Pictured: the childhood feminist hero in question.
Consider this a formal apology to fellow feminists everywhere: I love makeover scenes. My upbringing made me politically conscious enough to know that everything about the one in The Princess Diaries (2001) should irk me to no end. The idea that Mia Thermopolis, a fifteen year old girl, should need to get rid of her frizzy hair, thick eyebrows and any hint of personality in her clothing choices to deserve to be called a princess should be revolting to me. And yet… well, some part of me really doesn’t mind that much. There’s something unapologetically fun about the ridiculousness of it all, about seeing a movie tell us “hey, look, that average-looking teenager was actually Anne Hathaway this entire time!”, as if we had ever needed her to take off her glasses to notice. I suppose living as a feminist in an inherently non-feminist world will always have to come with accepting our own imperfections, and as far as ethical failings go, this probably isn’t the worst one.
Beyond personal preferences, my willingness to excuse this scene may also lie in everything that goes hand in hand with it: from her pre-royalty days scootering her way through the streets of San Francisco to the happy ending that sees her ban arranged marriage and appoint herself Queen of Genovia, nearly everything that comes after the much criticised makeover scene feels surprisingly refreshing, especially for a teen movie that came out nearly twenty years ago.
If Princess Diaries remains a beloved film for many, the film that defined Garry Marshall’s career is one that graced movie theatres about a decade before. With its signature theme song, its heroine’s ridiculously voluminous hair and its imperfect (to say the least) ethics, Pretty Woman (1990) falls nothing short of a rom-com classic, and is a much more critically acclaimed film too. Despite the eleven years separating them, the similarities between the Marshall’s two films are impossible to ignore, especially when watching them back to back. These are both stories of betterment for their female protagonists. Whether in the form of a shy teenager or an outspoken young sex worker, Marshall’s women must find their place in a world that isn’t always as kind to them as they would like it to be, and come out of the film better people than they were at its start.
Yet despite a similar overall narrative, the clash between the two films couldn’t be any more obvious. Pretty Woman most likely never thought of itself as a feminist masterpiece, but it doesn’t erase how baffling most of its message is when watched nowadays. Vivian may have been one of the most sympathetic sex worker characters put to screen at this point in cinematic history; but it still doesn’t erase how infantilising her own story gets for her. She has to wait around for Richard Gere to find her to become the civilised young lady that was hidden within her this entire time. Sure, Vivian does end up with a happy ending, a privilege that few fictional prostitutes get (and that she almost didn’t get either, as the original ending of the film went hand in hand with her death), but it comes at the cost of giving up her occupation – which is depicted as pure laziness on her part to “do better”. By the end of the film, she has the freedom to decide to go to college as easily as if she had decided to go to the grocery store, something which seems particularly absurd and condescending to anyone with a hint of knowledge about the American education system.
If her love interest certainly is no saint either, the comparisons the film tries to make between the two are only half-hearted. “You and I are such similar creatures, Vivian. We both screw people for money.”, says Edward; but I can’t help but think that willingly tearing down companies and making many employees jobless in the process seems on a completely different moral level than having sex with people for money. Yet the business man is still depicted as the wise one of the couple, the one that tears off the aggressor when an inevitable assault scene happens, the one that buys her all the nice clothes and teaches her all the good manners; in other words, the one that fixes her. If the overwhelmingly romantic conclusion of the film sees Vivian proclaiming that she will “save Edward right back”, little of what came beforehand truly supports the notion that the two protagonists are equals.
If Pretty Woman invoked fairy tales tropes regularly, the literal journey towards becoming a princess for Mia Thermopolis is a completely different affair. The young woman evolves around women with many different personalities, and their uniqueness is celebrated rather than turned into an excuse to pit them against one another. The most glaring example are the two different life paths that Mia’s mother and grandmother have chosen: one has refused to marry the love of her life to stay away from a royal life she didn’t believe in, while the other believed in her right to the throne to the point of marrying a man she didn’t love. Rather than deciding that either of these choices is morally superior, the film considers both women as equal. They are an occasion to show that the paths women are led to take under modern societies (and especially monarchy) are fundamentally imperfect, and that supporting each other in our flawed destinies is more important than anything else. Mia herself always has the choice to go back to her normal teenage life shall she decide to do so. Not too bad of a message for growing little girls watching the film:
While Clarisse does take a mentor role for her royal granddaughter, Mia’s journey differs fundamentally from Vivian’s as it remains, well, hers. She’s not dreaming of the day someone will come and deliver her from her boring, regular life: she’s not even sure of whether or not she actually wants to be a princess in the first place. Through the film, Mia learns how to behave properly, sometimes even directly paralleling Vivian’s own learning process montage through two similar scenes that sees the both of them learning how and when to use the various sets of cutlery at sophisticated dinner tables, and inevitably making fools of themselves once they end up messing up (was anyone else led to believe that using the wrong type of fork at fancy restaurants would be a much bigger problem in their life than it ever actually ended up being?).
But table manners is where the resemblance in the journey stops, as the outcome of Mia’s coming of age story is radically different from Vivian’s. Clarisse, unlike Edward, didn’t make her protegee become a better person by convincing her to conform to societal conventions. On the contrary, Mia is unconditionally allowed to be silly; she can make faces behind her grandmother’s back and be clueless about the many things teenagers are clueless about, she can have slumber parties in a royal castle and learn from her bad decisions without needing someone to “I told you so” for her to grow.
As opposed to Edward’s unnatural self-actualization, this time, the lessons that the mentor learns from the apprentice don’t feel as hypocritical: Clarisse has been stuck living within conventions her entire life, and it is realistic to think that Mia’s youth could inspire her to change her ways. Her own happy ending, one where she finally marries her head of security after years of secret love, feels entirely deserved and gives the character a gracious way out. Not only does she help others attain their true potential, Mia also doesn’t have to give up anything that makes her herself to be a worthy protagonist: she would still rather hang out with social outcasts than princes and eat ice cream straight out of the tub than attend a six-course tasting dinner. Even though she, just like anyone else, needs a little help from those around her to get there, the version of herself that the film leaves us with is still very much the result of her own work and personality.
What a difference a decade can make, and how different can two seemingly similar movies become. Vivian may be older than Mia, but she is treated in a more infantilizing way by her romantic partner than the young princess ever is by her own parents and teachers. The unlikely feminism of The Princess Diaries shines even more when contrasted with its older counterpart, and feels like something to deeply cherish. All in all, it is unsurprising that the most typically “girly” film of the two (and subsequently, least critically acknowledged) ultimately ends up being the most empowering. The turn of the century had arrived for Marshall’s heroines, and even though she may have looked a lot like her older sister, the twenty first century princess was finally bold enough to save herself.
by Callie Hardy
Callie (she/her) is a Belgian New Media student currently living in Dublin. She enjoys female-fronted horror, nostalgic adaptations of childhood classics and every outfit Blake Lively wears in A Simple Favor. She’s usually pretty honest, but if you catch her saying that her favourite film is anything other than Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, you should know that she’s lying. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Letterboxd.
Categories: Anything and Everything