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?