I don’t like princess stories.
I don’t like princess stories even if the princesses kick ass, even if they reject their princessy obligations and just want to lead normal lives, even if they’re gorgeously well-rounded characters with staggeringly complex psychological profiles. The issue is not the execution. The issue is the premise.
My problem with princesses is this: When we tell stories about princesses, we imply that the stories of ordinary girls aren’t worth telling.
Consider the dustup about Marvel’s lack of Black Widow merchandise, which included replacing Black Widow with Captain America or Iron Man in toys based on Black Widow’s movie scenes. Disney, who owns Marvel, provided the justification that they don’t need to market superheroes to girls because the Disney Princesses already have the girls’ market on a lockdown. Presumably this is also the reason they will have released 8 movies starring blond guys named Chris* before giving us a single female superhero movie (Captain Marvel) in 2018.
One can argue that princesses and superheroes are equally unrealistic fantasies, but let’s look more carefully. Marvel’s superheroes come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are gods or billionaires, but others are dweeby high-school students or 98-pound weaklings the army wouldn’t take. Characters like Spider-Man and Captain America suggest that anyone with the right character could become a superhero (given the right spider bit or supersoldier serum). But princesses are princesses by right of birth–there’s no corresponding common narrative that anyone can become a princess**.
So where are the stories about dweeby high-school girls, or any kind of regular girl who isn’t royalty? In the Disney canon, which I’ll stick with because the Mouse is always an easy target, there aren’t many.
If we look at animated non-anthology films from the studio’s inception until the end of the Disney Renaissance (1937-1999, ending there because Pixar films subsequently muddle up the accounting), there are 29 films, 16 starring male characters, 8 starring female characters, and 5 costarring both male and female characters (eg, Lady and the Tramp). Of the films led by male characters or by both male and female characters, only two, The Sword in the Stone and The Lion King, are about royalty. The other protagonists come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from street urchins to inanimate objects. Of the female-led films, five out of eight either start or end the film as princesses, six if you count Pocahontas, a chief’s daughter. Fully half of the female-led movies are about royalty, a vanishingly small percentage of the population even within the movies’ settings.
There are also differences between Disney movies about male royalty and Disney movies about female royalty. Both The Lion King and The Sword in the Stone are thematically about what it means to rule and what makes a good king. Large portions of both films are devoted to older mentors giving the young princes the skills and knowledge they will need when they take the throne.
On the other hand, there is no Disney princess movie about what it means to be a good queen; Disney princesses rarely become queens. Instead, becoming (or reclaiming one’s title as) a princess is usually a goal or reward for the protagonist, and often simply a trait given to the leading man as a shorthand way to make him a good catch. Moreover, until contemporary Disney gave us Tangled and Frozen, most princess stories followed very similar romance-based arcs. Both these factors suggest that the preponderance of princesses is not a matter of careful thought, but rather the result of ingrained assumptions.
There are a couple of examples where a commoner becomes a princess, but these only entered the canon in the 90’s with Belle. More common are the princesses or aristocratic girls who are reduced to poverty, thus maintaining the narrative that they have an inherent right to the title. This is a feature of nearly every iteration of Cinderella, the implication being that poor servant girls whose fathers weren’t aristocrats don’t have any right to expect their lives to get better, not even by magical means.
The reason we need to expand our vocabulary of female-led stories beyond princesses is not that there’s anything wrong with pretty dresses, castles, or even marrying princes. The reason is that princess stories create a narrative that girls have to be from privileged backgrounds in order to be the hero. And that’s one story we can afford to stop telling.
*Chris Evans (3 movies), Chris Helmsworth (3 movies), and Chris Pratt (2 movies).
**Except for Sara Crewe. We love you, Sara.