An Interview with Brenda Chapman

BrendaChapman-700x1024Brenda Chapman is photographed on January 26, 2012 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Brenda Chapman during the Empowering Girls panel of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival.  Brenda is an American writer, animation story artist, and director.  In 1998, she became the first woman to direct an animated feature from a major studio, DreamWorks Animation‘s The Prince of Egypt.  She directed the Disney·Pixar film Brave, becoming the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.  Brave was a very special movie to me, as it was the first film I watched with my daughter that depicted a female protagonist who claims the right to her own life, body, and story.  Listening to Brenda’s perspectives on creating that story, as well as what has shaped her as a feminist and a writer, was truly a gift of an experience, and I am thrilled to be able to share it with you.  So pull up a chair, get a cup of tea, and prepare for a good read—this is a conversation to savor.

Brave is, in many ways, a movie about female empowerment—the first major motion picture of its kind in recent years, and one that paved the way for both Frozen and Maleficient. I loved watching it with my kids, and I remember coming out of the film absolutely thrilled—a nonconformist princess! A girl who saves the day! Can you tell us what motivated you to write the film? Did you realize at the time that many women and girls out there were waiting for a heroine like Merida?

My daughter inspired me to write Brave. She was four years old when I started it, because she was always pushing back – standing up for herself – to the point that I thought, this is how a teenager acts! What’s she going to be like when she’s actually a teenager?! Thus, Merida was born – inspired by a self-advocating 4 year old.

Yes, I did realize that we needed a different kind of fairytale princess for women and girls. I kept going with the original inspiration: I was a working mom, dealing with a strong willed daughter – a very contemporary story. I enveloped that within a fairytale world. I wanted to turn the simpering princess stereotype on its head.

And a silly hope was that if girls wanted to dress up like Princess Merida for Halloween, moms wouldn’t cringe, but say, “You go girl!”

Brave is rich with mythology and magic. Could you tell us a little bit about the mythology you drew on as you were writing the movie? For example, is there a symbolic significance to bears, particularly when a woman takes the form of a bear?

Yes, I did draw on mythology… or rather other fairytales… to look at enchanted animals. For instance, in Snow White and Rose Red there was an enchanted bear who was really a prince. I found the idea of a bear, which is usually a very dangerous and scary animal, very intriguing – suddenly it was this intelligent and approachable animal. I liked the “shape shifter” quality of a real animal that we all know, rather than going for a mythical creature like a dragon or griffon. I wanted to keep the world I was imagining bound to earth.

But yet, it was strange to me that it was a prince who was a bear. I understand the old fairytale idea that bears/men are dangerous, but if you do their bidding, they will protect and “reward” a girl with marriage. However, I look at bears a little differently.
Mother bear. That was it. A mother bear will protect her cubs to the death. Nobody wants to mess with mama bear. That’s also part of the grounded earthiness I wanted for the story. I knew that I would kill or die for my daughter to protect her – I wanted that same sense of passion and danger to be there for Elinor and Merida.

One of the symbols in Brave that caught my eye was the double axe visible on the prince’s ring and above the ancient ruins. The axe is obviously a weapon used by the Scottish soldiers in their battles—but the double axe was also a symbol for the Goddess in many ancient religions. Were you drawing on Celtic and Scottish depictions of female divine power in this symbol, or in other aspects of the film?

I wish I could say that that is where it came from, but that image was used after I was removed from the movie. I’m fairly certain it was the “coolness” of the weapon rather than a symbol of feminine power that added that to the film. I would like to be wrong on that assumption, but I’m fairly certain that I’m not.

In The Little Mermaid—both the movie and the fairy tale it is based on—Ariel must lose her voice to win a man. This ancient idea is played out in many modern ways, as girls and women are taught that our voices should be either nonexistent or carry no authority. On the other hand, all people—women as well as men—need to listen to each other to work through our differences. In Brave, Merida and Queen Elinor each need to listen, and each implores the other to do so—ultimately, understanding one another is the key to mending their bond. Can you talk a bit about the significance of female voice in the movie, as you were balancing the tension between the female need for self-assertion and the need that all women—especially mothers and daughters—have to listen to one another?

Unlike The Little Mermaid and other classic fairytales whose messages limit women’s value in communicating – or rather that what they have to say should be in agreement with the dominant male’s thinking, Brave put forth the concept that girls and women should advocate for themselves… but with the grounding sense that they need to listen to those whom they respect and love. Self-advocating is an important step for our sex, but that shouldn’t be misconstrued as expecting to get our way all the time. That goes for boys and men, too, by the way.

We need to stop talking – and that also includes our internal dialogue – long enough to really take in what others have to say. It’s okay to disagree, but we need to actually listen and not just wait for someone to shut up so that we can continue with our own point of view – really hear and weigh the other person’s point. That is equality. That is collaboration. That is what Merida and Elinor both needed to learn in Brave.

merida-comparison1Merida Before and After the Disney Princess Makeover. Image Source: Inside the Magic, via A Mighty Girl


Brave was released in 2012; by May of the following year, Disney was marketing a version of Merida that was very different from the one you designed. The “new” Merida (shown above) looked more like most Disney princesses, with a tiny waist, large breasts, and coquettish smile. When they realized that Merida was being re-made in patriarchy’s image, the co-founders of A Mighty Girl created a “Keep Merida Brave” petition campaign, which garnered a great deal of support. You spoke out against the makeover in an interview and an op-ed on A Mighty Girl’s website. How successful has the campaign been—is the original Merida the only one on the market? Given the importance of the connection between body image and self-esteem, is there anything else supporters can do to ensure that our girls have a realistic version of Merida, as well as other heroines, in the marketplace?

Easy. Don’t buy products that depict the older, sexier and simply wrong version of Merida on the packaging or the toy itself. If it doesn’t sell, they’ll stop making it! Although A Mighty Girl won a very big battle against Disney, the image is still out there. I just saw a Halloween Merida wig in which Disney tried to sidestep the original issue by simply changing the dress she was in – it was still off the shoulder, larger breasts and bedroom eyes. They simply took my complaint that they kept putting Merida in the dress she hated in the movie and put her in the dark blue one she always wore. That’s a cheat, as far as I’m concerned. However, those images are fewer than they were, so it’s great to know that if we speak out, we can make a difference.

You are a sponsor of The Brave Girls Alliance, which works to create healthy, empowered images of girls and women in the media and draws on a quotation from Merida: “Our fate lies within us. You only need to be Brave enough to see it.” What can parents and educators and concerned adults do to help bring diverse, empowering female characters to our media, and to encourage girls to embrace and trust themselves?

Write to the studios. Write to advertising agencies. Write to periodicals. Bombard them with snail mail, emails, web campaigns demanding that they stop depicting women and young girls as sexual objects. That’s the hard part… but again, if we’d all do it, they’d listen.

The other thing that I think parents and educators could do, is not only look for the sadly rare films that depict strong female characters, such as Whale Rider, The Secret of Roan Inish, Fly Away Home, Juno, Hunger Games, Divergent to name a diverse few over a range of ages, but also do research to find more. Don’t just assume because it looks like it has a strong female lead, that that lead won’t be sexualized in costume or attitude. They should do their homework before putting it in front of their kids.

They could also make a game of it – or a lesson in the classroom. Watch a popular movie where the girl heroines are “sexy” and objectified – then watch one where they aren’t. Have a discussion about it. Ask young girls who they’d rather be and why. Point out the shortcomings of the sexy heroine. Point out the strengths (which include faults) in the more relatable heroine. If we don’t open our children’s eyes to what the media is doing, they’ll buy it hook line and sinker, and it will be incredibly difficult to reverse. Trust me, I know! I still have to debate with my 16-year-old daughter about self-advocating versus “fitting in” to appeal to boys. It drives me crazy, because I fought so hard at work to change things, that I thought it was automatically absorbed in at home. I should have taken the time to be more specific about what I fight for with my daughter. She’s getting there… but it’s not easy for her. That breaks my heart.

The Brave Girls Alliance supports the Truth In Ads campaign, which advocates for honesty about altered images in our media. Have you noticed an upsurge in support for truth in advertising, as well as campaigns like the one to “Keep Merida Brave” in the past few years? Do you think we are approaching a cultural turning point around how we treat women and girls, and how we portray them in our media?

I still think we have a very long way to go. I am waiting and hoping that the current wave of campaigns to change the thinking on the depiction of women in the media isn’t a fad – a temporary frenzy that will fade out. We have to keep fanning the flames, no matter how tired our arms are! Hollywood and the general media are fickle – they follow the fads of what sell. We have to be careful of what we choose as consumers to continue to send the message. It just can’t happen in campaigns… we have to put our money where our mouth is, even when our 4 year old is begging for a Bratz doll – DON’T BUY IT!!! And tell her why!

During the Empowering Girls panel, audience members asked you two questions, and I thought your answers were fantastic. First, a young girl wanted to know what inspired you to create work that empowers women and girls. And second, a young teen asked what your advice would be to girls who are making their way through the challenges of adolescence today. Can you share your answers to these questions with us?

Ha ha! That’s a tough one, as I always answer questions spontaneously – I don’t give pat answers. I’ll try to remember what I said, but it won’t be exact.

What inspired me to create empowering stories for young girls and women was that hardly any existed when I was young. I somehow managed to grow up in a patriarchal family and see the unfairness, inequality and unjust way that the women around me were treated. I also grew up in the 60’s and 70’s when women’s rights were constantly in the media and the news. So I was able to compare how things were to how they ought to be. I watched my mother work a full-time job as a cook in a nursing home – she’d get up at 4 am and get off at 2 pm. Then she’d come home and clean, do laundry, shop for groceries, cook dinner and take care of me. My dad would go to work at a reasonable hour and be home by 5 pm. He’d then go sit in his Lazy Boy, listen to the radio or watch TV until my mother had supper on the table, eat, then go back to his Lazy Boy while my mother, my sister and I would clean up. And I’d been to both my parents’ workplaces, and I knew that my mom’s job was much more labor intensive than my dad’s.

But it really hit home when I was a freshman or sophomore in high school. I was in the marching band – feeling awkward in my uniform that was made for boy sizes only. I was running late for a football game that the band would be playing at half-time. My father was late getting home from work, but still expected to sit down to dinner. My mother had gotten home from a full day’s work and was expected to cook and serve the food. She served me first, as time was of the essence. My father, of course, did not like that. Then, Mom put his plate in front of him and was trying to finish up so she could sit down and eat. Since neither Mom nor I had had time to set the table as usual, there was no salt or pepper. Dad said, “Where’s the salt?!” Mom didn’t turn around or say a word, she just opened the door to the cabinet where the salt was kept, and kept working. Dad looked at me, but I looked down at my plate and continued eating. As Dad roughly shoved his chair back, he said, “Two women in this house, and I have to get up and get my own salt!” That was the exact moment I knew that I was a feminist, and had the courage to say, “Welcome to the 20th century, Dad!” He was so shocked, he didn’t know what to say.

Standing up for what you believe in is essential. That means you have to self-advocate, and support yourself. Be true to who you are. That small gesture of defiance on my mother’s part of opening the cabinet door gave me the courage to take it a step further. Seeing that my usually subservient mother had a rebellious streak – wow!

I know it’s hard to be an adolescent. We all want to feel like we belong. But we forget, that we need to belong to ourselves first. We have to have the courage to enjoy the things we enjoy, not just the popular fads. You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself. (That’s a lyric in a song somewhere, but I can’t remember which one…)

Respect who you are, then others will respect you. Easier said than done, I know. Remember that band uniform? Hang in there, because this too shall pass.

You are currently at work on a memoir—in essence, telling your own story. What have you found most challenging about this type of writing? Can you speak to the connection between personal and public bravery—the ways in which we must be brave enough to overcome our internal barriers to empowerment as we are pushing against the external forces that wish to assign women and girls secondary status within our society?

The most challenging thing for me is that I’m not just writing about my own life. My life is (as are all our lives) indelibly intertwined with so many others. It’s hard to know how to respect their privacy and still tell my own story. I’ve found that my story is so reliant on the stories of my grandmother and mother, my story can’t be told without telling theirs. Again… the privacy conundrum raises its head. But that said, I feel like their stories need to be told. Such sacrifice and resilience in such a patriarchal age make my journey seem easy in comparison. Yet, I still have struggled to remain strong and fight for the things I believe need fighting for.

I also feel self-conscious in writing about myself. It’s a leftover of my mother teaching me not to bring attention to myself – it could very well be misconstrued as “bragging.” I struggle against that every time I get up to speak in front of a classroom or audience, and every time I write about myself and my journey. That in itself is a reason I speak and write – to break those archaic barriers that have been set up in front of women for centuries. Although I didn’t start my career with that knowledge of what drove me – I just loved to draw and tell stories – as the years have gone by, my underlying desire for equality and fairness has finally bubbled to the surface. So now I try to use my storytelling, writing and filmmaking abilities to help enlighten and inspire in that direction.

Personal bravery is self-advocating and teaching those who are close to us a more tolerant, respectful and equal way to exist. Public bravery is getting past the shyness and self-deprecation we, as girls and women were taught was our role and speak out when we feel or see an injustice – make an effort to make a change. We don’t need to be rude. We don’t even need to be loud. We just need to be strong, confident and steadfast in our journey forward.

You are also working on a children’s book.   Can you tell us a little about the story you are developing? Do you find it difficult to switch between different types of writing—a screenplay, a memoir, a children’s book? Are there ways in which the different types of storytelling you do overlap, so that work in one area sustains and informs work in another area?

My children’s book has been in the making for nearly 30 years. It is an adaptation of my final student film at CalArts. It is about an old woman who is alone on her birthday – and how she defies self-pity. It’s a picture book. And I truly hope to finish it within the next year.

I actually enjoy having several projects to work on. When I hit a wall or get so deep, I can’t see the forest for the trees (to coin a cliché or two), it helps to turn to another subject matter for a little while so that when I return to a story, I can look at it with a fresher eye.

Another issue I have is that I have been trained to edit for length in the film industry. A script or a storyboard has to get to the point, because the movie has to play within a certain amount of time. Rule of thumb is “a page a minute.” We have to cut out the shoe-leather. Whereas in a book, you can have the luxury of describing the sounds and smells, how the light plays on the surrounding world, how the character feels and what they are thinking, etc. I took a creative writing class about 5 years ago, where the teacher kept telling me she wanted “more!” I was always cutting to the chase – literally. It has been difficult to allow myself the luxury of words. But it’s so pleasurable to try!

I find storytelling to be intuitive. Each story has its own life, whether film, children’s book, memoir, novel or whatever other type of story one can tell. Whichever I am working on, I follow my gut.

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