Finally, Some Subversive Action Princesses in New Films: "Snow White" and "Brave"
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It's also more than notable that no one in the entirety of Brave so much as comments on Merida's looks. Not her suitors or their fathers, not her family, no one. (There is one moment that finds the Queen admiring how suitably princess-like Merida looks in her betrothal outfit, but even that comment is about her living up to the Queen's standards and not her intrinsic attractiveness or lack thereof.)
What's truly revolutionary about Merida as an Action Princess is our heroine's cause: she's not fighting to avenge anyone's death, to save a kingdom, or defeat an evil power. She's fighting for her own freedom, for her bodily autonomy and her happiness. She is her own cause. If there's any Big Bad in Brave it's princess-dom itself, with all its patriarchal trappings. And Merida's not universally "good" either – she's a stubborn daredevil, sometimes selfish and even spiteful. Hardly surprising for a teenager, but downright subversive for a Disney princess.
The tragedy of Brave, however, is that while it's clear that our new Snow White is an actioned-up old-school princess, Merida is a princessed-out action hero. Brave producer Katherine Sarafian made no bones about this in a recent interview on NPR, saying:
"We tried making her the blacksmith's daughter and the milkmaid in various things … There's no stakes in the story for us that way. We wanted to show real stakes in the story where, you know, the peace of the kingdom and the traditions are all at stake."
Let's take that in for a minute: the studio whose most iconic heroes include a toy cowboy, a rat, a fish, a boy scout, and a lonely trash compactor (all male-identified, of course), couldn't figure out how to tell a story about a human girl without making her a princess. That's the problem in a nutshell: if the sparkling minds at Pixar can't imagine their way out of the princess paradigm, how can we expect girls to?
The past decade may have seen a welcome increase in on-screen female action heroes, but we're still far from gender parity in the genre, and even when they're not princesses, they're nearly all trained assassins or Chosen Ones. Joseph Campbell wrote indelibly about the power of The Hero with a Thousand Faces – an ur-hero who's living a mundane life when he's faced with a challenge through which he can discover his greatness. It's easy to see why this matters: everyman hero stories teach every boy that he can make himself great through his own actions, regardless of how dull or difficult the lot in life he's been handed.
Princess stories – even Action Princess stories – inherently fail the Conrad test. That's why, until we've got as many Mulans and (un-whitewashed) Katniss Everdeens as we do Frodos, Batmans, Kung Fu Pandas, Rangos, Shreks, Woodys – I could go on here … to infinity and beyond – even the most liberated of princesses will always be failing girls.
Jaclyn Friedman is the author of What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl's Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety and editor of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape , one of Publisher's Weekly's Top 100 Books of 2009.