No More Damn Damsels in Distress

I’ll be the first to admit that I spent three hours watching Will and Kate’s wedding on April 29, 2011. It was glamorous, excessive, and, most importantly, a fairy-tale come true for little girls hoping to grow up and be real-life princesses. Ironically, Americans are almost as fascinated with royalty as everyone else.

Despite shunning the archaic ideals of monarchy, Americans continually churn out movies centered around princesses and treat British royalty like movie stars.

And yet, the way princess are dealt with in pop culture today, both real and fictional, are a testament to the ongoing struggle for princesses to be good role models for young girls.

Historically, princesses are the damsels in distress — the ones who need to be saved by a tall, handsome man, from Disney classics like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” to modern-day creations like “Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.” Everyone knows the story of Snow White: she is the fairest of them all and an evil queen, jealous of her beauty, poisons her (way to start pinning women against each other early on, Disney). The only way to break free from the sleeping spell is true love’s kiss from a prince she barely knows. From a contemporary standpoint, it’s hard not to cringe at the blatantly sexist themes within the story. But that story goes back to the nineteenth century, and the Disney adaptation was made in 1937. Surely things have changed, right?

Wrong. It sounds crazy, but the Princess Diaries sequel came out twelve years ago in 2004. The plot revolves around an outdated rule that demands a princess must be married before she ascends the throne as queen. Mia the unknowing granddaughter of the Queen of Genovia, played by Anne Hathaway, spends the entire movie searching for a “perfect” suitor and agrees to marry someone she doesn’t love through an arranged marriage for the sake of keeping her right to the throne. The climax of the movie occurs when right before her wedding, she refuses to go through with it and gets Parliament to abolish the marriage requirement for future queens to be. This is all fine and good except the movie continues to show Mia does get married, just to someone else, implying that it wouldn’t be a fairy-tale ending if she didn’t “get the guy.” It ends on the notion that being in a relationship and/or being married is a necessity for happiness.

It could be that it’s just Disney that struggles to portray a strong, independent princess instead of a damsel in distress but I highly doubt it. We can’t write it off as a Disney problem because Disney is just the most well known example of this phenomenon. See Fiona of the “Shrek” series who, despite her badass fighting skills and stand-alone power, must wait for true love’s kiss and is still secondary to the crude, brutish Shrek. I don’t see the attraction.

And unfortunately, this doesn’t just apply to fictional characters. Real-life princesses have to struggle with an ever-invasive media and the scrutiny of being a celebrity while they are also held as role models for young girls. Princess Diana brought a huge amount of attention to the AIDS fight and her foundation still helps people today. She was able to use her platform for good but it is still dependent on this backward notion that princesses are meant to look pretty and marry a prince.

When I was younger, I looked at someone like Kate Middleton and considered her an idol. However as I got older, I realized that my perception of her importance came from the media’s portrayal of her as a worthy role model because she married someone important, not because of who she was or what she had done.

I hope that future movies like the new “Moana,” which for the first time portrays a realistic body image, do young girls justice because these movies are so important to their development as women. A strong princess figure cultivates an attitude of higher self esteem, increased ambition, and self-reliance. Princesses saturate our pop culture, just not in the right way, and I hope that will change.