Princesses vs. Queens: Goodness or Authority, Pick One

I’m sure this will come as a deep shock to many of you, but when I was a little girl, I dreamed of becoming… a princess.  I dressed up in fluffy pink dresses, and little tiaras, and tried to act “regal” as best I could for a 6-year-old (which I think actually amounted to being a brat, but still).  And I think we all know I wasn’t the only one.  Princesses figure prominently in media aimed at young girls; the Disney Princess franchise alone makes millions every year.  So, a question I frequently hear posed is this: why princesses, and not queens?  I’ve wondered for years, but the release of Frozen threw it into sharp relief for me, so I decided to look into it some more.

There certainly are queens represented in fiction, but they’re seldom main characters, and are most often actual villains.  Why can’t we let our female protagonists be in positions of real authority, and not just ornamentation?  I know that actual princesses are in positions of power and do more than just look pretty, but that’s rarely shown in fiction, especially that aimed at children.  In most children’s fiction, princess means more “rich daughter of the king” than “political agent and head of state”.  It has more to do with in-born attributes than training, skill, or duties.  I didn’t think about that much until I watched Brave, where Merida wants a more “normal” life of freedom and wildness, as opposed to her restricting life of lessons and responsibility.  In the end, she finds a happy blend – she still rides her horse in the forest and wears the more comfortable dresses she likes, but learns to take her lessons seriously in preparation for the day when she will become queen.

That last is an important note.  The princesses we see in these stories almost never actually become queens within the scope of the story.  The main exception I can think of is Princess Kida from Atlantis: The Lost Empire, who ascends to the throne when her father dies in the climax of the movie.  Of course, the main plot of Frozen is started at Elsa’s coronation, but I’d argue that she’s not the main protagonist of her movie, and really spends a significant portion of the story as an antagonist (not a villain, and I do make that distinction very deliberately).  Why is that?  The immediate thought that jumps to mind is that putting female protagonists in a position of power is simply too much for our backwards media machine, but I thought it couldn’t be that simple.  If that were simply the case, we wouldn’t have villainous queens either, only more princesses.  I didn’t find a reason that satisfied me until I heard a discussion about how, when referring to females, when we are praised, terms like “good girl”, “you go girl”, etc are used.  Infantilizing, childish terms.  But when we do wrong, it’s all “now listen here, young lady” or “young woman”.  Still firmly condescended to, but treated somewhat more like adults.  I’d say that this is connected to our good princess vs. evil queen dichotomy.  Queens are women and princesses are girls.  Infantilization is a pretty common tactic in sexist rhetoric, so I don’t see why it wouldn’t have seeped into our fiction as well.

Of course, many of these things are unintentional, but some we must see are by design.  In the latest incarnation of My Little Pony, the leader of apparently everything and practically-a-goddess is Princess Celestia.  According to some interviews, the writers of the show originally intended her to be Queen Celestia, but Hasbro objected, saying that little girls see queens as evil, while Celestia is supposed to be benevolent.  And why wouldn’t we see queens as evil when that’s all we’re shown in childhood?  It’s a recursive cycle; they won’t give us good queens because we think queen = bad, and we think queen = bad because they won’t give us good queens.  I’d like to think that Frozen might begin to change that, but it’s far too soon to tell.

What about in media not aimed at children?  What about adult fiction?  Of course, things aimed at adults are much less likely to feature royalty in any positive light, but it happens.  Specifically, I want to look at Game of Thrones (mostly the TV show, because I’ve only read the first couple of books, and am not especially compelled to read the rest soon).  Now, I know it’s a huge stretch to think of any of these characters as “heroes”, but some of them are at least somewhat less villainous than the rest.  The main plot in the beginning of the series is the War of the Five Kings, fighting over who will sit the Iron Throne.  Along with that came many would-be queens.  Daenerys technically holds no title in Westeros, but is a Khaleesi of the Dothraki, a queen in all but name.  Margaery was briefly a queen if we consider Renly Baratheon to have been a king, and if you think he was, then Robb Stark certainly was also, and thus his younger sister Sansa would be a princess.  Say what you will about the three of them, but they all have more redeeming qualities than the only one to actually sit the Iron Throne thus far: Queen Cersei (do remember I’m talking mainly about the show, because there are some differences in the characters between the show and books).  Queen Cersei is almost unambiguously villainous, her only redeeming trait being her love for her children.  The general feeling in the fanbase is that any of the three princesses would be better rulers than the current queen, besides being better people.  If they even care for the queens at all, that is; much more attention is always given to the king.

It’s important to note that in general, the queen is only given to the concerns I’ve listed here when she rules alone; when there is a king, he is expected to keep her in check.  That’s problematic in and of itself, for reasons I shouldn’t have to make apparent.  In the original Alice in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts is of course deranged and sentences nearly everyone to death, but the King is more mild-mannered and puts up with his wife’s whims by simply pardoning all of those who offend her.  In the more recent Disney movies, the queens have been almost non-entities – if I recall, none of the queens in Frozen, Tangled, or Princess and the Frog spoke so much as a line.  Granted, except for in Frozen, the kings didn’t either.  But in Brave, we’re shown that Merida is inarguably much more like her father, a wild man, just as contemptuous of courtly life as Merida is herself.  All this in contrast to her mother, who is controlled and controlling, who wants Merida to be less herself (through Merida’s perspective, of course).

We are not being taught (and taught is indeed what it is; every story is a lesson, no exceptions) that authority in general is bad; we’re being taught that female authority is bad.  Our fictions show that men should be our calm, wise, benevolent leaders, while our women are nice young ladies who do not take part in matters of state.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I know it seems like I’m being nitpicky, like none of this really matters, but it does.  Our stories reflect our realities and life can only follow in the grooves set by centuries worth of stories.

6 comments for “Princesses vs. Queens: Goodness or Authority, Pick One

  1. Sara
    February 18, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Reading this really illustrated to me how spectacularly the Princess Diaries broke out of this (although, one might say it was meant for slightly older audiences).

    • February 19, 2014 at 1:57 pm

      Oh, I’d nearly forgotten about those books! I read them when I was younger and loved them. Wow, that’s a nostalgia wave. Yeah, Mia really did break a lot of these stereotypes in her storyline; I think it might have been easier to do so because it’s told in diary format. I think we ultimately get a more realistic look at the princess because everything we’re told is from her own point of view.

  2. May 16, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Very good points. 😉

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