October 27, 2015

Princesses

There’s a thing we’ve been doing for a while where we take Disney princesses and reimagine them as something radically different. The most recent and perhaps most ridiculous example would probably be Disney princesses as hot dogs from the Lucky Peach, but there’s also Disney princesses as moms, Disney princesses as warriors, and Disney princesses as Fifty Shades of Grey characters (this last link is not safe for work).

A lot of the fun of this is just good ol’ fashioned trope mashups, the same thing that makes people dream up stories about cowboy vampires and zombie knights. Would it be pretty cool to see Snow White with a giant katana? Yes, sure, give me that, please.

But it’s a really interesting phenomenon to me because, once you really think about it, princess stories are mostly about being powerless, about being denied a choice.

Cinderella is probably the ur-example of this. A beautiful creature of noble birth, ruthlessly exploited by her cruel family, who eventually wins out not necessarily due to the choices she makes, but rather who she is. And at the end of the day, she’s not exactly a personage of power: whatever power she wields in her new home is given to her by her husband and his family, graciously extended and granted to her, but not something she herself owns.

She is not a person of power, she is the attractor of peoples of power. There’s a big difference.

We see something similar in Disney’s Aladdin, where the princess’s struggle is to exert her right to marry whom she chooses. The struggle isn’t about deciding what to do, it’s about getting to do anything at all. It’s the fight to be anything more than passive.

So it is really interesting to see us reinventing Disney princesses as such powerful and different people. We are, in some ways, giving choices to fictional characters who previously had no choices at all.

But it’s still really weird that it’s the princess format we keep returning to. Sure, as Disney has dominated the American childhood for coming up on a century now, they’ve deeply ingrained the tropes and building blocks of these medieval fables into our psyche. In the commercial marketplace, princesses are the default touchstone of girlhood – and, as our Disney princesses reinvention proves, that attraction extends well beyond childhood.

Yet even the quickest glance makes it obvious that a medieval princess in Western Europe is not the best figure to emulate. Just as Jane Austen books focuses on the .001% of the population who were able to live so grandly, princess tales focus on an even more restricted historical demographic, the .00001% that makes up medieval nobility. And it’s odd that we, a capitalistic republic, should so deeply fetishize a people whose power and wealth was inherited, not earned. And we should remember that, for a great deal of history, a princess was mostly used as a bargaining chip, a way to shore up alliances among other nations or the church.

I could go on here. But does anyone actually want to live in the medieval era, under any circumstances? Probably not.

Yet we can’t really escape these historical elements that still contribute hugely to the princess trope. These stories start in places of marginalization, of someone helpless or repressed. Even Brave, arguably the most progressive of the princess films, is still a story about the restriction of women and the struggle to have choices. (And it is true that some princess stories also model the adolescent story structure, in which a developing child learns confidence, proves themselves, and bargains for power. But the princess story is often about bargaining for the right to choose one’s spouse – not the right of a sword, the right to rule, or the right of power.)

The beginning place of most princess stories is a place of powerlessness. And while we here in reality still struggle with the marginalization of women, I think that limiting feminine stories to princess stories inevitably echoes those medieval themes of powerlessness. And that has consequences.

For example, when I was first writing as a teenager, my first few passes at writing a female character were extraordinarily difficult. I felt that I had to prove why I was writing a female character. I had to make this character first show the world in the story that they deserved respect, and choices, and power. I had to qualify them in the story before I could make them do fun things.

Looking back on it, that’s very strange – that I felt I had to legitimize a female character with power in my own story.

It did not occur to me that I could simply write a world in which a woman had power and no one questioned it. It didn’t occur to me that a female character could do or be whatever the hell they wanted to be in my ridiculous fantasy story, and everyone else in the book could fall in line.

And I believe part of why I didn’t think of this was that most of the stories I’d consumed with female protagonists before then were inevitably princess stories: stories in which the female character begins as restricted and powerless, and (maybe! but not always) challenges the system, and enforces change, which then allows her to act. (At which point the story usually conveniently ends.)

That is a very odd way of winning power, this idea that the female character must first prove herself in order to be granted the right to do as she wishes. It suggests that a female character can’t do anything without first having gained approval of whichever system is in place – and this system is almost always captained by men.

And this is often a key part – if not the main part – of a princess story.

I am a believer in the idea that stories have power, and that the way we position parts of a story signal an idea about the world. These signals can reinforce a readers’ beliefs, or it can – perhaps only a very little bit – change them, or at least cause them to reconsider.

And I don’t think I really like princess stories anymore. I don’t like how they begin with powerlessness, suggesting that the default state of the world is powerless women marginalized by a power structure governed by men.

I don’t like how these structures of power are presented as the natural order of things, rather than human invention.

I don’t like how these stories often revolve around either submitting to or gaming the system – as Cinderella does, using magic to skip past the barriers and expose the princess’s beauty and grace to the prince – or challenging it and causing those in power to reconsider, like Aladdin.

I don’t much like how the women in these stories usually don’t end with much more intrinsic power than when they started – whatever power they have at the end is loaned out to them by either their fathers or their mates.

And I also don’t like how these stories don’t focus much at all on how these characters should act when they have power. We are very rarely shown a woman in power doing powerful things, having to make real decisions about morality and weighing the costs and benefits. We don’t see women as decision makers, as rulers and generals and governors and judges. We are simply shown a quest to have the most fundamental rights, the rights to decide one’s own fate – if that.

Stories, especially childhood fables, shape a lot of our conceptions about the “natural state” of the world. There is a primeval origin-feel to the Brothers Grimm, to the deep dark forest, to the white castle in the distance and the witch’s hut. These tropes and ideas form the fundament on which later ideas are built and placed. They give us ideas about the default state of the world.

But some of these stories… they need to be updated. Very, very badly.

Perhaps instead of reimagining princesses as something besides princesses, we should just skip the middle part, and imagine something new.