Toward a More Expansive Definition of 'Princess'

There should be options beyond tomboy (like Merida) and girly girl (like Cinderella).
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Princess Cimorene, as depicted on the cover of Dealing With Dragons. (Harcourt Brace)

Princesses are easy to hate. They don't save kingdoms. They don't fight dragons. They don't battle giants. They just dress up and look pretty and get saved and get married. They're passive and boring and so, so...feminine.

The hatred of Disney Princesses in particular, then, can end up looking something like a hatred of, or a discomfort with, the feminine itself. Peggy Orenstein pointed this out in a 2006 article about her discomfort with princesses. After her daughter began questioning her obsessively about the reason for her anti-princess stance, Orenstein suddenly wondered,

What if, instead of realizing: Aha! Cinderella is a symbol of the patriarchal oppression of all women, another example of corporate mind control and power-to-the-people! my 3-year-old was thinking, Mommy doesn't want me to be a girl? [...] I may be inadvertently communicating that being female (to the extent that my daughter is able to understand it) is a bad thing.

So how do you hate princesses without hating girls? Or how do you separate princesses and femininity?

In a column last week at The Week, Monika Bartyzel suggested that these are maybe the wrong questions. The problem, Bartyzel argues, isn't princesses, but the fact that "princess"—and by extension, femininity—has ended up meaning such a limited range of things. Bartyzel argues, "The truth is that, just as there are all kinds of women, there can be all kinds of princesses." She points to the film Brave, where the heroine, Princess Merida, is basically defined by her dislike of the princess role—she hates dressing up, doesn't want to marry anybody, and loves archery and swordplay like her father. And yet, as Bartyzel says, when Disney officially coronated Merida into their official Disney brand, they gave her a makeover, complete with bigger breasts, less wild hair, and the sort of finery she disliked in the film. The outcry—including a withering statement from Brave writer Brenda Chapman—was sufficiently intense that Disney backpedaled, and has apparently pulled the redesigned Merida from their site.

Bartyzel argues that more different kinds of princesses would mean more different role models, and more options, for little girls. That's certainly true. But it could also, and relatedly, provide a broader definition of femininity. Merida's love of sports and weapons and her rejection of marriage and dresses and etiquette is a welcome alternative to Cinderella. But are the only options really tomboy and girly girl? Merida is a different kind of princess in part because she doesn't want much to do with traditional femininity—and her story is exhilarating for that. But still, it seems like it maybe leaves out a fair number of girls who like princesses because of the femininity, not despite it.

There are some princesses out there who exemplify additional options. Probably not coincidentally, many of them aren't from Disney. Perhaps the best known example is Wonder Woman, who is rarely even thought of as a princess. And yet, a Princess she is—Princess Diana of the Amazons, specifically.

Created in the 1940s by William Marston, a psychologist and radical feminist, Wonder Woman was specifically and deliberately designed to show not just that women could be brave, but that femininity itself was a kind of superpower. Where heroes like Merida and The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen use pointy, utilitarian, arrows, Wonder Woman's weapon is the deliberately non-phallic lasso. Over time, that lasso has morphed into a lasso of truth, but originally it was a much more effective lasso of command. Anyone who was caught by it was compelled to obey the wielder.

In an interview Marston called the lasso "a symbol of female charm, allure, oomph, attraction" and of the power that "every woman has...over people of both sexes whom she wishes to influence or control in any way." The lasso is not a weapon despite its femininity; it's femininity weaponized. For Marston, love wasn't something women sat around and waited for. It was a power women picked up and used to save the world from violence and hate.

Another, more recent example is Princess Cimorene, of Patricia Wrede's wonderful 1990 Dealing With Dragons and its sequels. Cimorene, like Merida, dislikes many of the stereotypical aspects of being a princess. She doesn't want to learn to embroider or learn etiquette. Instead, she wants to learn sword-fighting, magic, and cooking.

The last one there is the tell. Cimorene doesn't want to follow the Disney princess script of sitting around and waiting for a prince to come. But she doesn't want to be a hero either—on the contrary, she thinks all the princes going on quests and fighting dragons are just as dull and conventional as the princesses they save. Cimorene wants nothing to do with either archetype.

Instead, she decides to become the princess for the female dragon Kazul—a position which is decidedly domestic. Cimorene cleans and makes cherry jubilee and organizes the library, acting as a combination secretary and maid.

This isn't presented as burdensome: Cimorene has a good, domestic, down-to-earth practicality, as well as an enormous curiosity. She likes to organize things, and she finds rifling through a dragon's treasure and library fascinating, which it seems like it would be. But there's no doubt that in her female-female partnership with Kazul, she is taking on most of the traditional wifely functions—a fact only emphasized further when Kazul wins the unisex title of King of the Dragons. Even when Cimorene does fight, she tends to do so in a domestic way. She and her friends discover that the evil wizards who are the series' chief antagonists can be melted by soaking them in soapy water (with a hint of lemon). Battle involves not swords, but buckets.

Neither Wonder Woman's vision of femininity nor Cimorene's is going to appeal to everyone (whether male or female) in every way. Marston's ideas about feminine love power can seem essentialist and weirdly sexualized. Washing floors can seem a pretty tedious task even if it's a dragon's floor you're cleaning. But most masculine narratives for kids—filled as they are with guns and swords and sentient fossil-fuel-guzzling tank engines—have their downsides, too. The point isn't to create a single perfect role model, be it Merida or Wonder Woman or Cimorene or Cinderella. The point is to give girls, and for that matter boys, the chance to see femininity not solely as a prison to inhabit or escape, but as a story that can be told in lots of ways. As Cimorene's friend Princess Arabella tells her at the end of the novel, "I wouldn't like being princess for the King of the Dragons, but it will suit you down to the ground."

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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