Princess. What comes to mind when you hear or read the word? For me, two things instantly pop into my head; as a child, like many little girls, I liked princesses. I kid you not when I say that I liked their frilly dresses, but more than that I liked stories about girls. While in many stories princesses are not the main character, sometimes they are the main female character or one of few. Yet once I became old enough to pay attention to what happened in the story I remember feeling underwhelmed and disappointed. How excited could I get if the good princesses don’t do anything besides wait for someone else to do something? That leads me to my second thought; princess characters have become one of the most old and tired stereotypes for girls.
But despite princesses typically being horribly stereotypical, that’s not always the case. It’s become my mission/hobby to seek out princess characters that defy the limited and lame definition of what princesses have come to stand for in fiction. I’m going to introduce you to some of those that I’ve found and explain how they break that mold in a new series of posts. However, before I go showing off characters who break that mold, what is it that’s so bad about the usual princess character? Because Disney’s princesses demonstrate my point so well, I’ll use them as my princess archetypes.
Cinderella, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), and Snow White–the 1st batch.
These three are “perfect” in the traditional sense, and when I say “traditional” I mean ye ol’ times traditional; they are all kind, beautiful, and subservient. On the topic of subservience, notice that none of these princesses have a strong will. Snow White and Aurora didn’t do any kind of rebelling and the extent of Cinderella’s defiance was sneaking out to go to a ball. On that last note, notice that, despite the abusive behavior of her step-sisters and step-mother, Cinderella never confronts them. All three princesses have the emotional range of happy and sad because a good girl should never get angry.
As for their few skills, they are skills that are considered feminine such as cleaning and singing. They’re not shown to be particularly intelligent, but in previous centuries intelligence in a woman was not seen as a virtue. (Frankly, it hasn’t been too long since the U.S. as a society began valuing smarts in women instead of teaching them to dumb themselves down.)
Finally, the princesses’ problems are not due to any fault of their own. Both Snow White and Cinderella suffer because of the jealousy of other women and Aurora is cursed by a witch out of spite for her family. These three princesses’ problems only emphasize their own virtue and the vice of others. The most these girls could be accused of is naivety. In addition, none of them solve their own problems; a prince appears and does that for them. So, to sum it up, the earliest Disney princesses symbolize the female who is pure and good yet frail and entirely dependent on men. These princesses are unrealistic, outdated ideals of what a good girl should be so, there’s really not a lot of good I can say about them. Honestly, they’re just plain boring.
Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Jasmine (Aladdin), and Belle (Beauty & the Beast)–the 2nd batch.
These princesses are definitely improved from their predecessors. They actually seem to have souls and take action throughout the course of their stories rather than just being pretty dolls collecting dust on a shelf. Yes, they are pretty and kind, but there’s more to them; Ariel is adventurous, Jasmine is rebellious about her fate as a princess, and Belle has a thriving brain behind her pretty face that she wants to use. Each of them also confronts at least one person at some point, meaning they’re not punching bags. However, there are issues that set them up as typical princesses.
Ariel gives up things she loves (i.e. her voice and family) to be with a guy. There are two ways to look at her giving up her world to be with her love: 1) Ariel was dissatisfied with her world and wanted something new thus it wasn’t just about the guy, or 2) this course of action has an underlying message that a girl should give up anything for a guy she loves. The thing that makes me lean toward the latter is Ariel’s deal with the sea witch. With this deal, she not only gives up her world but also her voice and it’s not like she’d been dreaming of getting rid of that. The other point to note is she makes that deal not with adventure of the new world in mind, but of meeting a man she’s never met. Not having a voice also means that Prince Eric, her love, judges her only on her looks and general nature, but not on what she thinks.
Jasmine becomes the damsel in distress of Aladdin’s story. She tries to run away, she gets in trouble, Aladdin saves her. Jafar, the villain, tries to get the royal family’s power and Aladdin saves her and her family. And of course, like those classic stories mentioned above, Aladdin also saves Jasmine from her biggest problem–marrying someone she doesn’t love. Granted, Jasmine at least isn’t such a boring damsel in distress like the previous three, but that element is still present in her story. Obviously, her story also revolves around love.
Finally, I have the least problems with Belle, but she is also the good, pretty girl whose story is singularly about love (note that the problem is not that there is a romance but that it is only about romance). Also notice that once again, Belle, Ariel, and Jasmine have no real noticeable flaws and represent ideas of what a girl should be; kind and pretty with a life that revolves around a guy.
So, in this series I will write about princesses (by blood or marriage) who have flaws, stories with more to them than just a romance, take action, and are more than just pretty and kind (if pretty and/or kind at all).