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Finally, Some Subversive Action Princesses in New Films: "Snow White" and "Brave"

A new type of heroine is hitting our screens. It's progress, but does a girl always have to be a princess to get the starring role?

Photo Credit: Disney Pixar


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.

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