50 Shades of Grey goes back to Twilight, which goes back to the bodice-ripper romance novels, which goes back to our fairy tales of young, beautiful princesses who need to be taken care of by a powerful man. The song “I Will Save Myself” refers to princesses in fairy tales who annoy me as much as Bella. My two children are teens and I can only hope I instilled a strong sense of self and independence. Now that I have two nieces of elementary age, I’m still worried about our culture and the lure of being the sparkly “princess.”
I wasn’t really into princesses growing up. I loved Star Wars, and yes, Princess Leia was cool, but I really wanted to be Luke. I wanted to be the one who everyone counted on to save the day. I like that there are powerful women in stories, girls who are main characters; my problem is that it’s considered odd or there’s only one cool girl character to every 10 cool boys.
I wanted to be awesome and not singled out because I’m an awesome girl. If the continual challenge of a girl in stories is to prove she is as good as any man, that’s not high enough for me.
My favorite book growing up was A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Except the main character isn’t a princess. It was what her father called her; it became a part of who she was, who she wanted to be. She defined a princess as someone who had the privilege to be generous. Even when her resources were gone, she acted like her father’s definition of a princess. Although this is certainly a “Cinderella” story, the main character is active in fixing her situation. Sarah in that book was another character I wanted to be, much more than any princesses in fairy tales.
In Disney, which has its hands in every facet of media aimed at children, the princess factor is still going strong. In every princess story I know, they are very pretty (and if they are not, that’s the point of the story). I found it annoying as a child. As an adult in the entertainment biz, I completely understand the need for pretty visuals, but I was never a pretty girl, and so I couldn’t relate.
I had a pretty sister who became embarrassed and neurotic about people commenting on her beauty. I felt bad for her, and I was glad to fly under the radar and do my own thing. (This, of course, wasn’t how I felt as a teenager, but that’s a different topic.) So these princesses were pretty (not me), were considered the top of their social heap (not me), and had a lot of money (not me, again). I had more in common with boy characters than any princesses in books and movies.
I know the point of these kind of tales is to fantasize about being someone completely different from yourself. But I liked myself. I had a very healthy self-esteem as a young girl and had no desire to be someone else. I wanted to be me—just more awesome. I liked books and movies that gave me the tools to help me become what I could envision would be the best Becca. Or at least, pretend to be, if I had superpowers. So I needed characters that I could see myself in.
Somewhere in my later childhood years, mainstream media (Disney) did start to reflect different cultures and attitudes towards women, but I think the whole thing became even more ridiculous. Now, they weren’t just pretty, kind, and rich (by the end), but were also clever, strong-willed, and sometimes could fight. And they were princesses?
Does being a princess help the character achieve a goal?
Maybe the definition of a princess has changed. From the press coverage, modern-day royalty hardly live a fairy tale life. Princesses, then and now, are tied to convention, their social class, their money. Their stories have to involve breaking girl stereotypes because the princess one is so ingrained in our culture. Maybe there needs to be some other role our little girls can live up to. There are fantastic stories out there, traditional and new; stories that involve girl protagonists who are both intelligent and kick-ass. They don’t have to be a princess to succeed.
Maybe the entertainment world can learn from A Little Princess: it’s not the title, money, or looks that makes someone a princess, but your character, integrity, and strength.