I’ve been doing some digging into children’s literature for some princess stories that
don’t make me want to barf show girls being brave, strong, active agents* in their worlds. I am happy to report I have found some gems; here are my reviews of them, in no particular order.
*Points for knowing the number of times I use the phrase “active agent.” Hint: A-freaking lot. Active agent.
Cindy Ellen: A Wild Western Cinderella, by Susan Lowell
Summary: A re-telling of the classic Cinderella story with a wild west theme and some rootin’ tootin’ language. (Note: That is not a euphemism for swearing.)
What I like: Firstly, I LOVE the language! I’m a sucker for a colorful turn of phrase. (The stepsisters are described as “puffed up like two turkey gobblers” who can’t “ride a rail fence in a stiff breeze.”) Secondly, the story is about what Cindy Ellen is capable of, not what she looks like. Cindy Ellen is a “pretty good cowgirl” who “wrangled and roped and galloped and loped with the best buckaroos on the range.” She even beats the prince in a horse race. And, the fairy godmother reminds her that “pretty is as pretty does.” Thirdly, the fairy godmother encourages–nay commands!–Cindy Ellen to be a strong, active agent in her world. She tells her to stand up straight, dust herself off and have some gumption. “What you need first, gal, is some gravel in your gizzard! Grit! Guts! Stop that tomfool blubbering and let’s get busy.” Hell yeah.
What I feel conflicted about: Your basic Cinderella story bullshit where getting the dude drives the plot. And maybe the fairy godmother’s pistols as magic wand. I mean, it’s fitting and all, but I’m pro-gun control!
The Princess Knight, by Cornelia Funke
Summary: Violetta is a princess born into a family of brothers and has no mother. Against all convention, the king chooses to raise her to be a knight like her brothers–that is, until she is of marriageable age. Then, her father wants to give her away to whomever proves their strength, skills, and bravery. Guess which knight wins all of the contests? Spoiler alert! It’s Violetta!
What I like: That Violetta has gumption! Although she worries that she’ll never be as strong as her brothers, when encouraged to quit learning how to fight/be a knight and to do something useful like embroidery or playing the flute, she becomes more determined than ever to succeed at it. She stands up to her father (the literal patriarchy here) on the marriage issue, winning her own hand by her own hand, and making her own choices despite his disapproval. Also, I like the message that hard work pays off.
What I feel conflicted about: There’s a bit at the end about her getting married, which is fine, in that she gets to make her own choice, but I felt it was a little superfluous to the story.
Princess Pigsty, by Cornelia Funke
Summary: Princess Isabella, one of three sisters, isn’t happy being a princess. In fact, she finds it boring because she doesn’t get to *do* anything. So she rejects her princesshood and throws her crown into the moat. Her father, the king, gets mad and orders her to fetch her crown. She refuses and he punishes her by making her do various beneath-her-status labors, which totally backfires because she loves the work. In the end, he realizes how much he misses her and how happy she is *doing* things and learning things and pursuing her interests. He gets excited for her and supports her in being who she is, instead of forcing her to be a stereotypical princess.
What I like: That Isabella is an active agent in her world–and moreover fights to be so. I also like that her father realizes his mistake and is the one to make amends–plus, he lets go of his own biases and wants to empower his daughter.
What I feel conflicted about: Nothing.
Princess Grace, by Mary Hoffman
Summary: Grace is a girl who is enamored of typical princess culture. But when a school event requires her to examine what a princess really is/looks like, she realizes that mainstream princesses are actually ill-defined and less interesting than she thought. Her class winds up learning about princesses from many cultures and Grace finds there is more than one way to embody princess.
What I like: The message of the book and the diversity of the characters. And that the characters learn to think critically about what media messages they are receiving. Grace asks, “‘What does a princess do, Nana?’ ‘You tell me, darling,’ said Nana. But nobody could, except for wearing beautiful clothes and looking pretty. ‘That doesn’t sound so interesting,’ said Grace.” Also, the boys in her class want to participate in the royal pretending as well.
What I feel conflicted about: Nothing.
A Brave Little Princess, by Beatrice Masini
Summary: Diminutive (plot point) princess Leonora is told by everyone that she is too small to do anything–including be a princess. This makes her feel sad, but she is encouraged by her grandmother, who tells her about her diminutive grandfather, who did brave things and earned everyone’s respect. So Leonora decides to go on a quest to do Something Brave, all by herself. She engages in various feats of bravery and, incidentally, for each act of bravery, her size works in her favor.
What I like: The point that, whether you know it or not, you have exactly what you need to do great things. And that Leonora is brave, but not unafraid–with my daughter, we talk about how bravery isn’t about not being scared. It’s about doing what you need to do despite your fears.
What I feel conflicted about: It’s not so much what I felt conflicted about as what my sensitive four year old felt conflicted about–she found some of the quest tasks a little scary, so we had to skip a few.
Princesses on the Run, by Smiljana Coh
Summary: Princess Antonia is bored as crap being a princess and is also somewhat lonely. She has a lot of material possessions, but she doesn’t find fulfillment in them or the princess lifestyle. Restless, she decides to run away; as she is making her way through the forest, she finds that her friends–the usual cast of fairy tale princesses (Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty)–are game for running away too. So they all leave their expected roles behind and run until they reach the sea. There, Antonia has a watershed moment (no pun intended) that maybe things could be different; they all return, and lo, things are different. Antonia is no longer bored and has found her community–and they all make enlightened changes as well (e.g., Rapunzel cuts her hair into a manageable bob).
What I like: Empowered girls who flee their stereotypical, externally enforced roles and make things better for themselves. They feel much happier and more alive and appreciative of what they have.
What I feel conflicted about: I would have liked to see a bit more development of the characters’ reasons for leaving as well as their new lives; the latter in particular was pretty superficial.
Not All Princesses Dress in Pink, by Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple
Summary: Not all princess exclusively wear pink frilly dresses–in fact, they wear sports uniforms and dirty clothes, among other things. They also roll around in the mud, fix things, spill food on themselves, grub in the garden, ride bikes, play knights, and dance. All whilst wearing sparkly crowns.
What I like: Brave, strong girls who are doing hard work, competing against boys, running and jumping and playing, and active agents in their worlds. Super awesome great.
What I feel conflicted about: Girls should be eschewing femininity (because–subtext: it’s lame-o). While all of the things that these princesses do are awesome and I’m super for promoting the idea that anyone is capable of and has full rights to do any task, I still feel conflicted about the idea that it’s better to do activities that are typically “masculine” while looking masculine while doing them (save the aforementioned sparkly crown). Why does femininity (though I’m not talking about sexuality here) have to be construed as a negative thing? Why is “gender neutral” actually more masculine than feminine? I don’t believe that either gender should be limited or pigeon-holed, but I want femininity to be given truly equal status.