The Plague of the Princesses

Are princesses bad for little girls Keren posed an interesting question on the blog recently: “What is your opinion of the whole ‘princesses are bad for little girls’ argument,” she asked.

I think that it’s not the princesses who are the problem—it’s the plot in which they always seem to get stuck. As much as we’ve all grown up with and loved fairy tales like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, etc., … they all have one common denominator to their stories. They’re collectively waiting for their prince to come and rescue them.

In the past couple of decades, in an obvious effort to toughen up those princesses in filmic versions, there have been varieties to that plot. We’ve seen that in Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, as well as DreamWorks’ Fiona in Shrek, to name just a few. But in the end, their adventures (and the plot still) mostly revolves around the age-old beloved prince or love interest, who invariably saves them from some foul fate in the end.

But if you look at real princesses, they were basically working girls. Pampered in their times maybe, but nonetheless, they had a job to do for their kingdoms, whether it be as a diplomat or as a bargaining “tool” to bring kingdoms together in alliance. I think there was little waiting around for true love and eternal happiness in their lives. And back in the days in which the fairy tales of old were written, marriage was one of the most important jobs of a princess.  It was part of their job, not simply a romantic notion.

When I came up with the idea for Princess Merida in Brave, that was how I looked at the story. The Queen was a working mom trying to prepare her daughter for her “job” in the kingdom. I wanted to break the stereotype of the princess, as well as the princess plot. There were princesses that were trained for battle in some kingdoms. They knew how to wield a sword, knife and bow and arrow because they had to. They also had to know how to deal with the politics of a kingdom and hold their own as a royal. No romantic princes or love interests in Brave—I at least made sure of that.

Don’t get me wrong. I am, at heart, a romantic. But I prefer to think that it is more than just beauty and a princess allure that leads to romance. And, more importantly, meaningful life relationships.

So I guess my answer is no. I don’t think princesses are bad for little girls. I think the tired and unrealistic plot of waiting around for your true love to come and find you, sweep you up on his majestic white horse and save you is what’s bad for little girls. I think little girls need to be exposed to role models that teach them to be strong, independent, free-thinking and, well, brave.

Queen Elizabeth I was a princess. She never married, and she was the greatest monarch England ever had. I wouldn’t say she was a bad example for little girls. What do you think?

Image by KJGarbutt via Creative Commons

  • Thearetical

    I love hearing your thoughts on this, and I’m right there with you! One thing I loved about Brave, and kept me thinking the whole way home, was how it is still a wonderful love story…it’s just not about romantic love. Finding a long-lasting love with your family can be just as difficult and uncertain as with a mate, and while I love a good romance (as long as it’s not formulaic and contrived), Brave really was a breath of fresh air. So, thank you for that!

    • Brenda Chapman

      You’re welcome… and thank YOU!

  • allie

    This is lovely. I so loved Brave because of this! I walked out of the film thinking I wish I would have grown up with a “Disney Princess” like Merida. She is a great role model even for “grown ups” hehe. We all need to find the strength to be brave. We worry & cower, wasting away our countless capabilities & blessed talents. There is no need to fear. :)

    • Brenda Chapman

      Thank you, Allie. That’s so nice!

  • Thearetical

    Come to think of it, I’m reminded of another “princess” story without a love interest that featured strong women in leadership roles. Have you ever read the graphic novel Bone? It’s a wonderful read.

    • Brenda Chapman

      Nope. I’m adding it to the list!

  • http://twitter.com/JessicaKoe30 Jessica K.

    The distinction between princess & plot is an important one, I love it, thank you for pointing this out.

    We should not write off a princess story because it is a princess story, we must look at the plot first & foremost. After all, how many damsels in distress & “rescue me” plots disguise themselves in characters of business minded women in modern rom-coms?

    • Brenda Chapman

      Thanks, Jessica. I know what you mean about the “modern rom-coms”!!

  • http://ankewehner.de/ Anke Wehner

    Tha one story I can think of I encountered that got into the politics is Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold (which is not a children’s book). There’s an arranged marriage a princess wants out of, partly because she’s outraged about marrying “down” the official ranks rather than out of the kingdom to secure a powerful ally. And while her wishes for an ideal husband would include “roughly my own age”, a very important criterium she repeats is “controls a harbour” – her country is landlocked.

    It’ll be a while before Brave hits the cinemas here in Germany, but hearing that it doesn’t involve her ending up with a guy decided me that I have to see it. :)

    • Brenda Chapman

      Wow! I’m getting a lot of good reading recommendations out of this blog post! Thanks for this one, Anke.
      I do hope you like BRAVE when you see it. :)

  • https://twitter.com/#!/loverlydarling Sam C.

    Brenda, this is such a fantastic post. I’m still intrigued by your insight on the “job” aspect of marrying, which I think still holds true for many people (possibly unfortunately, depending on your situation). It reminds me a lot of situations presented in Kristin Cashore’s “Graceling,” which I think you’d really enjoy.

    • Brenda Chapman

      Thank you, Sam. I’ll have to check out “Graceling”…

  • Illya Kowalchuk

    Or, there is the option of going Princeless.

    http://graphicly.com/action-lab-entertainment/princeless/1

    • Brenda Chapman

      Sorry… couldn’t get on the site… :(

  • Molly Idle

    I think you’re spot on about this. I recently read a short story by Sarah Rees Brennan titled, The Queen of Atlantis, which looked at the role of princesses, and though it was fantastical and fictional in many respects- I think that as a character study of the role of a princess it’s much more accurate than most fairy tales… http://subterraneanpress.com/magazine/summer_2011/queen_of_atlantis_by_sarah_rees_brennan

    • Brenda Chapman

      Sounds interesting. I also read “Lady MacBeth” by Susan Fraser King. It’s a pretty good look at what it was to be a princess – and a plus, it’s historically accurate, as opposed to Shakespeare’s version!

  • A McFadden

    Has anyone read Philip Pullman’s I Was A Rat? It’s a fantastic Cinderella retelling and satire of the tabloid media (from the POV of one of the rats who were turned into coach boys!) that deals with the expectations upon modern royalty. The ‘Cinderella’ of the story has had celebrity status foisted upon her by the press (with parallels to Princess Di) and isn’t finding her happily-ever-after to be all it was cracked up to be

    • Brenda Chapman

      Okay… I have to check that out!

  • Shannon

    Inspiring ideas! My little sister, mom and I went to see Brave opening night and just absolutely loved it.
    What I personally yearn for in a story is that the protagonist finds someone or something they can share their life with. If it’s romance, that’s okay. But there’s also happily ever afters like Carl, Russel, and Doug in Up. There’s the main group of toys in Toy Story. My favorite stories are ones that bring together a group of friends to create a sense of community. I just want to think that the hero of the story won’t be alone after I turn off the movie.
    Wish Merida could have at least made a new friend. But like my sister said after the movie “I can’t wait for a sequel.. Brave 2: Braver!”

    • Brenda Chapman

      But Merida did get that… with her Mom! She didn’t have that with her when the movie started. It was a love story between mother and daughter. :)

  • Lesley W.

    Elizabeth was a Queen. She had almost no power as a princess whatsoever.

    Here’s what else sucks about princess culture besides the whole rescue thing: the nauseating focus on clothes, consumption and cosmetics. It’s rare in either contemporary or classic versions for the word “princess” to go unaccompanied with “beautiful”. There are a few wonderful exceptions, such as The Ordinary Princess, but the whole point of that story is that Amy is not a “normal” princess. Ditto Brave. When it will be acceptable to have a “normal” princess who isn’t expected to be beautiful?

    • Brenda Chapman

      I know. I’ve gotten flack about Merida being too pretty and skinny. I can’t refute the red hair being pretty amazing – but that was for her character, but I do refute the “skinny” jab. I worked hard to make her look athletic – her arms are thick and when you look when her skirt is blowing against her legs, she has pretty substantial thighs! She’s not fat, but she’s not skinny, either. She’s an individual whose body fits her character. I think the “normal” princess is doomed to be the super model/Barbie type, because I think men seem to be the ones who make those movies. When a woman tells the story, you’ll get somethin’ different… and not “normal”. :)

  • Sarah Maida

    I loved the movie and I have read a lot about it both before and after seeing it. I think it is a wonderful step in the right direction, but I still long for the day I can take my five year old to a movie and see a female heroine who is smart, brave, compassionate, and NOT a princess. Redefining princesses is one (admirable) thing but breaking that mold altogether (at least once) would be wonderful.

    • Brenda Chapman

      One step at a time. I felt I needed to break the princess mold. Now my goal is to move on to female protagonists in different stories without being princesses. I’m trying! :)

  • http://twitter.com/alikigreeky Aliki T Grafft

    SO well said Brenda! And I really felt all of it when I saw Brave. I absolutely loved sharing the experience with my daughter.

    • Brenda Chapman

      Thank you. I am so glad you enjoyed it… especially with your daughter!

  • http://twitter.com/alikigreeky Aliki T Grafft

    By the way..when I read stories to my 4 1/2 year old, (who loves princess stories) at the part where it says “and they lived happily ever after” I change it to “so they became friends and after getting to know each other for a while, decided they had a lot in common and started to spend even more time together..finally they decided to get married and build a life together”…Seriously…I’m not kidding.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/loverlydarling Sam C.

      …You are the very best mum and someday, she will thank you. (No, seriously.)

      Speaking as someone who was raised nearly entirely without princesses or Barbie (although I had Pocahontas and an articulated Mulan doll), what is it like raising a daughter who loves princesses? Maybe it’s all the same.

    • Brenda Chapman

      LOL! That’s great!

    • http://twitter.com/KakiFlynn Kaki

      So, for people who read this, Aliki T Grafft is also an animator. She works with Dan Povenmire, Swampy Marsh and the rest of the crew over at Phineas and Ferb!

      aliki.carbonmade.com

      • brendachapman

        I am honored to have her comment – and I liked here even before I knew! :)

      • Hannah Patricia Magallanes

        That’s right umm… Miss. Kaki!!! ☺ i really love what you have said to princess BIOs’

        THANK YOU :)

        -PRINCESS Hannah

  • http://twitter.com/Ingonyama70 Curt Clark

    This is why I love the movies you have a hand in: you can always tell because of the strength of your female characters, even the princesses.

    • Brenda Chapman

      Thank you so much, Curt!

  • http://profiles.google.com/sianyrobinson Sian Robinson

    I haven’t seen Brave yet as its not out in the UK. All the talk of it online though has me So excited! The suspense is killing me. I have to say i’m a romantic at heart too and love a good love story but I agree its so important that as you said ‘little girls need to be exposed to role models that teach them to be strong, independent, free-thinking and, well, brave.’ Perfectly said.

    Most of us don’t look or act like a perfect princess (or barbie for that matter) our beauty and and depth and strengths runs so much deeper than that. We often just don’t see it.

    x

    • Brenda Chapman

      I do hope you like it when you finally get to see it! Thanks for stopping by, as always! :)

      • http://profiles.google.com/sianyrobinson Sian Robinson

        not long now!!! xxx

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  • Hermine VS

    Are princesses bad for girls?

    I think girls (women) can have any life they want and I do not think that princesses are bad for girls, as long as the girls are raised in a right way!

    What I discover, and feel as a restriction of society, is that men seem to feel that every girl, at any time in her life, has to be a princess where there is a man/partner saving her with his love or partnership “as a standard solution”.

    I think there are situations where love in the end, or a man who loves a girl, cán be the right solution, but mostly I think a girl has to find her own way (first), with men as male friends around her.

    So I will be very pleased to see the movie Brave (in Europe), hoping that many men will see it also, and hoping it will help thém understand that their partnership/love is not always wanted or thé answer, at every moment in a girl’s life, for every problem she faces, at “all” ages!

    It will be a good thing that we have a “princess-tale” that is able to show that! :)

    Hermine VS

    • Brenda Chapman

      Thanks for your insight. I hope BRAVE lives up to your expectations!

    • Bart

      Great insight!

  • http://twitter.com/LouMcCudden Louise McCudden

    You are so right! It is always depicting women in the passive which is damaging. Whether it’s a princess or something else, I don’t think is relevant – although that’s in terms of feminism, and what’s bad for girls, because if you want to look at what’s damaging on a class basis, then I think always telling children they should want to be royal blooded is a bit problematic.

    • Brenda Chapman

      You have a good point there. That’s one of the many things I liked about The Hunger Games. Be the best being who you are is the message I’d like to move forward with!

  • dianadart

    Fantastic points here. Although the typical princess stories do set my romantic heart a-flutter, there’s something about the strength and guts of real life royalty chicks that speaks to my soul.

    Elizabeth I. Boudica. Even Princess Di. Real life princess stories rock. And it is their stories that will inspire our daughters to strive, grow and value themselves (with or without Prince Charming on their arm).

    I loved the male characters in Brave (King Fergus – roar! and wee Dingwall stole my heart), but the true story revolved around Merida and Elinor, and that was incredibly refreshing. Oodles of gratitude coming at you from this mom :)

    • Brenda Chapman

      So glad you enjoyed the movie … And the blog! Thank you sovery much!

  • Guest

    Hi Brenda, I haven’t seen Brave yet. Question, do you prefer it in regular or 3D? Thanks

    • Brenda Chapman

      I prefer it regular. I feel the 3D version darkens the colors too much. But there are some fun things that happen visually in the 3D version. I just don’t like wearin’ the glasses .

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  • http://twitter.com/artemna Monica Gallagher

    So well put. Thank you for this, and for Brave! I was ashamed to admit I was expecting a love interest to come along during the movie … and SO glad one didn’t. :)

    • brendachapman

      You are not alone! It amazing to me how many people say that. And a lot of them somehow think it’s going to be Mor’du after she would somehow lift his curse! :)

  • Hermine Van Sande

    I have seen the film “Brave” yesterday (August 7, 2012) and my opinion is that Pixar, and its team, have been able to bring the animated film to a next level.

    While Steven Spielberg had already done that in an artistic way with “The Adventures of Tintin”, a story of my country Belgium, Pixar now is showing us that, a part from great designers, they also have very emotional intelligent storywriters.

    I will not describe here what is in my heart after having seen the film, everyone must create its own opinion of it, but “I” enjoyed the movie very much in “every way possible”.
    And a part from a very attractive film for children, this is not an only children’s movie. This is a very “adult” movie!

    Thank you “Pixar and team” for such a great story, illustrated in an impressive way.

    Hermine Van Sande, Belgian and 55 years old.

    • brendachapman

      Well, I can’t speak for Pixar, but I thank you very much for you kind words. I am so happy that you enjoyed BRAVE so much! :) Thank you!

  • Etomcat

    Please do not idealize the old times excessively, based on modern feminist ideals! In medieval Europe the most important job for many, if not most princesses was to be locked into cloisters for life, so they became the bride of Christ.

    Don’t forget there was very high mortality rate back then (plague, yes the bubonic one), affecting the whole population. Even the monarchs tried to have many children hoping at least some survived into adulthood. The excess of survivors were sent to priesthood, friary or cloisters, so the inherited wealth did not become too fractured.

    Noble families and dynasties were proud of the many off-springs they devoted to the service of Church and it brought them real respect from the whole populace, especially if said prince or princess ended up as a canonized saint (e.g. St. Emeric and St. Margaret, St. Elizabeth of Hungary). People were very religious back then, even the vile ones did really fear the Lord.

    I think the Bravehair story of Merida is not complete, nor realistic without her getting married. That or she can become a nun abess. There was no such thing as a girl “ronin” (wandering samurai) in medieval Europe. If there was, she quickly ended up out of the picture (e.g. Johanna d’Arcy of Orleans).

    Lastly, the myth of Elisabeth I you mentioned is mostly artificial and a result of the late 19th century retro-parallels made with the reign of Queen Victoria. Very little remained of Queen Elisabeth’s legacy, since she died childless and the british empire was re-created from almost zero after Cromwell’s demise.

    The closest real thing I could compare to Merida would be the famous tomboy empress Sissi of Austria, but even she was forced to marry, that’s how she became an empress and her later life was not happy. For the role of Queen Elinor, I could parallel another Habsburg, the Empress Maria Theresia, whose success in governance and giving birth to many kids crowned a happy life. Same for Queen Victoria of Britain.

    • brendachapman

      Thank you for the very interesting history lesson. I know there are so many things that I am not aware of. All I can say in my defense is that the time and place was set in a mythical Scotland, not an historically accurate one. I wanted to set a story about a working mom and her rebellious daughter that contemporary parents and their kids could relate to, but in a world full of magic and beauty that could stand out from the usual pink and purple pointy castled princess movies.
      I find it interesting that so many people think that Merida is NEVER going to get married – but that was not the point. She just wasn’t ready when her mother thought she should be. She will get married and choose her own husband in her own time – that was in the scene where Mum-bear was pantomiming to Merida while she was talking to the Lords.
      And because Elizabeth I didn’t leave behind a bloodline doesn’t mean she didn’t leave a legacy. Not all greatness comes from merely procreating.

  • Glenn Fleishman

    Brava for Brave. It is the first movie involving princesses that I want to show to my children (both boys) as both parents in the movie are still alive, and it’s about true maturity, while also being hilarious and thrilling (and gorgeously made). The only trouble is my kids get anxious watching things like the Muppets movie (even at ages 5 and 8), so I need to wait a bit before they’re brave enough for Brave. But I can’t wait.

    • brendachapman

      Thanks for the vote of confidence in BRAVE and the kind words. I do appreciate it.
      Yeah… I’d wait if your kids scare easily – even Mum-bear gets a little scary sometimes – let alone Mor Dú!

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