Being a Princess Doesn’t (Have To) Mean What You Think It Means

I’ve thought about princesses more in the past week than I have in a couple of decades. I read an essay on TheRoot.com  this morning, “There are no Black Kate Middletons” in which writer Helena Andrews laments the lack of black celebrities with which Black women can project their fairy tale fantasies, a la British princess-to-be Kate Middleton.

My first thought when reading the article was “who cares! there are better things to be than a British royal anyway”  But after reading the article again I realized I may have missed another of Andrews’ points: that black women must always consider their burden of race and (often) class, even in fantasy. Her case in point, the recent Disney film, The Princess and the Frog, which features a black female waitress who works and saves money to fulfill her dream to be a restaurant owner.  Andrews says:

As an adult I recognize that the fairy tales I told myself as a kid don’t always come true. That being a “strong black woman” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. That there are indeed many cracks in that stank face. That the bitch armor — chinks and all — is no lasting replacement for a knight in shining armor. Nevertheless, I was excited last year when Disney released The Princess and the Frog. Black women and girls everywhere were overjoyed that finally they’d get to see themselves on the big screen. But the movie didn’t tell your typical princess story… Of course, when we get our princess, she’s pushing a broom and counting her pennies. “It serves me right for wishing on stars,” Tiana laments once she’s transformed from a waitress into an amphibian. “The only way to get what you want in this world is through hard work….”

The princess narrative is a powerful one. I know very few Western women who are not impacted by this fantasy in one form or another.  From Snow White to Grace Kelly to She Ra to Wonder Woman to Princess Diana to Kate Middleton, the princess narrative continues to endure regardless of how pop culture and societal norms evolve.  The “Princess Bride” archetype (Grace Kelly)  has evolved alongside the “Ass-Kicking Princess” archetype (Princess Leia) both speaking to the desire of a destiny greater than one that is expected or assigned to you.  I think Andrews’ princess fantasy speaks to a more personal yearning among many women, (particularly professional black women, told by mass media that we will never be loved) the desire to be cherished and chosen, without having to struggle so hard for it.

But  the princess “ideal” of being rescued by some handsome rich dude and hanging out in fancy dresses all day, never having to work,wins out in the court of public opinion.

A friend of mine opined on Facebook (where I shared TheRoot.com article)

“My question is…how many women, of any color/race, really give a damn about becoming a princess?”

It’s far from scientific, but I Googled “princess wedding theme”, just to see what would come up, I found hundreds of articles on how to create your own “fairy tale dream wedding”  The dream of being a fairy tale princess is certainly far from dead, even for grown women.

These days, Disney dominates the princess narrative, creating an entire cottage industry that encourages females to indulge their princess fantasy from birth to adulthood, starting with the Disney Princess line of clothing and toys and ending with the Disney Fairy Tale wedding line offering everything from clothes to wedding rings to a Cinderella style wedding day. (Of course, every proper princess’ story ends with a wedding, right?) And the aesthetic of the princess archetype is undeniably attractive as well, as most dreams so connected to opulence, elegance and wealth tend to be. (sparkly things! flouncy things!)

On the other hand, the dominant princess narrative is built on the idea that women need only “be good” and wait for an outside force (in the form of a handsome prince) to change the course of their lives; that marriage to a wealthy, powerful man is the only happy end to their story.

There are other princess narratives: Princess Leia’s orphaned rebel fighter; Wonder Woman, the child of Amazonian royalty; even Tiana of Princess and the Frog gets a happy ending where she also controls her own fate. Two of my favorite princess stories growing up is fantasy writer Robin McKinley’s Damar books; her socially awkward princesses learn swordplay, mix potions and have awesome premarital sex as they fight for their place in the world.

But those princess narratives are not the norm. I recently read an article in Entertainment Weekly about the difficulty that Hollywood has encountered in adapting Wonder Woman to the big screen. Joss Whedon, one of many directors previously attached to the project, said in the article: “[Wonder Woman] is above us and different from us. That makes it hard to make her emotionally relevant.”

This is bullshit of course, being different and better never held back Superman, or any fictional male hero. The dominant princess narrative is about being “special” while knowing your place. But it doesn’t have to be. To deny the power of the princess narrative is useless; it’s enduring as the “hero’s journey” narrative, though  in its exclusivity to women, far more limited in its scope, But to retell the princess story; to challenge it and question it and subvert it; to indulge and foster a girl’s sense of  fantasy without having to force her to surrender power and autonomy, that can be done. It has been done.  It just needs to be done more.

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3 thoughts on “Being a Princess Doesn’t (Have To) Mean What You Think It Means

  1. What an intelligent, insightful piece. I think my love of fashion began when my dad read me bedtime stories from the Brothers Grimm–about magical wishes that come true, happy endings for those who deserve it and dancing princesses in silk slippers and gorgeous ball gowns of gold and silver and bronze. And although my fascination with Snow White and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty has not diminished over the years, even as reality taught me other, harsher lessons about life, I also grew to appreciate the rather dark, disturbing themes embedded in the original tales. Fairy tales returned to their roots, so to speak, in a fantastic series of of anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (“The Armless Maiden: And Other Tales for Children’s Survivors” is another great read). That’s one of the reasons why Robin McKinley is among my favorite authors; “The Hero and the Crown,” “The Blue Sword” and “Deerskin’ are all incredible pieces of feminist and fantasy literature–not a typical combination. And of course let’s not forget Xena, the Warrior Princess. Now here is a female protagonist who can throw men around with ease–and looks convincing doing it. Xena is strong, razor-sharp, resilient, complex and independent. And she doesn’t once need silk slippers or a shimmery ball gown to get what she wants.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Dawn. for me, princess fantasies had always been a part of my childhood, and I never felt like to ran counter to my feminist upbringing. I am happy to hear of another Robin McKinley fan! And I will check out the books you recommended! And thanks for bringing up Xena!!!

  2. Dude, I’m living the princess dream thanks to the kid. What amuses me is that even though she’s in the frou-frou get up and having tea parties, she’s also the princess race car driver, veterinarian and pirate (as well as demolitions expert and part-time Mythbuster).

    I wonder how much of that was a swing in the opposite direction of the whole princess fairy-tale.

    As for me? My favorite princess is the one they never talk about — Fanta Ghiro (http://users.erols.com/jesterbear/notes/folktales.html#Fanta-Ghiro). Disney? Mulan all the way. Even though she’s technically not a real princess.

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