It would be easy to dismiss the Mattel/Netflix miniseries Ever After High as a ploy to sell dolls. It’s true each new season introduces new characters, and puts the existing favorites in new outfits, to entice little girls and collectors into opening their wallets. Nor do the dolls or the series do anything to outwardly disrupt the parade of pretty Princesses and “stick figure silicone Barbie doll” figures that have populated toy aisles and tween girl pop culture for the past 15-50 years.
But amidst the capitalism and princess-mania is a youth oriented progressive feminism that shouldn’t be overlooked. Last Saturday my ten year old daughter and I watched the latest season—four 24 minute episodes new to Netflix at the end of January—together, as we have the whole series, and it’s occupied my thoughts since.
The series revolves around the boarding school adventures of two teen girls: Apple White, the daughter of Snow, and Raven Queen, the daughter of Snow’s Evil antagonist. These fairy tale children are expected to live a predestined fairy tale existence that mirrors their parents, i.e., Raven is meant to play the part of Evil Queen to Apple’s damsel in distress despite the fact they are currently roommates and friends.
Raven realizes early on she doesn’t like her destiny and decides to reject it, throwing the school and especially Apple, whose story is intrinsically linked with Raven’s, into turmoil. This in itself is an empowering message for the 8-12 year old target audience: at its simplest “you don’t have to do something you don’t want to do”.
But reality is more complex and the series doesn’t shy away from it.
Raven’s actions initially split the school into teams of ‘Royals’ who want to stay the course and ‘Rebels’ who want to fight the system. At first the sides are made up of the elite children of fairy tale royalty and the marginalized children of villains, monsters, and the atypical, but as the story progresses more and more Royals start to fear the trap of their own happy ending—AKA privilege. Ashlynn Ella falls in love with someone outside her class. Briar Beauty realizes if she falls asleep for 100 years her happy ever after will happen without her friends, or indeed anyone she knows. Apple starts to understand why her fairy tale is less attractive from Raven’s point of view.
Importantly, however, Raven and the Rebels also have to deal with the consequences of her actions and how they affect everyone‘s stories, not just their own. Neither side is demonized and both are promoted. Again, this is in Mattel’s best interests to sell dolls, but it also allows for more nuanced discussions of theme. “You don’t have to do something you don’t want to do—but that choice doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”
In the episodes we watched last week, Apple White follows her predestined storyline into a sleeping coma. When her presumed True Love, Daring Charming, is unable to wake her and the coma progresses, Daring’s little sister, Darling, rushes in:
and wakes her up.
The action is just vague enough to be considered resuscitation rather than romance, but even so the visual of a young woman acting as princely rescuer and waking another young woman with a brush of the lips in a series aimed at 8-12 year olds is worthy of our attention and our praise. Even more so for the fact that the kiss is not the climax of the action, it’s just a moment to put Apple back into her and Raven’s story. Just a moment to reinforce the point that Apple’s, and anyone’s, destiny may be different than what they first imagined it to be. It might include girls kissing girls and that’s okay! It also includes acknowledging your privilege and that’s okay. That’s how you grow, that’s the real way you become who you are meant to be.
At its core Ever After High encourages its audience to have agency, to be true their convictions, whatever they may be, and to accept responsibility for their choices. It tells young girls—and boys!—that it’s okay to want something different from what their parents want, and it’s also okay not to. That it’s okay to question authority, even to question their own beliefs, but it’s important to understand why. Ever After High tells young girls and boys they have the right to be whoever they want to be, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. And that’s an incredibly progressive idea.