There are going to be quite a few new babies in my life in the next couple of months, and since at least one of them is probably going to be a girl, I’ve been spending more time than usual lately obsessing about princesses.
I’m more than a little disturbed by the current trend of trying to raise girls without princesses. Several of my siblings’ friends are taking this tack. For about ten seconds, I was kind of okay with it, and then I realized that it also excludes Princess Leia Organa, possibly the greatest princess, and example of what makes a good princess, ever written. Furthermore, it suggests that princesses have no inherent value, save as commodities in love and marriage, and that’s just the result of too-casual interpretation of their stories.
Okay, okay: it’s also the result of Disney marketing, which is kind of awful a lot of the time. But in the past few years, even Disney has become much more self-aware (not always in terms of merchandise. That remains depressing. And also not a little bit racist. But in terms of the story), and shutting down their contributions to the genre isn’t fair either.
Take Mulan, for example, who isn’t really a princess, but qualifies for marketing reasons. She is seriously awesome, and puts herself in significant risk for her family (not some dude. Well, a dude. But the dude is her father). She works her butt off, uses her brain, refuses to stop even when her death (by her comrades, not the bad guys) seems imminent, and then she saves the world with cross-dressing (like, they actually say the word). TWICE. That’s exactly the kind of princess who SHOULD be a role model.
At the other end of the spectrum we have Charlotte, one of two princesses in THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. Charlotte is rich, entitled, more than a little thoughtless, and occasionally a bit dim, but she is BEST FRIEND ever to come out of the Disney canon. She does so much for Tiana, without ever thinking that Tiana owes her anything. This includes respecting Tiana’s love of work (though she does not understand it), giving Tiana what she’ll accept (which is not always a lot), and, most awesomely, KISSING THE DAMN FROG on the off chance that she can save her friend, and make her happy*.
The most interesting Disney Princess, to me, is Mia Thermopolis of THE PRINCESS DIARIES, because Mia is a modern princess, in every way the others can’t be. And, more importantly, what finally, finally, gets her to decide to BE a princess is not pink dresses or frilly tea parties or the ridiculous castle she is going to live in: it is her sense of responsibility. That sense of responsibility, and the idea that she can Do Good, prompts her to give up everything she knows, leave her friends and her mother, and travel to a country she’s never seen. Eventually, that same sense of responsibility leads her to consider an arranged marriage, not because she wants to, but because it is the best thing she can do for her people**. It’s kind of amazing.
To deny the Princess story is to deny the amazing political power that these girls and women hold. There is a book called A GOLD STAR FOR ZOG that my sister was very excited about (it was just published in North America, though it has been in Australia and New Zealand for a while). In the book, a dragon named Zog is in training to be the best dragon he can be, and is aided at various times in his studies by a local princess, to the point where she allows him to kidnap her. She becomes a healer, and patches up the other dragons when they get injured during their training. When a knight shows up to rescue her, she convinces him to follow his own heart, at which point he decides to also be a healer, and becomes her apprentice, and the pair of them fly off with Zog as their transport. At first glance, I should have loved this book.
But what happens to her kingdom? If she was the heir, they’re screwed. Her parents would have invested time in her education and training to rule the kingdom. If she was supposed to marry for dynastic purposes, there could be civil war, and possibly even war with another country. Being a doctor is all well and noble, but I can’t help thinking that her kingdom would have been about a million times better off had she done her duty, become Queen, and founded a medical school.
At one point, the princess even says that she doesn’t want to be a princess, because princesses are useless. And that? That means she never knew how to be a princess in the first place. And by telling children that story, we are ruining the potential for them to realize how, sometimes, what you are is more important than what you want, but that it can be a good and rewarding thing anyway.
“With great power comes great responsibility” is not just something to be said to Spiderman. It applies to princesses too, and to the girls who want to be like them. It’s what made BRAVE so fantastic. As we speak, it is being fantastically chronicled in the Teen section of your local bookstore.
There needs to be an understanding passed to girls (and boys), that whether they are like Charlotte, Mulan or Mia, there is nothing wrong with princesses. Fairy-tales have always existed to provide morals, and if we’ve let those morals become outdated, we’ve failed our children and we have no one to blame but ourselves. The only problems with girls liking princesses are the problems we give them. If they understand – really understand – what comes with the tiara, we’ll all be better people for it.
THE PRINCESS ACADEMY and PALACE OF STONE, by Shannon Hale. (6+)
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, by Diana Wynne Jones (10+)
GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS and CROWN OF EMBERS, by Rae Carson (14+)
THE PRINCESS DIARIES, by Meg Cabot (book and movie, 12+)
STAR WARS (it is NEVER too early for Princess Leia. Also, include the prequels, especially THE PHANTOM MENACE because the Handmaidens are amazing)
*To be clear, Tiana is also an amazing princess based on her work ethic and self-awareness alone, but she falls into the Mulan category, and I was trying to spread around the credit for AWESOME as much as possible.
**It’s a bit funny, though. Because, really, the only thing better than Captain Kirk by way of Thor and Emma Swan is Captain Kirk by way of Gimli. I will never understand how anyone could go for Chris Pine when Callum Blue was an option, but clearly I am much too shallow for this.
***It goes without saying that I can talk about this forever, right? I mean, I’ll keep it short, but if you are related to me (by which I mean “have attended a family wedding”) and want me to read things to your kids, I’m probably down with it.