From Brave to SWATH to Game of Thrones, Has the Anti-Princess Moment Finally Arrived?
Like many other feminist moviegoers, I was more than a little disappointed that Pixar’s long-awaited first female protagonist, Brave’s Merida, is a princess. But what’s striking, even astonishing, about Brave's treatment of princessdom is its historical honesty; even though Merida convinces her parents to abolish the tradition of arranged marriage, the film's resolution essentially has our heroine accepting that she has to get married and that her nuptials will be used as a bond between rival clans. (Score one for the patriarchy.) Brave can boast some narrative complexity, if not much feminist bona fides, for having Merida occupy the role that real-life princesses have held for most of history — as insurance against war. This gloomy take on the purpose of royal females aligns Brave more closely with HBO’s medieval misery-fest Game of Thrones than with any other Disney princess movie that's come before.
The anti-princess backlash is nothing new. For decades, cultural critics have been decrying princess movies for overvaluing qualities like beauty, passivity, and femininity, not to mention wealth and social privilege. The studios have made some grudging concessions in recent years: heroines still wear crowns, but they also have more guts. The Guardian’s Jaclyn Friedman recently named this new trend of royal female ferociousness the rise of the “Action Princesses,” specifically citing Snow White and the Huntsman and Brave, though Tangled’s Rapunzel would also qualify. These films, in which princesses are bold, beautiful, and betrothed, serve as a kind of “you can have it all” message for the 14-and-under set.
Unlike Tangled, though, which merely offers a pluckier-than-usual heroine, Brave and Snow White and the Huntsman represent a more radical response to the anti-princess backlash. They feature princess protagonists, but offer serious critiques of the institution of princessdom — highlighting in particular its dangers. Nowhere has that been argument been more emphatically made than in Game of Thrones, which could virtually qualify as anti-princessdom propaganda. Virtually all of Daenerys Targaryen’s (Emilia Clarke) troubles, for example, are a result of her royal lineage. Sold to a stranger by her brother as a teenager, the "mother of dragons" gained autonomy in her initially dehumanizing marriage, but remains exiled from her homeland after two seasons for her royal blood.
Even more devastating is the plight of Sansa (Sophie Turner), a wannabe princess, who quickly discovers that life as a royal daughter-in-law would be an endless parade of humiliations and empty rituals — even if her would-be hubby weren’t the most evil character ever. Likewise, take Snow White and the Huntsman, in which the fairy-tale princess (Kristen Stewart) is doomed to imprisonment for her claim to the throne. For all these characters, being a princess confers uniqueness, but no privilege; it’s a liability, if not a customized bull’s-eye target.
Interestingly, it’s no longer just cultural critics decrying the uniform blah-ness of princess narratives, but the cultural products themselves. By learning how to throw a punch and ride horses into combat, princesses win battles, but lose the war for narrative sophistication. After all, princesses may be less passive these days, but they continue to be morally unassailable. So while Snow White fights her usurping stepmother Ravenna (Charlize Theron) for the throne, the queen successfully launches a campaign to seize the hearts and minds, or at least the attention, of audiences. Ravenna doesn’t steal the movie because the actress playing her chews up the scenery more conspicuously than her younger co-star (though that doesn’t hurt), but because she’s a much more interesting and developed character than the "pure," virginal Snow White. Not insignificantly, Ravenna gets as much screen time as Snow White, and the tragic nature of her back story rivals her stepdaughter’s; her thirst for power is born from a justified hatred of men in power, and her capture of the crown at the beginning of the film is actually easy to root for. The psychologically damaged and perpetually obsessed nature of Ravenna’s character makes her the female counterpart to the ethically perplexed antiheroes that are the de rigueur protagonists of cable dramas, like Mad Men’s Don Draper or Breaking Bad’s Walter White.
Snow White and the Huntsman is far from the only example of princess movies receiving the Wicked treatment. Mirror Mirror, for example, tells the same tale from the POV of Queen Julia Roberts, who commandeers the film’s voiceover narration. And the anti-princess take will continue in 2014’s Maleficent, which will star a horned Angelina Jolie as the villainess of Sleeping Beauty. The appeal of these fairy-tale rewrites is, of course, the reorientation of sympathies. For example, the ability to understand, if not necessarily root for, the queen makes clear the audience’s fallacious identification with the princess. After a while, it seems eminently more reasonable to identify with Ravenna than Snow White, since she’s the one who more traditionally follows the hero’s path: a commoner with talent (in this case, beauty) who ventures into a strange land (the bizarro-universe of the aristocracy) and overcomes a weaker antagonist (the lovestruck king) to claim victory.
Princess movies will be with us for a time yet, but it’s wonderful to see that even if princesses aren’t growing up, the movies about them certainly are. Now, if only we could convince studios that girls’ lives and experiences matter even if they don’t live in castles...
Inkoo Kang is a Boston-based film journalist and regular contributor to BoxOffice Magazine whose work has appeared in Pop Matters and Screen Junkies. She reviews stuff she hates, likes, and hate-likes on her blog THINK-O-VISION.