This article originally appeared in Bad Reputation – a feminist pop-culture adventure on 28 March 2012.
Fairy tales! We all like fairy tales, right? They have both an air of comfort and adventure about them, and – as they’re something we first came into contact with as young children – there’s also an almost familial fondness for some of them. As they come from the oral tradition, folk/fairy tales have adapted slightly with each retelling to suit the world around them – but as Treasury Islands recently pointed out, the writing–down stage of most tales we know (i.e. when they became a little more set in stone) happened in deeply misogynistic times – and this carries through in even our most beloved fairy tales.
In the world of children’s books there’s a double-whammy of bad female role models and massive under-representation. There’s only one female character to every 1.6 male characters. One of the few regular traditional roles for girls in children’s literature is that of the princess, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that the traditional princess trope doesn’t give girls many positive or useful goals to aim for: look pretty, be born into or marry into hereditary privilege and… uh… that’s it. Happily ever after. Forever. Are you bored yet? I am.
Yet plenty of little girls are still obsessed with princesses and being a princess. It might not appeal much to the grown-ups, but the trope remains strong – as does the lure of pretty things. (Personally, I still have to suppress a twinge of jealousy when I see a kid going by in a really good princess dress – with the layers of skirt and the faux-stays bodice and WHERE WERE THEY WHEN I WAS SMALL, HUH? – but it’s fine. I’m not jealous. I’m writing this wearing a £3 Claire’s Accessories tiara so it’s all OK.)
So, as it doesn’t look like we’ll escape the princess trope any time soon, it’s time to play with it instead. There’s no need to throw out the castles, dragons and bling along with the bathwater – there are plenty of good children’s books out there featuring kickass princesses who do more than just wear dresses. In this post, the first of a three parter, I’m going to give you the lowdown on some good princess role models for your sprogs/selves (delete as age-appropriate).
Disclaimer before we begin:
These books are primarily working from the Western European fairy tale trope, so whilst they may kick ass, some elements remain disappointingly similar throughout – namely that the princesses are often ‘conventionally beautiful’, often blonde, always Caucasian, and in this selection the tales all revolve around the marriage trope. I hope to uncover a wider variety of ass-kicking later, but in the meantime here are some nonetheless very good children’s books.
The Paper Bag Princess
Written by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko, published in 1980 by Annick Press
The Paper Bag Princess is a short, snappy children’s book aimed at the 3-5 age group. (Click here to hear it read to you by a kindly librarian.)
The book begins with a typical princess called Elizabeth who “lived in a castle and wore expensive princess clothes”. She plans to marry Prince Ronald, but when a dragon steals away the prince and scorches all the kingdom (including all her pretty clothes) she doesn’t waste a moment: she dons the eponymous paper bag (the only unscorched thing she could wear) and goes off to rescue her man, defeating the dragon using her wits.
Munsch has explained that he wrote the book on his wife’s suggestion:
One day my wife, who also worked at the daycare centre, came to me and said “How come you always have the prince save the princess? Why can’t the princess save the prince?” I thought about that and changed around the ending of one of my dragon stories. That made the adults a lot happier, and the kids did not mind.
(Of course the kids didn’t mind – they don’t have such strong pre-conceived ideas of narrative yet!)
But as well as the princess doing the rescuing, there’s also a brilliant message about self-esteem and moving on. The Prince, once rescued, turns out to be an ungrateful asshat, telling Elizabeth off for looking a mess: “Come back when you look like a real princess.” Upon hearing this the princess doesn’t get upset or angry. She tells the prince, “Your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince but you are a bum.” (or a toad if you have the UK version). The final line – “they didn’t get married after all” – is illustrated with the Paper Bag Princess dancing off into the sunset.
This book is a brilliant, simple primer for just about everyone. It teaches people that being brave, smart and kind are more important than how you look – and that when someone is mean to you, you can be the bigger person walk away. That’s a double-helix of kickass for all genders, packed into a very short picture book.
Written and illustrated by Babette Cole, pub. Hamish Hamilton 1986
Babette Cole has done a lot of awesome for children’s literature. Her drawings are warm, funny and just more than a bit gorgeous, and she’s also subverted Cinderella in Prince Cinders (and done plenty more amazing children’s books, but I’ll focus on this one.)
(Once again, you can have this book read to you on YouTube.)
Princess Smartypants (Best. Name. Ever.) is content with her own life: “She enjoyed being a Ms. Because she was pretty and rich, all the princes wanted her to be their Mrs.” Ten points to Cole for slipping in the Miss/Ms/Mrs thing in a fairly small, light way. Minus ten for having a princess who is both pretty and blonde.
However, wanting to put an end to the constant stream of suitors once and for all, Princess Smartypants says she will marry whoever can accomplish all the tasks she sets. This is where it gets badass – her tasks show her interests: gardening (an extreme sport when you see the slugs); feeding her monster pets; roller disco; motorbike riding – you get the idea. Princess Smartypants is accomplished, independent, and happy getting up to the stuff she enjoys.
Eventually Prince Swashbuckle does manage all the tasks, so this is where Princess Smartypants uses her plothammer card and turns him into a toad. Grumpy toad prince drives away in his red sports car, and no princes bother her again. (My plot spill is nothing without the illustrations – for the love of God, READ THIS BOOK.)
As with The Paper Bag Princess, the final frame page of this book combines the news that the protagonist doesn’t get married with an illustration of her looking very happy – in this instance, on a sun lounger, toasting the audience with a glass of something, and surrounded by her monster pets.
The message from both of these books is that you can create your own happily ever after.
The Practical Princess
From The Practical Princess And Other Liberating Fairy Tales by Jay Williams, Scholastic 1978
Princess Bedelia is given common sense as a baby by a visiting fairy (the other two fairies bestow the more expected gifts of beauty and grace), despite her father’s complaint of “What good is common sense to a princess? All she needs is charm.”
However, when a hungry dragon demands Bedelia to eat and a dragon slayer can’t be found soon enough, the King and his advisors decide they’ll have to give her over to be eaten. Our girl takes control of her own fate with a kind of weary resignation when she realises no one else is up to the task. She makes a dummy from straw and one of her finest gowns, and stuffs it with gunpowder. Bye bye dragon.
When a powerful but age-inappropriate and unwanted suitor turns up, Bedelia sets him near-impossible tasks using her extensive knowledge of the surrounding kingdoms – and uses her sense to catch him out when he cheats. When our girl winds up in a tower with a male Rapunzel/Sleeping Beauty-type prince, she uses her common sense to undo the spell he is under, and rescue them both.
This story isn’t my favourite of the lot – I found the heroine very slightly prissy, and the details and language didn’t really warm my cockles. However, the moral of the story is pretty much ‘don’t panic, keep thinking, you’ll find a solution’, and ain’t no arguing with that. Hip-hip hooray for brains!
The Wrestling Princesss
From The Wrestling Princess and Other Stories, written by Judy Corbalis, illustrated by Helen Craig, 1986, pub. Andre Deutsch
The Wrestling Princess takes place in a world where some gender roles are set in stone, but some are very altered. Princess Ermyntrude is either wrestling the guards or covered in axle grease, working on her tractors and helicopters – but the King tells her she has to find a husband for the succession. The princess’s resistance and her father’s weary insistence make for a good introduction to the debate on succession. Also, Ermyntrude’s father naming the ‘feminine’ traits she needs sets them up to be deconstructed/dismissed:
“To get a husband you must be enchantingly beautiful, dainty and weak,” said the king.
“Well, I’m not,” said Ermyntrude cheerfully. “I’m nothing to look at, I’m six feet tall and I’m certainly not weak. Why, Father, did you hear, this morning I wrestled with sixteen guards at once and I defeated them all?”
“Ermyntrude!” said the king sternly, as he rethreaded his needle with No. 9 blue tapestry cotton. “Ermyntrude, we are not having any more wrestling and no more forklift trucks either. If you want a husband you will have to become delicate and frail.”
“I don’t want a husband,” said the princess and she stamped her foot hard.
The ensuing prince/groom casting-call both plays to some gender norms (it’s a rule that the prince must be taller than her) and some non-norms (the prince must be able to match her in a face-pulling contest).
This princess does eventually get married, but to a short prince who has a shared love of mechanics and loves her for who she is, and vice versa.
“You’re too short,” said the king.
“He’s not,” said the princess.
“No, I’m not, I’m exactly right and so is she,” said Prince Florizel. “Then when I saw her pulling faces and shouting insults and throwing princes to the ground I knew she was the one person I could fall in love with.”
“Really?” asked the princess.
“Truly,” said Prince Florizel. “Now, come and see my mechanical digger.”
In this book, unlike the previous two, marriage doesn’t turn out to be a thing to be avoided – provided it’s with the right person. This story is about deconstructing the existing framework of helpless princesses and dashing princes – and it also becomes about two quirky, likeable people meeting and falling in love. And falling in love is totally punk rock.
Honourable mention: The Practical Princess
Written by Rebecca Lisle, illustrated by Joëlle Dreidemy, pub. Andersen 2008
I actually picked this one up by accident when friends were singing the praises of the other Practical Princess book (see above) – but I thought it would be worth comparing and contrasting these different practical princesses.
This book is far more recent than most on this list (the others all being from the 1980s), and it is not particularly feminist, but it does play with the trope a little.
Having read it, I’m not quite sure why this one has the name: Molly, our protagonist, is only a bit practical and she’s not actually a princess. Molly is an ordinary (read: extraordinarily beautiful, but non-royal) girl who wants to be a princess, so she enters a casting-call to find Prince Percival a bride. Her farmer parents help her by making and buying pretty clothes and shoes at great expense, and her lovely boyfriend Stan makes her a crown.
That’s right, she has a boy back home who loves her already, and – though he doesn’t want her to go – he helps her because she has her heart set on becoming a princess. He even drives her to the competition. POOR LOVELY STAN.
I don’t want to go overboard in my criticisms/analysis of children’s books here (not like the Freudian interpretation of The Cat in the Hat – no, that would be silly) but ignoring her current relationship is massively problematic for me. As is the remarkably unsisterly attitude Molly displays towards the other (real) princesses in the competition. They’re all painted as vacuous fashion victims, but I find this attitude in the writing to be uncharitable and a little lazy – as if the other competitors’ one-dimensionality will add more depth to the protagonist by default.
That said, to give her her due, our girl does realize over the course of the book that there isn’t much to recommend becoming royalty and that Stan back home is kinder and cuter than Prince Percival. When the glass slippers moment happens, Molly sticks her toes out so the shoe doesn’t fit, and defenestrates herself to escape back to her old life and lovely, long-suffering Stan.
The plus points for this book are it has a trajectory which begins in the same place as a lot of the readers (‘I’m not a princess but I want to be one’), and the conclusion – that riches and status are hollow compared to people who really care about you – is pretty universal and good. I just wish there’d been less mention of tiny waists throughout the book (no girl ever needs more indoctrination on that shit) – and our protagonist doesn’t really ‘kick ass’ so much as ‘avoids falling into the same traps as the other women.’
Also: poor Stan! You’re not good enough for him, Molly. I’ll take him off your hands.
There will be more kickass and subversive princesses from children’s books in future articles. Hannah has a few on the list, but if there are any you think she should know about/make sure she doesn’t miss then let us know in the comments section!