Princesses. The 1970s and following were filled with mixed messages: Princess stories–particularly as told by Disney–were toxic to a woman’s spirit and enabled disabling cultural messages regarding femininity and female power. “Don’t let your babies grow up to be princesses” could have been a hit song for Willie Nelson, had he been attuned to the anti-princess zeitgeist.
Not that this princess-as-pernicious talk has died down all that much; it’s simply morphed into new princesses who wear armor (Mulan), shoot arrows and climb mountains (Merida), open restaurants (Tiana), or who are at least more adventurous and assertive (Rapunzel).
I grew up watching the classic Disney princess movies and have seen all the modern versions, and while I enjoyed them–even when Maleficent inspired my first and still-clearly-remembered nightmare, I never fell in love with the princesses themselves. I didn’t dream of waltzing in a ballroom or in the middle of a forest, although I admired Aurora’s ability to do the latter in a long dress and without tripping over a root.
I didn’t like the clothes; climbing a tree in a long dress would have been a drag. And my mother would have yelled at me for getting a princess dress dirty, which was an inevitability, given the woods, forsythia caves, and construction sites that demanded exploration.
I did like all the furry friends these princesses accumulated and would have loved to be surrounded by chatty mice and helpful birds who might help me conquer my math homework. Sadly, any small furry friend that wandered into our house invariably met a cat who wasn’t clued-in to my fantasies.
More than anything, I admired and wanted to be a fairy godmothers, especially Maleficent. A power dresser long before that term gained popularity, her deep, resonant voice compelled the respect I craved. Okay, mostly fear, but the respectful kind. With a voice like that I could have ruled the world, and if not the world, my three brothers. As it was, I had to break a few metaphorical glass slippers and hold the shards to sibling throats to keep from getting run over.
On the other hand, I don’t consider princesses the scourge of female empowerment they came to be considered, and I was pleased to find this defense on YouTube (thanks to Once Upon a Blog; http://fairytalenewsblog.blogspot.com). I don’t buy all the arguments put forward–traditional femininity drags around a lot of well-deserved baggage, thus doesn’t seem the best term the author(s) to defend kindness, cheer, and optimism.
My favorite fable princess was and remains Eilonwy, from Lloyd Alexander’s marvelous The Prydain Chronicles. She was kind, optimistic, and cheerful. Also strong, decisive, and courageous, terrific traits Alexander deliberately chose to bestow upon his only female protagonist (setting aside the enchantress, Achren, who isn’t in all the books).
These qualities, moreover, aren’t confined to princesses. Katherine Addison’s wonderful 2014 novel, The Goblin Emperor, gives us Maia, long-suffering, often confused, frequently bullied, and ultimately victorious prince who learns to be an emperor by deliberately eschewing the ruthlessness of his late father, ruler of the Elflands, in favor of bridge-building mercies and friendships.
I recommend the video. I also recommend reading Alexander’s books–epic fantasy that has aged well–and certainly Addison’s Emperor as means of continuing ways of dispelling the sometimes awful stereotypes that haunt too many princesses and princes.
One more thought, a caution. During Disney’s bad animation years (1970-1980s), the studio optioned The Prydain Chronicles and made a movie. A really bad movie. No humor, no fairy folk, no pathos. Alexander himself said the movie had no relation to the books, and I remember sitting in the theatre, outraged, as the Jeffrey Katzenberg version played out to its miserable end. Pixar: Please do a remake.