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Archive for the ‘Destroying the Princess Stereotype’ Category

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In this series, I analysis princess characters who defy the stereotypical representation of princesses in fiction, the beautiful, kind, and romance-focused princesses like those in Disney movies (click here for a refresher). When it comes to destroying the princess stereotype, it’s hard to get much further from the traditional type than Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s Azula. Unlike the other complex princesses I’ve discussed who were characters one could consider “heroes,” this princess is ruthless and completely proud of it. In the well-known Nickelodeon series, Azula plays one of the main antagonists and boy, does she make an excellent one! She’s the pride and joy of her father, leader of a nation that has systematically invaded and taken control of other societies and a man cold enough to burn and exile his own son. Rather than sit around a palace in a puffy dress waiting for others to take care of her, Azula has been charged with an important mission to capture the greatest threat to her nation–the Avatar–and she thrills at the chance. This is obviously not your average princess character so, without further ado, let’s break down her characteristics.

TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITSimages-76

Honestly, there isn’t a whole lot of typical princess material in Azula. She’s attractive, but that is never the focus of her character and most of the series she appears in armor or something else that’s easy to fight in (the picture to the right is one of the rare instances when she looks more traditionally feminine). She’s a perfectionist, but she’s not perfect like some of Disney’s earliest princess characters. While she would like to be perfect and tries her hardest to be, it’s clear that Azula is human and therefore imperfect, much to her frustration. Romance is never a factor so, Azula doesn’t fall into the category of prince-crazy princesses who give up everything for them or whose whole story revolves around romance. And as for kindness…

NON-STEREOTYPICAL TRAITS

AzulaAzula has followed closely in her father’s footsteps; she’s an egoist who knows just how to manipulate, threaten, and control those around her, even people she calls “friends.” Is that something to be admired? Most of us would probably say no, but one of the things I like about Azula is that she’s not nice. She has high ambitions and won’t let anything or anyone stand in her way, even if it means hurting someone else. It’s not unusual to see this trait in male characters, but rarely is it seen in female characters. So often female characters, whether they’re princesses or not, are supposed to be nice. Sometimes they’re obviously nice and other times they’re tough girls who come off as cold, but are revealed to be softhearted girls who have been put into a difficult situation and forced to toughen up. If a female character is ever mean, it’s almost always in a petty, shallow way (i.e. the mean girl who torments the nice girl because they both like the same guy). But where are the merciless girls, the mean girls who have more on their minds than making a nice girl look stupid in front of a guy? Azula is one of the few I can think of and she’s actually quiet complex.

In addition, she’s extremely capable, unlike many of the classic Disney princesses. Azula is given big responsibilities by her father/ruler of her country and she handles them excellently, to the horror of the protagonists. Arguably, she does a better job of hunting the Avatar than anyone, beating out her older brother and a decorated admiral, and (without spoiling anything) accomplishes some amazing feats for her country. She’s also one of the most skilled firebenders (think of it as magical martial arts) in the series. Besides her father, the Firelord, Azula is the second-baddest villain in the series. If a series has a female antagonist, she typically doesn’t play a huge part and is usually one of the weakest enemies. The fact that Azula is a princess just makes her badness all the more amazing since princess characters are most often depicted as damsels in distress or (if we’re lucky) heroes; either way they’re supposed to be good people.

To sum it up, Azula is the anti-Disney princess princess character. She has power as a princess and she uses it to her fullest advantage. She’s brutal, capable, complex, and one of the best female villains I’ve come across. So, if you’re looking for princess characters who destroy stereotypes, Azula is definitely one to check out. She won’t disappoint.

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In this series, I introduce princess characters I feel defy stereotypical princess characteristics, some of which I identified in Disney’s classic princesses characters. This time I’ll be discussing May Chang, a character from a popular manga series by the name of Fullmetal Alchemist. While she may not be the main character of the series, her story and the actions she takes throughout distinguish her as an intriguing princess character. 

    HER STORY

May Chang is the young princess of an Asian-inspired country called Xing, but her title as princess doesn’t give her many special privileges like most princesses. That’s because May is not the first princess or even the fourth but the seventeenth princess born to the emperor by a concubine of the Chang family. With so many offspring of the emperor, there is plenty of rivalry between families so, despite being the emperor’s daughter, May and the rest of the Chang line have one of the poorest social standings among the royal families. In an attempt to raise her family’s social standing, May Chang braves a journey to a neighboring country in search of the coveted Philosopher’s Stone, said to grant immortality, to present to the emperor. However, upon reaching the country, May quickly finds herself embroiled in the dark schemes of another nation.

TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITS

May does have a few typical traits, the first and foremost being her infatuation with the two male protagonists and her pure-heart. Since I’ve already discussed a non-stereotypical princess with a pure heart, I’m going to focus on the former with May.

May first develops a crush on Edward Elric after hearing of his skill and immediately pictures him as a handsome, prince-like man. After her daydreamed image of Edward is shattered, she very quickly develops a little crush on his brother. This follows more closely with the stereotypical princess characters who all seem to be in love, or fall in love, with someone during the course of their story. May develops these crushes after having spent little-to-no time with the object of her affections which also mimics a number of Disney princesses who spend little time with their knights in shining armor before developing romantic feelings (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella).

However, unlike Disney princesses, May’s crushes are not the focus of her story and often take on a comical air. (And when I say comical, I don’t mean that May is constantly made fun of in a way that undermines her strengths.) I would also point out that while her first crush on Edward is purely based on a superficial fantasy, her crush on his brother, Alphonse, makes more sense as the series goes on; she actually gets to know him and their personalities work well together. Because of these factors, May’s quick attachments are not grating in the least and take a different route than those of stereotypical princesses.

NON-TYPICAL TRAITS

As a princess in a world that gives her more burdens than what dress to wear to the ball, May Chang has independence, responsibilities, and skills that stereotypical princesses lack. Instead of others fighting dragons or scaling towers to save her, May shoulders her own responsibilities–in this case, the duty to save her clan. While readers don’t know exactly how May came to the decision to travel to another country with only a myth of attainable immortality in mind, it’s hard to doubt that she came to the decision herself once one sees her fierce determination. She’s got a rival family member after immortality and makes new enemies as she discovers secrets in her attempts to find immortality, but even in the face of these obstacles, May won’t go home until she’s found a solution to her clan’s problems. In other words, she’s in control of her life. And while she receives and needs help at times, May does her own share of helping on her quest. These elements are in contrast to those of Disney’s earliest princesses and fiction’s most stereotypical princesses who can hardly help themselves, much less those around them.

As for skills, May has a number of them, but most notable is her expert knowledge of a foreign type of alchemy. Because she is the only one with this knowledge present among the cast of characters, she holds a certain amount of power and as a result, has a key role within the story. In addition to that, unlike the alchemy used by the rest of the cast, May’s alchemy can be used to heal as well as to fight, giving her yet another skill that makes her vital. Thus, as with the other two non-stereotypical princesses I’ve discussed so far in this series, May’s knowledge plays a role in the story like no stereotypical princess’ would.

Finally, I want to point out how non-traditional May is as far as her appearance in contrast to stereotypical princesses. She is short, never bejeweled, and is not glamorous or beautiful, although she is cute. For most classic princesses, their unrivaled beauty is one of their main traits and this is highlighted by gorgeous clothing, characters constantly speaking of their beauty, and sometimes even by the plot as in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Granted, May is only supposed to be around 13-years-old, but nonetheless, I appreciate that beauty is not the focus of her story.

To sum it up, May is a princess with real responsibilities, crucial strengths (including knowledge!), and an important role to play that doesn’t require her to look like a supermodel. I think it’s fair to say that, in most cases, a sack of potatoes could play the role of many stereotypical princesses, although I will admit it wouldn’t be as nice to look at.

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The Twelve Kingdoms

In this series, I introduce princess characters I feel defy stereotypical princess characteristics, some of which I identified in Disney’s classical princesses characters. Last week I discussed Nausicaa from Nausciaa of the Valley of the Wind, a strong-willed princess with real responsibilities and the best of intentions. I said stereotypical princesses lacked responsibilities, but definitely possess the good-hearted trait seen in Nausicaa. The princess in this post is going to be somewhat in between and takes quite the interesting character journey. You know it’s not going to be a Disney princess story when the princess’ father is a cruel tyrant and her title is taken away from her at the beginning of the story!

HER STORY

Shoukei is a princess from a book series turned anime called The Twelve Kingdoms, appearing in the book entitled Skies of Dawn and in the third arc of the anime series. As I said, she starts off as a princess living an ideal princess life in an ideal world inside the palace, all the while unaware that her father the king has become so obsessed with ridding the world of crime that he executes citizens for the smallest of crimes. After 30 years of this, some government officials rise up and kill Shoukei’s parents, unable to take the bloody reign any longer. Shoukei’s life is spared because of her ignorance, but she is, in her opinion, still unfairly punished by being thrown out of the palace to live like the average orphan at an orphanage. Believe it or not, this is the beginning of her story.     

TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITS

The Twelve Kingdoms

Shoukei begins her story the ideal princess–at least, she has a number of big traits associated frequently with dreamy princesses. For starters, she’s young and beautiful. When her father becomes king, Shoukei is only 13-years-old.  In this world, the ruler is immortal and other high-ranking people are able to become immortals by being entered in a register (Of course, that means their immortality can be taken away by taking them off which becomes part of Shoukei’s punishment.) This means Shoukei had essentially been frozen in the role of a young girl for over three decades. While others may have grown mentally and become independent, she continued to act like a child and was treated as such by her parents who spoiled her. Shoukei even sings like the perfect princesses of Disney! (And like Disney songs, Shoukei’s song has meaning significant to the story.) She is fragile, doll-like, and appears to have no other responsibility other than to be pure and innocent, singing pretty songs and wearing pretty things. But that’s where things get interesting.

NON-TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITS

The Twelve Kingdoms--Shoukei is on the far left

Shoukei was kept inside the palace at all times by her father and was not involved in politics so that she would always be pure and innocent. If we were to go by Disney standards, Shoukei is just perfect. However, in the world of The Twelve Kingdoms, people expect more from a princess. What the king ended up creating was a girl who was completely detached from the reality of the world outside the palace, unable to live up to her title and position and who struggles to live as normal citizen after she’s dethroned and removed from the Registry of Immortals. In other words, The Twelve Kingdoms takes the traditional princess, sets her in a more realistic word, and highlights the problems. In many ways, this section could be renamed in Shoukei’s case because, while she does develop non-typical princess traits, in many ways the thing that makes this princess different is the world which expects more from her and depicts vividly how purity and innocence aren’t the best traits in someone with power. This forces Shoukei to become something more than a pretty doll.

But for those of you who are a little depressed at the idea of a naive princess’ fall from grace, rest assured there’s more to Shoukei’s journey than this. The Twelve Kingdoms has a lot of character development and, although there’s plenty of action, too, half of the story is about various characters’ psychological journey. Shoukei must cope with the past and figure out how to live this new life as a normal person. That’s the way she is different from Disney princesses; Shoukei grows and experiences many feelings over her new situation, not all of them pretty. She expresses a lot of jealousy, not to mention rage, and can be rather self-centered at times. But Shoukei isn’t a bad person; it’s just that this story isn’t afraid to show that princesses are human with all the emotions that come with it. This allows for realistic growth. Ironically, while Shoukei was punished for her ignorance, her knowledge later becomes a huge asset to some big events and, now aware of both the difficulties of a ruler and the plights of the subjects, she becomes intricately involved in a rebellion in another kingdom. Shoukei is one of many interesting and deep characters from this series (which I hope to review soon) so, if you haven’t read or watched it yet, check out The Twelve Kingdoms.

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Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

For those of you who don’t know, this is the first official installment of a series discussing princess characters who break the Disney princess stereotypes. The first princess up is Nausicaa from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I’ve talked about Nausicaa before on this blog, but it’s impossible to talk about stereotype-defying princess characters and not mention her. In fact, one of the things that I like about this character is that she’s a princess who’s not afraid to be in the front lines of things and get stuff done herself. I’ll try to go over the major points that differentiate Nausicaa from stereotypical princesses in this post.

To give you a general idea of the story, Nausicaa lives in a postapocalyptic world some time in the future; humankind has driven the world to the brink and pollution has made much of it uninhabitable. In addition, humans have lost most of the industrial knowledge of their ancestors. But none of this has stopped people from fighting amongst each other and wars are occurring between groups of people over the few resources that exist in a poisoned land. Obviously, this isn’t a world for the fragile and naive princesses from Disney and truthfully, we never see Nausicaa twirling around at lavish balls or fawning over princes.

TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITS 

Before I go off on how different she is from Cinderella or Snow White, Nausicaa does have certain similarities to stereotypical Disney princesses. As I pointed out last week, all Disney princesses are kind, innocent beings. Nausicaa isn’t naive, but more so honest and has undiminished hopes and she’s definitely shown to be a kind and peace-loving. Another element that I did not mention but that exists at least in a couple of the Disney princesses is a certain self-sacrificing nature, kindness taken to the extreme; Nausicaa has this as well. There is nothing wrong with these characteristics in princess characters; it’s the way they are handled and Nausicaa is the prime example of this.

While the earliest Disney princesses were kind and innocent to the point of sleep-inducing boredom, these traits in Nausicaa, combined with a few other traits like bravery, strength, and a brain, become some of her strengths. Many in Nausicaa’s world are blinded by things like ambition, greed, anger, or even misconception, fueling the destruction of their world. As a result, Nausicaa’s unbelievably pure and understanding nature cuts through much of this and shocks the people around her into awe. Much of her battle is dealing with the hatred in the world.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

NON-TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITS

But Nausicaa doesn’t just get through to people by standing around being really nice; as I mentioned earlier, she has other traits and circumstances which transforms her from a nice princess to an inspiring and interesting figure. Nausicaa is the princess of a small group of people and her position as the daughter of the king actually holds power and responsibilities. The fact that Nausicaa has power is very distinctive difference between all the Disney princesses, none of whom are ever shown to have any power whatsoever as a princess. As for responsibility, some of the princesses do have a little (Jasmine, for instance, originally has the responsibility to marry for the good of her country), but it’s limited. In the manga version of her story, her father is ill and has no son so, Nausicaa must go to war in his place. In the movie, for the sake of her people’s well-being, she must become a political hostage. In both versions, Nausciaa takes plenty of risks to keep people from completely destroying the world. Because of this, she can’t just simply be kind, but also tough, resilient, and know how to act on her own. In fact, Nausicaa makes all of her moves of her own accord and takes a lot of action. As a result, coupled with her motives derived from her kind, innocent nature, Nausicaa helps many. This is what earns her not just the love of people but also respect.

There are several other major differences including Nausicaa’s intelligence, which is actually important to the story, and that there is only the slightest whiff of romance in either the movie or the manga. As for the romance, I will just say there is nothing wrong with romance, but since we see so many stories with female leads where romance takes center stage, it’s nice to see one where the independent female lead is the focus. Finally, while I realize Disney’s princesses are made for a young audience, I just want to point out that the movie version of Nausicaa’s story still only receives a PG rating.

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