This is part of an email conversation I just had with a friend about Pixar's Brave. The more ranty parts of our exchange have been edited out:
Friend: ...It is just so pandering and trying to be all we-are-being-progressive but not really doing anything new at all... I suppose they are trying to get at something deep about complicated mom and daughter relationships, but they do that at the expense of a deep or multi-faceted-in-any-way father-daughter relationship (seriously, every interaction between him and her is like, "*insert something irreverent or mocking men*")
Me: ...it's funny what you said about the story being not-all-that-progressive because the trend nowadays for "strong female characters" is basically girls who reject their femininity and accept masculine traits as superior--which is an idea that many feminists do not embrace. but it's also weird because as you said, there are basically no enlightened male characters in the movie. it almost feels like they dumbed down all the males so that in the absence of compelling male characters, you're forced to relate to & like the two female characters. and as you said, it's not like the movie tread over any new ground. no one in the US thinks arranged marriages are acceptable. of course female athletes are okay and of course girls don't have to wear dresses all the time.
now that I think about it, it IS pretty frustrating because there ARE still a lot of problems with gender roles but the movie doesn't address any of them. like, if they really wanted the movie to be all pro-feminist and progressive, then why have a king character at all? why couldn't the queen be the leader of the country and have merida be the one who inherited the role of ruler? then that really WOULD be progressive because girls are rarely in a position of absolute power, neither in the real world nor in fiction. and just because the main character is female doesn't mean all her problems have to revolve around the fact that she is a girl and is forced to do girl things.
Friend: I am frustrated that clearly they were like, "we need a female hero" and that is so obvious on a surface level. Like, they had to make the whole movie about her making a point of "I don't follow tradition and I'm a girl." And the "progressive" Pixar girl-hero movie that subverts female stereotypes requires a witch, which is basically the women's "Magical Negro" character who stimulates change because old women are so mystical.
I think the opinions expressed above require a bit of explanation. This particular friend and I have had conversations in the past about how homosexual characters in fiction are almost always defined by their homosexuality. They are either a walking stereotype or most of their problems in the story either involve or revolve around the fact that they are gay. (For examples of gay characters whose homosexuality is NOT central to their portrayal, there is of course Dumbledore and less famously the main character of Torchwood.) In fact, the narratives of non-normative demographics are often ironically both in opposition to AND centered around the normative. (e.g. the problem of gay characters are essentially that they are different from straight characters, the problems of non-white characters are that they are different from white characters, etc.--to learn more about why this is harmful, see Toni Morrison)
And I think something similar happened with Brave. Merida is defined by her gender. The majority of her problems in some way involve the fact that she is female. This is VERY unusual for Pixar; for instance, aside from the arthritis jokes, the main character of Up! was not defined by his age. The story could have instead starred a 30 year-old man whose wife died young and the core of the story would remain the same. Even Ratatouille didn't necessarily have to star a rat; the core of the plotline would still work as long as it starred a person of any demographic that would face extreme difficulty & discrimination in becoming a first-class chef in Paris.
This is simply not the case in Brave. If Merida were instead a male prince, the story would largely lose its impact, even if you did something "subversive" like change his hobby from archery to knitting. To my memory, this is the first time that the problems of a Pixar lead have been so category-specific. And not so coincidentally, this is also the first time that a Pixar lead has been female.