On Archery

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

We went to see Pixar’s Brave last night: me, my boyfriend, his mother, aunt, uncle and niece.  We joked around in the theater lobby that it took 5 adults to take one 8-year old to the movies because we all wanted to see the film without the stigma of being an adult at a kid’s movie.  I joked that my degree goals got me out of that one.  I anticipate that I am not the only person who will be posting about this film, so I am going to try to take a slightly different tack.

Brave has been touted as Pixar’s first full-length film centered on a female character.  Those films include: Toy Story (and its sequels), A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Cars, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up and Wall-E.   Whether intentional or not, all of the other Pixar films have centered around male characters and their relationships (father-son in Nemo and Ratatouille, husband-wife in The Incredibles, male friendships in Toy Story, Monsters Inc, and Up, and romance in A Bugs Life, Cars and Wall-E.)  Sure, you can argue that Wall-E is actually a robot, or that Mrs. Incredible is actually a pretty well-rounded character for an animated super-heroine, but the facts are that Pixar has been looking at its various animated lenses through a male lens and Brave is its first attempt to look at the beautifully rendered world of the Scottish Highlands through the female lens of Princess Merida and her mother Queen Eleanor.

While the overall film was cute and moving and beautiful and funny and had the requisite kilt/bare bottom jokes, I did find myself wondering aloud as we left the theater, what is it about archery that makes a female character all at once likeable, a tom-boy, and badass?  True, Merida was badass in other ways too: her skill with a sword and spear come in handy and she is even good enough to be a match (momentarily) for her father, the King.  But it is clear that archery is Merida’s true love: when she can finally escape her mother’s lessons, she rides her horse, Angus, out into the surrounding forest, shooting well-worn targets as she goes. The sequence emphasizes her speed, accuracy, comfort and unbridled joy in this sport.  When forced by her mother to choose the means by which the young men of the clans will compete for her hand in marriage, Merida chooses archery, knowing that she will be able to out shoot all of the boys and hopefully, by a technicality in the law, win her own hand.

So, what is it about archery that signals to the audience that this is a female hero that we can really get behind?  Archery has become quite ubiquitous lately, as other heroines from other YA texts embrace archery as well.  I am thinking specifically of Katniss from the Hunger Games and Katsa and Fire from the Graceling realm but I am pretty sure I saw Kristen Stewart in the posters for Snow White and the Huntsman sporting a pretty wicked looking bow and quiver.  There is also Susan from the Chronicles of Narnia and I am pretty sure some female video game characters who work with a bow and arrows.  (Prior to the start of the movie, there was even an add for an archery range here in town featuring a young women dressed to resemble Katniss, running through the woods and shooting arrows.  The tagline was “Make archery your reality.”)

To start, shooting things with arrows is a pretty masculine act: the phallic shaped arrows are designed to penetrate the small, often rounded target that it is shot at.  There is, however, a curve to the bow that could be read as a yonic curve, or a curve that at least follows the pleasing shape of a woman’s body.  So perhaps symbolically, we could read the combination of the bow and the arrow to be a balanced and interdependent interaction between the male and the female halves of human nature.  There is also a balance of brute strength and delicacy that must come together in order to make an archer successful.  It may look graceful and easy to someone not experienced in archery, but pulling the string of a bow, especially one as large as Katniss’s or Merida’s, takes an impressive amount of upper-body and core strength.  This kind of strength is a traditionally masculine trait, and so watching these girls pull back the string with ease is a hint at just how strong they really are. The Hunger Games book specifically talks about how it took Katniss a long time to be able to draw her father’s bow, because of how strong he was.  This detail did not make it into the movie.

However, archery also requires concentration, patience and careful aim that are more likely to be associated with a more feminine sensibility.  Characters attempting a difficult shot, like Merida trying to split the arrow of one of her suitors, are seen to hold (with string drawn to their chins!), focus, exhale slowly, and with grace and care, release the string delicately.  Perhaps it is because the feminine traits of grace are more easily discernible to a film-goer then power it takes to draw a bowstring that it is ok for girls to be seen using a bow and arrows.

A bow and arrow is also old-school.  In films set in contemporary times, if someone wants to shoot something, they use a gun.  The Walking Dead features a guy, Darrel, with a cross-bow, but he is portrayed as a redneck hick.  The only reason his choice of weapon comes in handy is because it makes less noise than a gun (and noise attracts zombies!)  If you look at the books and films I have listed above, most are set in a different time.  Brave is set in the Scottish Highlands long before the British invasion: Merida still has to wear a corset and the clans are still bragging about defeating the Vikings.  The bow and arrow is nostalgic, looking back on a time when weapons, such as the sword, the mace and even riding horses, did require grace and skill.  The bow and arrow is also anachronistic to our current times and possibly dilutes some of the power of those archer characters, as the viewer is thinking deep down, “yeah, well no one really uses a bow and arrow now.”  Overall, the message seems to be that young women might be powerful in another time and place, but not here and now, with the supplies we have on hand.

For many of these women, archery is often a source of connection to a positive male companion.  For Merida, it is her father who gives her her first bow when she is just a child and who teaches her to shoot.  Her father shares her love of the outdoors, adventure, jokes and freedom.  For Katniss, it was her father who taught her to make a bow, to hunt and to feed the family before he was killed in a mine accident: using her bow reminds her of her father.  Katniss’s skill with the bow is also the catalyst to her friendship with Gale.  For Fire, her bow is a deep connection to her friend/lover Archer, even though he is a much better shot then she is.  Together, they use their bows to hunt and protect themselves from monsters.

The bow and arrow allows for these girls to partake in traditionally male exploits of hunting, fishing and even warfare but without the danger of really getting their hands dirty.  They do not need to stab, hack or inflict other forms of immediate harm to anyone or anything else: the violence with a bow and arrow is removed by distance from the archer.  This also makes archery a more PG-13 friendly form of violence, as our plucky heroine that we all want to root for can keep her clothes and morality free of blood-stains.  So, the bow and arrow is often a transgressive object but the transgression is often sanctioned by a father figure or encouraged by a potential love interest.

To be fair, archers of the male variety have been increasingly popular lately as well.  All of the Lord of the Rings films featured archers, but none more prominent than Legolas.  The Avengers film also featured Hawkeye, a superhero whose weapon of choice is a bow and arrow.  Yet, thinking on it, these two characters are viewed by many as effeminate: Legolas has long, flowing hair and delicate features, and while badass, also gentle and kind, as are most elves.  There were quite a few memes going around after The Avengers opened, joking about how Hawkeye was the least useful, weakest and wussiest hero on the team (even less valuable than Scarlett Johanssen’s Black Widow character!)  So, while feats of impressive archery can dazzle and come in handy, it is also seen as a distant, non-involved form of combat and the archer characters are also the “badass” boys of the films.

Perhaps archery is a form of violence and warfare that comes close enough to the strong, masculine line to indicate tomboy-like attitudes with reasonable amounts of strength, but without crossing the line into too strong, too scary, too violent or too masculine.  A bow is the weapon we give women when we want to clearly emphasize that they are women, without blurring any kind of gender-roles or boundaries.  As a girl who grew up on Buffy hacking away with fists, swords and stakes, I am willing to let the archery theme slide in favor of more genuinely powerful women.  Luckily for Pixar, Merida not only shoots arrows, but rides horses, climbs mountains, fights bears, sword fights and speaks her mind.

Rebekah Fitzsimmons is a graduate student at UF and will be teaching a special topics course on YA dystopian lit in the fall. Her latest article “Testing the Tastemakers: Bestsellers, Children’s Literature and ‘The Harry Potter Effect’” is available in Children’s Literature 40. 

Categories: Critical Conversations, In the Media

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One thought on “On Archery

  1. Leslie

    Haven’t seen Brave yet, but I think the female archery meme can be traced back all the way to Greek/Roman mythology, with Artemis/Diana as the goddess of the hunt, archery, and also, interestingly enough, chastity. So the female archer suggests a brave warrior who is also chaste. Artemis also has a deep tie to animals, and I think the bow/arrow in contemporary culture represents some type of spiritual connection to animals. Even though the archer is killing animals, of course, how many scenes have I seen where an archer will lovingly stroke a deer and thank it for its sacrifice?

    This was a really interesting post, Rebekah! Hope you’re doing well.

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