Finally, Some Subversive Action Princesses in New Films: "Snow White" and "Brave"
When I was a little girl, I used to twirl around and around in my bedroom, stopping only to deflect imaginary bullets with my nonexistent indestructible cuffs. There was never any question about which kind of Underoos I wanted: I was a Wonder Woman girl. What I didn't know then is that my first role model belonged to a very rare tribe: the princess who is also a bona fide action hero. Or, as I like to call her, the Action Princess. This month, their tiny ranks swell by two big-budget badasses: Snow White (of Snow White and the Huntsman), and Princess Merida (of Brave, which owned the US box office this past weekend).
Entire books have been written about the negative impact of the "princess ideal" on girls and young women. And for good reason: standard princess tropes teach girls that their value is in their beauty and femininity, and that the best thing they could possibly dream of is to be saved by a handsome prince. Dig deeper and the messages get worse: beauty and goodness are always young and almost always white-skinned. Older, "ugly" and/or darker-skinned women – especially ones with power – are out to get you. Queer people don't exist. Men are sometimes clueless or poorly behaved, but never the enemy.
If you're pretty and pure enough (and you're not already a royal yourself), you can marry into the 1%. Which is inherently a good thing, never requiring soul-killing compromises or oppressing anyone else.
So, when a princess comes along with the potential to subvert all that, it's worth a notice. When two arrive in the same month, it's downright shocking. I can count only two-and-a-half Action Princesses ever to star in their own big-budget vehicles on US screens: my beloved Diana Prince, 1980s merchandising dream She-Ra, and (though only sort of) Xena: Warrior Princess. (For the record: Xena's not actually a princess by birth or station. She's a nasty warlord when we first meet her in the Hercules series, and only gets slapped with the "Princess" title card when she decides to repent for her ways by becoming a do-gooder. Because one thing princesses – even ones who aren't really princesses – can never do is be bad, at all, in any way.)
How subversive are these new Action Princesses? Well, like Wonder Woman and She-Ra (but unlike more traditional princesses), our two newcomers both star in stories that refuse to make marriage any part of their happy ending. And both have it better than their elders in one key way: we never see their cleavage.
But full-coverage battle armor aside, the rebooted Snow White is hardly a feminist triumph. Even with all the girl-power trappings, it still bristles with nasty princess tropes. Snow White's inherent "goodness" is completely equated with her "fairness" (of beauty, yes, but also inescapably of skin tone). Her life depends on being kissed by the right guy. And let's not forget the girl-on-girl virgin/whore gagfest embodied by the Evil Witch Who's Just Jealous.
Brave fares a lot better, replacing the catfight with a fairly nuanced exploration of the strains that can wear down a mother-daughter relationship as the daughter comes into her own and rejects her mother's ambitions for her. The movie also passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, which should be a given for a movie with a female hero, but is more than can be said for Snow White. Also in the plus column: despite my temporary fear that Merida would be called upon to save the day by sewing, she is given ample opportunity to live up to the movie's title, and she does so with smarts, strength, skill and unwavering gusto.
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.