When The Force Awakens was released in 2014, I was thrilled. The last time I saw a Star Wars film in theatres, it was 2005 and I was ten years old. There are a lot of things I could say about Disney’s first venture into a galaxy far, far away, but the one thing that bothered me the most was the film’s characterisation of Leia (Carrie Fisher). She wasn’t a Princess anymore. She was a General. It wasn’t the title change itself that made me take pause. After all, it was a logical progression for her character. What bothered me was how this seemed like a step up for her. That being a General, a title almost exclusively associated with masculinity, was inherently better than being a Princess, a title synonymous with being weak, too feminine and a damsel in distress. Considering Leia’s role was essentially unchanged from the role she played in the original trilogy, why was it necessary to change her title at all? Why did it feel like an insult to call her a Princess?
When Star Wars premiered in 1977, Leia was exactly the kind of princess that young girls needed. She carried with her none of the baggage that came along with being a Disney princess. (Yes, I realise that’s a very funny sentence now.) Leia was a breath of fresh air. She wasn’t concerned with getting married or waiting patiently to be rescued. She didn’t talk to animals. She was no one’s slave. And when someone tried to make her one, she killed them. Undeniably, Leia was a hero.
During the second wave feminism of the 70s, women were burning their bras and throwing away their makeup, wanting desperately to divorce themselves from anything feminine. Meaning, anything inferior that made them less than. Leia’s embrace of stereotypically masculine traits and her refusal to fall apart or show emotion, even when her home planet is literally blown up right in front of her, endeared her to thousands of young women who wanted to be seen not as women, but as people. Women needed female characters that were as far removed from femininity as possible in order to be taken seriously. To be seen as worthy. To be seen at all.
Even still, Disney felt Leia needed a rebrand. Thanks in part to their influence, princesses have gotten a pretty bad rap. Being called a princess is a common insult for young girls, a kind of shorthand for being high maintenance, spoiled, too girly, too optimistic, too emotional, etc. Even as an adult, I often recoil at the word because it rarely meant anything good when I was growing up. It was never a compliment. For years we’ve seen countless fairy tale retellings and adaptations that have challenged these all too common misconceptions about women. In the decades that followed the 1937 release on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, classic fairy tales have been retold again and again, reshaped and re-defined for the eras they were made. Is General Leia Organa the future of the princess archetype? Is it time to hang up the tiara for good? Just as Leia defined what being a princess meant for girls of the 70s and 80s, I turned to the princesses that defined my childhood for answers.
If there was ever a bad time to be a teenage girl, it was definitely the early 2000s. Low rise jeans, shirt dresses, the rampant misogyny and non-stop fat shaming – it was a lot. However, nothing, and I mean, nothing, was as damaging as the ‘not like other girls’ trope that poisoned movies and pop culture. It’s influence can be felt across the board and 2004’s, A Cinderella Story is no exception. Starring Hilary Duff and Chad Michael Murray, A Cinderella Story is a modern retelling of the classic fairy tale set in the San Fernando Valley. The movie follows Sam (Hilary Duff) during her senior year of high school as she slaves away under the rule of her cruel, selfish stepmother, Fiona (Jennifer Coolidge) in the hopes that she will save up enough money to attend her dream college: Princeton. Unknown to everyone but her best friend, Sam has been emailing with the mysterious Nomad who turns out to be none other than popular football star, Austin Ames (Chad Michael Murray), who dreams of quitting football to become a writer.
In the beginning of the movie, Sam’s father (Whip Hubley), reads fairy tales to a young Sam. He tells her that fairy tales are not just about meeting a prince and falling in love. They’re about following your dreams and believing in yourself. After Sam is humiliated in front of the school and her stepmother fakes a rejection letter from Princeton, Sam has nothing left. After remembering her father’s famous saying, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game,” Sam finally stands up to her stepmother, quits her job, and moves out. Her courage and strength was something I always admired. When you’re a young girl, it often seems impossible to untangle yourself from toxic situations, especially ones that are both physically and emotionally abusive. It was inspiring to see this as a kid. And she takes all of this a step further when she confronts Austin before the big football game. “And even though I have no family, no job and no money for college, it’s you I feel sorry for,” she tells him with tears in her eyes. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Austin quits football that night. Yes, Sam saves herself, but she saves Austin too.
And while Sam is a fully developed character, she’s also ‘not like other girls.’ She isn’t fashion forward. She doesn’t care about her appearance. She expresses that she’d rather have a cheeseburger than a salad. Austin even goes so far as to literally say that he likes her because she doesn’t care about things that other girls care about. Sam’s foil in the film is Shelby, (Julia Gonzalo) Austin’s on and off again girlfriend. While Sam’s stepsisters are goofy and glorified comedic relief, Shelby is genuinely cruel. But Austin doesn’t criticise her for this. He doesn’t even scold her for humiliating Sam not once, but twice! No, Austin dislikes her for her superficiality. For caring about things he deems unimportant. She’s demonised for being ‘like other girls.’
Still, I couldn’t help but relate to Sam or want to be like her in some way. Even though she was the epitome of the ‘not like other girls’ trope, there was something inspiring about her. No, she didn’t wear short skirts or glitter and that was okay. Sam didn’t need a makeover to be beautiful like in The Princess Diaries when Mia (Anne Hathaway) straightens her hair and gets an eyebrow wax. As someone who has Mia’s hair in real life, that scene is never fun to watch. But Sam stays true to herself. Even at the end when she inherits her father’s estate, Sam can be seen wearing the same clothes and driving the same car as she did in the beginning. The only difference is now she’s free.
As a product of the early 2000s, it was difficult to escape a lot of the harmful, limiting ideas I had in my head of the kind of woman I needed to be. Ever After is not a film I remember much from my childhood, but it’s a film I appreciate now more than ever. Ever After is that rare film that manages to be both of its time and ahead of its time. It was released in 1998, at the tail end of a decade marked by lipstick feminists, Girl Power, as popularised by the Spice Girls, and the Riot Grrrl Movement that sought to reclaim women’s individual autonomy. Third Wave Feminism claimed there wasn’t one way to be a woman and every form of self expression mattered.
Set against the backdrop of Renaissance-era France, Ever After tells the story of Danielle (Drew Barrymore), who, after her father dies, is left in the care of her wicked stepmother, Baroness Rodmilla de Ghent (Angelica Huston). The Baroness is a cruel woman who abuses her servants, including Danielle, and occasionally, her own daughter, Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey). When she sells one of her servants in order to pay her debts, Danielle disguises herself as a Comtesse in order to free him, during which she has a chance meeting with Prince Henry (Dougray Scott). They fall in love despite Henry not knowing that she is a poor servant. He doesn’t even know her real name.
Danielle is easily my favourite fictional princess. Unlike Leia and her refusal to show emotion or weakness, Danielle wears her heart on her sleeve. She is openly kind and compassionate. She falls in love joyously, in spite of her circumstances and is left heartbroken and angry when it’s seemingly taken away. It brought me such joy to watch a strong character like Danielle fall in love. For the longest time, I thought a strong woman needed to be cold and unfeeling. Being a strong woman meant being more like a man, possessing traits that are often toxic and unhealthy. But Danielle taught me that it’s your strength of character and conviction, your courage to accept love when no one thinks you are worthy of it that makes you a strong woman. A strong person.
And although Danielle works tirelessly to keep her father’s memory alive and his home from falling apart, it’s the memory of her mother that sends Danielle into a rage that only a woman could possess. Ever After gives Danielle the space to be angry and resentful. While Disney’s Cinderella takes her abuse in stride, Danielle fights back. She defies her stepmother from the very beginning, daring to do what is right and what is good no matter the consequences. She goes to the ball not because she’s an eligible young woman, but because she’s a woman in love and no one is going to tell her she can’t have what she wants.
When Danielle is sold to the awful Monsieur Pierre Le Pieu (Richard O’Brien) and taken as a prisoner to his castle, he tells her she belongs to him now. “I belong to no one,” Danielle seethes. She forces him to let her go and he does. This moment brings tears to my eyes every time. It’s the moment Danielle vows to never be anyone’s slave again. When Henry shows up to rescue her and gifts her the slipper she lost, it is not just a profession of love or a marriage proposal. It is an apology and a promise to never betray her trust again. It is love that makes Henry feel like royalty and it is being loved for who she is that makes Danielle feel like a Princess. And it is this sense of innate justice – in the end, whether good or bad, we all get what we deserve – that makes this love story a fairytale.
So, is it time to hang up the tiara? I don’t think so. In fact, I think the Princess archetype will always be around. Like fairy tales, it’s timeless. And if these movies taught me anything, it’s that these characters are always changing and evolving, redefining again and again what it means to be feminine, to be beautiful, to be strong. And it’s in reclaiming the title of Princess that allows us to free ourselves from its negative influence. Because it’s ours now and we can do whatever we want with it.
by Margaret Roarty
Margaret Roarty is a writer, actress, and co-host of Just My Thoughts on It: a film podcast that she created with her sister. Her previous writing can be found on The Film Magazine as well as Directed by Women. Find her on Twitter.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Feminist Criticism, Films
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