together, but turns dark when Elinor almost attacks Merida as her bear form is beginning to become permanent.

Merida eventually solves the riddle given to her by the witch, and learns that in order to undo the curse, she must repair the quilted image of her and her mother, in which she had previously separated with her sword. As Merida and her mother return to the castle to mend the quilt, Merida encounters the suitors and their people who are celebrating with her father. Elinor remains hidden in the back, pretending to be a taxidermized bear, instructing Merida what to tell the suitors with her paws. As Merida begins her speech, her mother waves her down and instructs her to tell them otherwise. Merida continues her speech accordingly:

“Yours was an alliance forged in bravery and friendship and it lives to this day. I’ve been selfish. I tore a great rift in our kingdom. There’s no one to blame but me. And I know now that I need to amend my mistake and mend our bond. And so, there is the matter of my betrothal. I decided to do what’s right, and… [as she looks around the room she notices Elinor in the background trying to stop her] And…and break…tradition. [she looks over at Elinor, who is miming what Merida should say] My mother, the queen, feels…uh, in her heart, that I…that we be free to…write our own story. Follow our hearts, and find love in our time.” (1:06:37-1:07:59)

The men in the crowd cheer Merida on, with the other suitors agreeing with her in stating that they were not comfortable or happy about the prospects of an arranged marriage either. Merida allows not only herself the autonomy to choose a suitor, but also allows her suitors this right as well exhibits the Jesuit ideal of magis, which means doing more for others, as she is allowing them the opportunity for true love as well. This scene also exhibits the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis, which means care for the whole person, as Elinor finally allows Merida to make the decision needed to be herself and live freely in both her life and in her mind. This is an important scene in the movie, as it represents the turning point in the mother-daughter relationship in the fact that Elinor is finally accepting of Merida’s opinion and lifestyle. The theme of acceptance is evident here, as Elinor now sees how happy Merida is when she is living her life as she pleases, and she understands her daughter's autonomy.

Another important scene in this mother-daughter relationship occurs when Merida thinks the curse has not been broken, and she is hugging her bear mother and sobbing. A birds-eye view shows Merida pleading: “Oh, mum, I’m so sorry. This is all my fault. I did this to you, to us. You’ve always been there for me. You’ve never given up on me. I just want you back.” In this dialogue, Merida finally breaks out of her state of denial and admits that her mother’s bear form is all her fault. She finally accepts what she has done, and sobs as she is not ready to lose her mother from her mistakes. She realizes all that her mother has done for her, and has come full circle from telling her mother she was never there for her in the beginning of the movie. To Merida’s surprise, her mother returns to her human form, but she is different now. Merida tells her mother that she has changed, as her hair is now let loose compared to the tight pulled back style it is previously seen in. Elinor tells Merida that they both have changed. Elinor’s new hairstyle is representative of her letting loose her strong ideals that she had been imposing on Merida for so many years. Elinor and Merida hug, and in this hug and dialogue, the theme of forgiveness is exemplified as her mother holds no resentment for her daughter turning her into a bear.

The film ends with a birds-eye view of Merida and Elinor riding horses together through the woods. Elinor’s hair remains let down, and they are both seen talking and laughing with one another. The misenscene in the characters costumes and appearance represent their new, free, independent outlook on life. The camera cuts out with an image of the two racing through the woods together, both of their long heads of hair flowing in the wind. This captures the theme of forgiveness fully, as Elinor has fully forgiven Merida for turning her into a bear, and Merida has forgiven Elinor for trying to change who she was inside and for not attempting to understand her sooner. The theme of acceptance is also embodied, as Elinor has fully accepted and embraced Merida’s favorite activities and lifestyle, and they have now become things that she enjoys with her daughter too. Merida is also able to be fully accepting of herself at the end of the movie, as she has now achieved self-actualization in fulfilling her goals in life and in living her life to her fullest potential. All other needs within Maslow’s Hierarchy have been reached for Merida now, as she has her mother and society’s approval.

The ending of this film shows that despite differences and falling outs between a mother and her daughter, the bond they have is strong and runs deep. This film may be useful in a therapeutic setting, such as in family counseling, for improving troubled mother-daughter relationships. Perhaps if the mother and daughter experiencing a tiff in their relationship were to sit down and view this film together, it may give them a different perspective and the opportunity to have new, productive conversations to begin moving forward. That is not to say that this film will assist all troubled mother-daughter relationships, as some relationships are much further distressed than that of Merida and Elinor, but it certainly may be a useful resource in helping some clients, specifically those with daughters in adolescence or teenage years who are rebelling. The central themes of independence, feminism, acceptance, and forgiveness in this film depicting an overall parable of the bond between a mother and her daughter, which may prove to be useful in a therapeutic environment. Additional support for this claim is the use of therapeutic interventions seen in this film: exposure therapy and the Humanistic approach. Thus, it may be utilized and understood, in different ways, by both clients, as well as therapists.

The essay fulfills the requirements set for the Final Project for Parables in Pop Culture (T/RS 228) at The University of Scranton, under the direction of Dr. Cyrus P. Olsen III, for spring semester 2020, under the conditions of COVID-19 lockdown.