True Princesses

My nearly-four-year-old and I share a fascination with Princess Kate – I beg her pardon, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. We just call her Princess Kate, though.

Joy and I (and my father) happily watched as much of the Royal Wedding as we got up in time to see. Granted, most of Joy’s thrills came from the horses that pulled the carriages, and with the bride’s beautiful white dress. Mine came because I had adored Princess Diana as a little girl, and it felt like coming full circle to watch my daughter sit in absorbed fascination at her son’s wedding.

We don’t do Disney princesses around here. This hasn’t been so much of a conscious decision against those sorts of princesses; we just don’t do much for television or movies at all. As my girls get older, though, I am devoutly thankful that their ideas of princesses come from the likes of Princess Kate and Audrey Hepburn’s Princess Anne in “Roman Holiday” (we watched that on Hepburn’s birthday), rather than pale, insipid versions of fairy tales princesses.

I’m not sure whether Disney is the root or the result of the problem with how we in this culture instinctively view princesses. I do know it is a more modern way of looking at things – that “princess” is synonymous with privilege and luxury, instead of responsibility and sacrifice. A perfect example of the difference, and how much things have changed in the last hundred years, is looking at the difference between the book A Little Princess, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1905 (revised from a serial written in 1888), and the popular movie version that came out in 1995.

In the book, Sara’s “pretend” that she is a princess starts while she is living in pampered luxury, but where it really takes effect is when everything is stripped away from her. She says, in effect (my copy of the book is in a box at the other house right now, so I can’t give exact quotes), “Anyone can be a princess when she has lots of pretty things and everyone likes her. A true princess shows her worth when all that is taken away.” Sara shows her true “princess-ness” by always being courteous and kind to those who constantly belittle and abuse her, by giving generously of what she still has left – namely, her imagination and story-telling abilities – to those around her, and by sacrificing her own needs to those who are less fortunate even than she (“this is one of the populace, and I’m not truly starving,” she says, as she gives away her buns to the little beggar girl, in one of the most poignant and beautiful scenes in the entire book). Because of the era in which the book was written, she of course receives her reward in the end, but still, the idea is that because she was a princess when everything was dark and bad, she was raised up again to luxury and comfort.

The movie sends a different message. It’s been several years since I watched it, but I remember the general idea as well as specific scenes quite plainly. From what I remember, and reviews I’ve read, what sets Sara apart from the other girls as a “princess” isn’t so much how she behaves as her imagination. She doesn’t always treat everyone with respect, as is shown in one scene where she pretends to place a curse on the school’s “mean girl.” In the book, Sara does have a fierce temper, but part of being a princess means she has to control it, even when she wants to box the bully’s ears.

In the movie, Sara’s salvation comes when all the girls put their differences aside and band together to help her. And in the end, they realize that they are all princesses at heart, if they just tap into their potential. At surface, that seems like an “awww” idea. But looking at it more deeply, it is directly opposite to the idea proposed in the book, which is that one has to work and sacrifice and love deeply to be a true princess – you are a princess if you behave the same regardless of your circumstances, instead of needing the circumstances to be just so to show you your worth.

The difference is subtle, but like I said before: I want my girls to grow up with the idea that it is how you behave to others that sets you apart, not how others treat you. Yes, dear girls, by all means grow up with princesses as examples, but let them be princesses like Sara Crewe of the book, not of the movie.

Or, as King Lune puts it in The Horse and His Boy,

“For this is what it means to be king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as there must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your kingdom.”

It’s not about privilege. It’s about sacrificing for your people, for those you love. And that, my friends, is the noblest goal of all.

ETA: Re-reading this, I realized this could really be the companion piece to my Hero and Everyman post. Connections without even realizing it!

What are your thoughts on princesses? Are you a fan of Disney? Do you agree that it is good to have fictional role models, even princesses, so long as those role models show praiseworthy traits?

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18 thoughts on “True Princesses

  1. I have to say that I like some of the Disney princesses. Well, I LOVE Beauty and the Beast. Other than that I can mostly take them and leave them. If the little bump turns out to be a girl (like the heart beat hints at) then I won't encourage my daughter to be gung-ho about them though. I don't want her to become obsessed with any of what is marketed so heavily today. I want her to immerse herself around realistic heroines like Anne Shirley, Jo March, Heidi, you know – people who are considered boring today. :) People who want to better themselves and not just be strong in the ways media shows us to be today.

  2. In spite of a fondness for Disney's Belle, I am disgusted by modern princess "culture" – why it is even honored with the term is beyond me. But though I have firsthand experience with the deliberate, careful craftmanship behind the marketing of the Princess brand, which is Disney's most successful strategy to date, I cringe a bit to bite the hand that feeds my family. Hypocrisy, perhaps, but we aren't planning to expose Spring to much Disney princess nonsense either. I adore Burnett's work so very, very much, and while I actually like the '95 film for being so visually lush, I was irritated that it perpetuates the modern princess philosophy rather than resurrecting the original theme of the book. Sign of the times, I suppose – when moviemakers think they have to make heroes and heroines "accessible" and "realistic" instead of noble (*cough* Peter Pevensie *cough*), because apparently nobility is boring. I'm already reading A Little Princess to Spring. :) You can't ever start too early.

  3. Adrienne – Belle is a princess of a different color, to be sure. She likes BOOKS. And I confess to a sneaking fondness for Mulan, but more for the honor and love that she gives her father, and the realization she comes to at the end that her journey was undertaken for selfish reasons as much as love, and how she only defeats her enemy in the end by putting away her selfishness. And yes, people who strive to become better than they are are far better role models than people who simply flout society's conventions to prove their strengths!Sunrise – This is one of Carl's pet peeves, and something we hashed out thoroughly when the *Dawn Treader* movie came out – the idea that heroes all have to be flawed so they can be relatable, instead of noble so we can have something to aspire to. We need both! Relatable heroes (like, say, Eustace), and heroes who give us something to strive toward (Peter).Do you have the Tasha Tudor illustrated edition of A Little Princess? I love it, as well as The Secret Garden done by her. The pictures fit Burnett's writing so, so well!

  4. Funny, I just was thinking that I wanted to post somewhere– it probably would have been on Twitter, where only you and three other people would have seen it, but still it seemed the most likely place– about how my daughter has started referring to the Disney Princesses– who are on her Big Girl pants, and that's pretty much the only exposure she's had to any of them but Belle– as "ballerinas." I have no idea where she got that, but I think it's kind of cool. It also seems a good concrete concept, more than "princess" is– a ballerina puts on a costume and dances. A princess is… what, exactly? I was a big Princess-y girl growing up, but that was before the Disney Princess Shove-it-down-your-throat thing, so my concept of "princess" was possibly different, too. Actually– I don't remember how long you've been following my blog– right, Henry Tilney, that was earlier this year, which means you DID miss my post on Princesses last year, so here, here's the rest of my comment: EDIT: HOORAY, lj is working again again after all: http://rockinlibrarian.livejournal.com/207733.html

  5. I know the "princess" concept and little girls' identification with it has become a hot topic. I haven't really thought much about it because my daughter never went through a "princess" phase. I don't remember any of her friends doing it either. (My daughter is 19.)

  6. Rockinlibrarian – the concept of princess really has changed so much just in the last oh, twenty year or so, hasn't it? Terrific post (so glad you were able to link to it) – it's not the inherent princess-ness that stands out, it's who you are, yourself, and what you do. I never wanted to be a princess, much, but I was an empress in all my play, slaying dragons that ravaged my kingdom and fighting wars with the neighboring kingdoms. Usually single combat, naturally, since I wouldn't want to put any of my people at risk. Gee, I was an awesome empress!Connie – I do think it is more common – probably because it is expected – now, for girls to go through princess phases. Something that, ten years ago, might have passed without comment is now seen as a mark of being "princess-y," and so the idea is reinforced, and voila! Suddenly the girl is into princesses because everyone around her assumes that she is.Which, again, is why I like to promote real princesses, so that anyone who says something to my girls about being princess-y will only be unconsciously reinforcing the idea of nobility and self-sacrifice, instead of diva-like behavior. I am rather devious when it comes to raising my children counter-culturally.

  7. My favorite Disney princess is Mulan, and she's not a princess at all. Interestingly, she never shows up in all the popular Disney coloring books/movies/stuff. My second favorite is Belle. I'm glad that there are other "princesses" who've broken that mold.

  8. Spoilers for the Little Princess book and movie follow!I think the movie did capture the essence of Sara's virtues. She isn't as circumspect as she is in the book, but she is still a very admirable little girl who only acts badly in two scenes that I can remember–the one with the school bully that you mentioned, and the one where she's vindictive due to Miss Minchin's mistreatment of the chimney sweep. Otherwise, she is gentle and kind. The bun scene is there too, in modified form.The movie does stress the fanciful side of Sara's imagination over the questions of morality she ponders in the book, but, honestly, her soliloquies about conduct probably wouldn't have played as well on film. And, as much as I liked Sara in the book, I can accept a child who always does the right thing and never fully loses her temper more easily in a Victorian morality tale, in print, than I can in a modern movie. I agree with you totally about Sara's 'all girls are princesses' speech–I wish they'd written that scene differently. But I think the rest of the movie contradicts that idea in the way it presents Sara, who distinguishes herself by her compassion, courage and imagination. Having the other girls help her at the end didn't seem any less acceptable to me, either, than Sara's chancing to meet up with Mr. Carrisford in the book.I'm not really keen on the idea of princesses in general as role models for girls. They can be useful in fiction–I like Roman Holiday and Beauty and the Beast too–but they're overused, and in real life I'm not very interested in them. I suppose that martyrs and missionaries and human rights workers would be harder to merchandise to little girls, or at least, to me, when I was little, but I wish they got half the celebrity that royalty gets. (Even though I'm sure I'd be shamefully awestruck and tongue tied if I ever met any crowned heads.)

  9. Lydia – It really is a shame that Mulan doesn't get the same sort of appreciation as the other Disney females. She's clearly the best out of all of them (excepting Belle, of course, because, well, BOOKS).bkswthlks – You bring up so many interesting points here! Very true, that it is much harder to sell the kind of morality that Sara shows without making her seem like a prig in a movie made nowadays than in a novel written in the Victorian era. I think it can be done (Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood comes to mind), but it requires a lot more work.I think where the change in the ending bothered me most was that it wasn't just chance, in the book, that led Sara to Mr Carrisford. It was her kindness to the Lascar, and her dignity and grace overall that led him to take an interest in her, and prompted him to have her brought to him when she brought the monkey back. So that, in the end, it was because of *her* princess-ness that she escaped her drudgery, not because the other little girls rallied around her. Not to mention that escaping over a plank between attic windows always verged TOO much on the ridiculous for me to swallow!I also agree it would be lovely if the world started acknowledging those who spend their lives serving others as heroes, rather than the movie stars, athletes, and royalty of today – but at least someone like Princess Kate, who is always gracious, kind, and seems to genuinely care about others, is a better example than, say, anyone in Hollywood today!Aubrie – thank you for your comment! It is always interesting to look at how our childhood has shaped our understanding of the world as an adult.

  10. Well, I sort of dismissed Sara's courtesy toward Ram Dass and, later, toward Mr. Carrisford (in returning his monkey), as being just everyday politeness that most people would have shown in those situations, as opposed to Sara's giving away her buns, or holding her temper toward Miss Minchin. But on reflection, I admit everyday politeness shouldn't be taken for granted, and does add up to say something about character. Maybe the film did slip up there. (I still like the plank walking scene, though!)From what little I've seen of Princess Kate she seems like a nice woman who is dealing well with a lot of pressure, and I hope she and her husband live happily ever after. I don't know much about most movie stars, except that they are overpaid and overexposed. Living in that world must be like the Twilight Zone.

  11. I think Sara's politeness toward Ram Dass, especially, was out-of-the-ordinary for that era and culture. Especially compare the difference between how Mary Lennox treated her Indian servants with how kind and respectful Sara was toward Ram Dass – I doubt he was used to English people at all, especially children, treating him like a human being at all. Sadly, in that time period, there was a definite gap between the English and the Indian, and it was a rare child who could bridge that gap so naturally.

  12. It could be! Of course Mary was supposed to be extra bad tempered, but most children probably would have gawked at him, so I agree Sara showed some extra merit there.

  13. It occurs to me that I would still rather my daughter be into princesses – even the Disney variety – than get caught up in the Hannah Montana-type craze that seems to be so prevalent among the tweens. I, too, wonder why Disney can't create a show about girls who dream of (and do) great accomplishments and worthy causes instead of churning out story after story of shallow airheads who find their identity in being pop stars.

  14. bkswthlks – Yeah, Mary was never a shining beacon of how to treat others, was she?Sunrise – yes, far rather have my girls dreaming about fairyland and castles than pop stars and empty promises of fame. Speaking of good princess stories, have you read The Runaway Princess by Kate Coombs? It's charming, and definitely takes on a lot of the typical princess stereotypes. She's written a sequel, The Runaway Dragon, which is also a lot of fun. You and Spring (when she older) might enjoy them! (Actually, the boys might, also, there's a lot of action in them. Not just stories for girls!)

  15. My older two kids are boys and – my eldest especially – eschew princesses as being (and this is highly problematic in its own way) "for girls." But I suspect that I am going to have to deal with the onslaught of the Disney princesses as my baby daughter gets older.As a girl, I loved the modern Disney movies, especially The Little Mermaid (problematic princess type) and Beauty and the Beast. On the one hand, I would like to think I will let my kids be interested in whatever they'd like. On the other, I am sensitive to the negative messages kids are sent when bombarded with images of princesses who need to be rescued by men and/or magic. As I mentioned, I can already see the ways this has played out with my son.All in all, I favor a princess who can rescue herself. (I suspect Princess Catherine could get herself out of many a jam.)

  16. Kristen – From watching the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in all their public appearances, I love to think that any sudden danger or crisis (or random dragon) that came along, they would work together, probably with a great deal of courageous laughter, to overcome. And really, isn't that what we like to see in our heroes and heroines? Learning to work together, to seek out the best in other people, to share our strengths and bolster our weaknesses, regardless of gender differences. As Tommy Beresford says when his boss tries to convince him to keep his wife out of the Secret Service work, life and marriage are a Joint Venture, and he wouldn't want to keep her out of it, even if he could!(Sorry it took me so long to respond to this comment – moving sucks all one's brain cells dry!)

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