Are princesses bad for girls?

This is a fabulous response from Brenda Chapman, (@brenda_chapman) one of the main writers behind Brave, whom I discovered when she started following me on Twitter (small world), where she answers the question of whether princesses are bad for girls:

In the past couple of decades, in an obvious effort to toughen up those princesses in filmic versions, there have been varieties to that plot. We’ve seen that in Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, as well as DreamWorks’ Fiona in Shrek, to name just a few. But in the end, their adventures (and the plot still) mostly revolves around the age-old beloved prince or love interest, who invariably saves them from some foul fate in the end.

But if you look at real princesses, they were basically working girls. Pampered in their times maybe, but nonetheless, they had a job to do for their kingdoms, whether it be as a diplomat or as a bargaining “tool” to bring kingdoms together in alliance. I think there was little waiting around for true love and eternal happiness in their lives. And back in the days in which the fairy tales of old were written, marriage was one of the most important jobs of a princess.  It was part of their job, not simply a romantic notion.

When I came up with the idea for Princess Merida in Brave, that was how I looked at the story. The Queen was a working mom trying to prepare her daughter for her “job” in the kingdom. I wanted to break the stereotype of the princess, as well as the princess plot. There were princesses that were trained for battle in some kingdoms. They knew how to wield a sword, knife and bow and arrow because they had to. They also had to know how to deal with the politics of a kingdom and hold their own as a royal. No romantic princes or love interests in Brave—I at least made sure of that.

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture, fun & hobbies, gender & feminism, history, Life, media, parenting, relationships, Sociology

13 replies

    However, the plot pretty much starts with a standard fairy-tale trope: suitors winning a princess as a prize in a competition. And Merida’s “improvement” on this is a staandard modern romantic trope: winning the princess by making her fall in love with one of them (which sounded particularly idiotic to me, given the situation.)
    Neither of these tropes seems to be a feature of real-world royal marriages, past or present.

  2. I haz just created a Spoiler style class.
    <p class=”spoiler”>Spoilers go here</p>
    results in
    Spoilers go here
    (edited to remove ‘s’ from class name)

  3. Hee, AMM- my response to this was along the same lines. I don’t think the lives of most (certainly medieval) ‘real-life’ princesses would sit particularly well within a children’s genre (at least without some serious white-washing). Restrained or non-existant choice of spouse (often made when you are a young child), compulsary sex and reproduction as your main purpose in life – awesome. And depending on your country, those pretty dresses and jewels might not even be yours to do what you want with. Your political power was usually contigent on your husband, unless you were weilding more property than him, and if he was powerful and disliked you, it could be very limited. Even, the seemingly positive warrior princess motif denies the horror and bloodiness of life for people who had need of such skills.

  4. I was lucky enough to hear a keynote address on medievalisms in children’s literature by Australian scholar Clare Bradford a couple of weeks ago, and my take on Brave is very much informed by some of the insights she shared in that paper.
    I think if we’re going to judge Brave, or any other pseudo-historical fantasy film, by whether or not it lives up to what “real” history was like, it is going to fall short. I also think it’s not a particularly useful exercise, because no one really “knows” history — we know bits and pieces of it, but there has always been so much diversity of experience, of thought and feeling, that to say that one story or another is an accurate representation of “what it was really like” — or to even suggest that we can know “what it was really like” for women during a particular time period — is going to reveal more about how we view our lives now, in the present, than about how anything actually was in the time period (in the case of Brave, a very nebulous time period) portrayed in any given text.
    I think it’s far more useful for us to look at Brave as a metaphor for gender relations in our own time period (and within a fairly specific cultural context), and I think the observations Brenda Chapman makes in the extract Blue Milk provided above, are highly pertinent to such a metaphorical reading. We can read the idea that being a princess (and later a Queen)is a job, when it has previously been presented to us as a romanticised ideal, as a metaphor for all sorts of pursuits that have traditionally fallen to women, which have not been acknowledged as a type of labour — and this, of course, has been used to deny women choice as to whether or not they engage in such labour. The negotiations between Elinor and Merida, in which both must come to appreciate (a) the value of labour that is classed as “women’s work” and (b) the value of free choice in relation to such work, reflect the negotiations that many women have to make between work, family, and leisure. And insofar as all this negotiation takes place, in the film, in a highly masculine space (I think that aside from Merida and Elinor, the only woman in the film is the cook), Brave acknowledges that such negotiations are still contained and limited by a highly patriarchal framework (though it is unfortunate that there is not more potential within the film for the representations of relationships between women outside of the mother/daughter relationship).
    Now, these are not the only possible metaphorical readings of Brave; one of the nice things about texts that lend themselves to metaphorical readings, is that audiences can and will bring their own referents to the tale. And in that sense, I don’t think it matters if Merida’s life resembles that of a “real” princess — what matters is the types of referents that readers can bring to a broadly metaphorical tale.

  5. @Beppie
    There are a few maids and also and very importantly the witch who are female. So three of the major characters are female.

  6. @Mindy
    Of course, how could I have forgotten the witch! (Who was amazing — I would have loved to see her story!)

  7. More of the witch would have been great. Maybe Bluemilk could suggest a sequel? 😛

  8. Tansy Rayner Roberts take on Brave. Warning: as she states at the beginning it contains spoilers.

  9. I was pondering the question and coming up with numerous answers and then I thought: isn’t the more pressing question really “How are princesses GOOD for girls?”
    I haven’t seen Brave but have been reading all the spoilers and it does sound like they’ve come as close as possible to making the princess concept a benign one. Otherwise, I say get rid of them all, in particular the fairy tale ones. They’re all feeding and perpetuating the Cinderella complex.

  10. Good point, Hedgepig. Also, can we have some girl characters who are not princesses, sometime? Boy characters manage to be a variety, including cars and fish.

  11. Can we have some female characters who aren’t the goody two-shoes keeping the males in line – Cars, Shrek, Nemo.

  12. Excuse me for being late to the party. I would argue (and I think this may be where Chapman was coming from) that Merida is a necessary corrective, within the current landscape. Given all the princesses that are already out there (and will continue to be, because movies don’t go away) it is a net gain to have one among them like this one.
    Of course if Pixar had made girls the protagonists in six of its last twelve movies instead of NONE we wouldn’t even need to talk about this. Chapman was the director on this project, too, until the boys cut her loose. I wish I could know which stuff was added after she left.

  13. I think the other problem with princesses in general is that that is almost all the choice of role play characters girls have at the moment. It is really limiting and I can see it in my daughter, who can hardly think of anything to draw besides princesses. And I don’t even take her to movies or buy her disney stuff. For that reason I am not that happy about yet another princess.
    I know Aqua made a comment along these lines but I wanted to elaborate on why the lack of variety is a problem.

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