This article originally appeared in Bad Reputation – a feminist pop-culture adventure on 18 June 2012.
When I think about everything about womanhood that hamstrung me with fear when I was thirteen it all came down, really, to princesses. I didn’t think I had to work hard to be a woman (which is scary but obviously eventually achievable). I thought I had to somehow magically – through superhuman psychic effort – transform into a princess instead. That’s how I’d get fallen in love with. That’s how I’d get along. That’s how the world would welcome me.
– Caitlin Moran, How to be a Woman
Welcome to part two of Kickass Princesses – a look at some subversive female protagonists in children’s literature. You can read Part 1 here.
The more children’s books I read and the more princesses I come to know, the more I realise that ‘kickass’ probably wasn’t the best term to use. Some of these characters do kick ass, but the main feature is turning out to be simply that they make unconventional princesses.
As the archetype of a fairytale princess is so ingrained, it takes looking at a wide variety of ‘unprincessy’ examples to unpick exactly what some of our starting assumptions are. A closer look at the ‘unconventional’ princesses here, and in my previous post, reveals that these women and girls have agency, interests, and are more than just a beautiful, delicate, unsullied physical appearance. Sometimes they aren’t even beautiful at all. What they are – what, we realise, makes them ‘unprincessy’ – is often simply the fact that they are two-dimensional characters.
Ouch. This stereotype needs subverting roughly forever ago. On with the show…
The Ordinary Princess
- Written and illustrated by MM Kaye, published in 1980 by Doubleday
At 107 pages, this one’s aimed at a slightly older age group than the rest of the books in this post, which are all picture books.
The plot begins when the seventh princess is born in the land of Phantasmorania, and even the fairies are invited to the Christening, despite the King’s reservations. The bad-tempered and seaweedy fairy Crustacea, pissed off by the bad journey in to the palace, gives the baby the gift of ordinariness. Instantly the baby cries for the first time, and becomes considerably less attractive. As she grows up, our girl Amethyst (known as Amy) doesn’t look great in fine gowns like her blonde, willowy, ethereal and frankly boring and unknowable sisters. Instead, she loves climbing down the wisteria which grows up the castle walls and sneaking out to the forest.
Thanks to her extremely ordinary looks, Amy turns out to be impossible to marry off. Oh, the shame of it all! Not that our girl is bothered, but the rest of the kingdom is. When she learns of a harebrained scheme to get her rescued from a dragon so a prince will be obliged to marry her, she runs away to the forest, where she lives happily until her clothes start falling apart. So, in need of money to buy a new dress, she goes and gets a job in another palace, living in disguise as an ordinary girl. Where she meets a prince – but I’ll leave some plot to those who want to read it.
The style of writing makes for a truly luscious fairytale, and the black and white line-drawn illustrations by the author are very pretty too (just the right side of twee). Plot-wise, this book is strongest in its treatment of Amy’s interaction with Crustacea, her Godmother, who is practical, warm-yet-tough, and advises her to get on with it.
It’s weakest – in my humble socialist opinion – when our girl loves every minute of working insane hours on the lowest rungs of the servant-ladder. C’mon, girlie, you’ve worked out it’ll take you roughly a year to earn enough to buy a new dress. Aren’t you a bit annoyed at the sucky pay? Also: the insinuation throughout the book that freckles and an upturned nose make someone undateable got on my nerves quite a bit. Freckles can be well hot, and don’t get me started on pixie faces…
(Interestingly, each book I’ve looked at for these posts has often pushed an idea of what a typical beautiful princess looks like, but none of them quite match.)
I was a little disappointed in how conventionally the ends got tied up, but I suppose how the plot came to be is more important than what came to be. Our girl has agency, there’s no doubt about it. And there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending.
- By Cornelia Funke and Kerstin Meyer, Chickenhouse, 1997
In Princess Pigsty our girl is one of three sisters, who live the traditional fairytale princess life:
Their beautiful clothes filled thirty wardrobes. They had footmen to blow their noses for them and ladies-in-waiting to tidy up their rooms, hang up their clothes and polish their crowns until they shone.
Every morning, three teachers taught them royal behaviour – how to sit on a throne without fidgeting, how to curtsey without falling over, how to yawn with your mouth closed and how to smile for a whole hour without taking a break.
Isabella, the youngest, despite being perfectly capable of walking the princessy walk, is not happy, and makes her feelings known by waking up the whole castle shouting:
“I am tired of being a princess! It’s boring, boring, boring!”
Her older sisters looked up from their feather pillows in surprise.
“I want to get dirty!” cried Isabella, bouncing around on the bed. “I want to blow my own nose. I don’t want to smile all the time. I want to make my own sandwiches. I don’t want to have my hair curled ever again. I do not want to be a princess any more!”
And with that she took her crown and threw it out of the window. Splash! It landed in the goldfish pond.
In the pitched battle of wills with the King that follows, Isabella is sent to work in the kitchens until she changes her mind. When she enjoys her work in the kitchens, learning about how their food is made and essentially having too much fun to relent, she’s sent to the pigsty – where she gets along with the pigs and enjoys their company even more.
Eventually, seeing there is no way around it, her father relents and says she doesn’t have to be all princessy if she doesn’t want to – but by now our girl likes the pigs and stays in the pigsty just as often as in her feather bed.
Though no mention is made of any innate unprincessy looks (beyond curled hair), Isabella rejects her princessy role in life quite actively. While Amy of The Ordinary Princess is a failure at traditional princessy things (but isn’t that bothered about it, either) Isabella has lots of guts and lots of agency, not to mention an upbeat and cheerful nature. Eventually her father is won round. The patriarch isn’t a baddie, and – once it’s clear she’s happier that way – he accepts her as she is. Tangled, mucky and doing things that interest her. Hip-hip hooray for doing what you want! Hip-hip hooray for converting people! Hip-hip hooray for male allies!
- William Steig, Macmillan, 1990
Didn’t know Shrek started out as a book? It did, and it was… not a huge amount like the movie franchise. (Have the first part read to you by Stanley Tucci here, though sadly without pictures.) Shrek, in both media, is a famously revolting and ugly character, who delights in his own disgustingness (“wherever Shrek went, every living creature fled. How it tickled him to be so repulsive”) – but that’s where most of the similarities end.
The book is a very short picture book with a quest narrative. A witch tells Shrek’s fortune: “Then you wed a princess who/Is even uglier than you.” Shrek decides this sounds great, and goes off in search of this princess.
He strode in and his fat lips fell open. There before him was the most stunningly ugly princess on the surface of the planet.
When they meet they declare their love for each other’s revoltingness, and live “horribly ever after.” But if you’ve seen any of the movies, you’ll know this wasn’t quite how it went down when Dreamworks got their hands on it.
In the movie Princess Fiona (who has a name, unlike in the book) is only ugly after dark, – during the day she appears as a beautiful woman, and during the night she is an ogre, and she’s self-conscious about it. The only way to cure this is with “true love’s kiss” – and it’s initially an unpleasant surprise for her to learn that when the spell is broken she’s actually stuck with ogre mode constantly.
While the movie does feature a green monster called Shrek and an (eventually) ‘ugly’ princess – their unconventionality is treated as something they’re both self-conscious about. Fiona, especially, with all the princessy expectations heaped upon her, needs reassurance that she’s loveable.
Alhough the movie doesn’t mention weight specifically, one of the main factors of Fiona’s transformation (apart from the green skin) is that she becomes considerably heavier. Fiona is more of an everywoman – learning that she doesn’t need to be a size 8 to find love – and literally kicking ass. Caitlin Moran tracks the rewrite as part of a post-feminist trend:
In the last decade the post-feminist reaction to princesses has been the creation of alternative princesses: the spunky chicks in Shrek and the newer Disney films who wear trousers, do kung fu and save the prince.
While some cool people (I’m looking at you, Babette Cole) have been subverting these roles for a long time, it takes a while before the effect trickles down to a Hollywood blockbuster and the much wider audience that a movie like Shrek can reach.
While the original very short picture book is more about two people with unconventional values and no qualms or neuroses about them – a la The Twits or The Addams Family – the movie Shrek presents Fiona as someone extremely kickass, but with a fairly conventional narrative of body issues (though admittedly hers are mythical ones) and a postmodern self-consciousness about breaking the known conventions of the ‘fairytale’ wedding.
In this way Fiona is far more relatable (and has infintely more agency) than the nameless princess in the book, but part of me is sad that she doesn’t start with the self-assurance of our happily ugly picturebook princess. After all – if this is a world where gingerbread men can talk and cats can fence – surely we can have a princess who can just get on with her thang without worrying about being pretty enough?
Coming up next time:
- “Rapunzel’s Revenge – Fairytales for Feminists”
- The Tough Princess
- And more…