A companion piece to The Midnight Myth episode 2: Princess Theory. Written by Laurel Hostak.
Princess is a complicated word for me. I was raised on the Disney animated classics, and I love them. I looked up to Belle and Ariel and Jasmine. It was very important to me to see these beautiful, charming women who were more than just their looks. Belle is smart, she reads. Ariel is curious, she seeks out adventure and questions authority. Jasmine is restless, she longs for autonomy. But at the end of the day, these were love stories. They were about scoring the handsome prince (or peasant) who might give her what she's missing. I think of Shakespeare's comedic cross-dressing heroines--Viola of Twelfth Night, Rosalind of As You Like It. Those girls ride off into the sunset with a handsome hubby too. But does anybody really think the self-involved men of those stories are going to keep such headstrong, resourceful women satisfied? Are they going to settle down and be good little wives?
Looking back, with all the Bechdel-test-failing, romance-obsessed, two-dimensionality of those Disney princesses, it's important to remember that they're actually an improvement on some of the earlier ladies. I'm looking at Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. I'm not trying to shit on any of these movies, they're from a different time and they were absolutely revolutionary in terms of their technical and visual achievements. Creating realistic and fully dimensional characters wasn't necessarily priority numero uno for the company pioneering cel animation in feature films. Hats are, and will always be, off to you, extremely talented artists and technicians. But it's been a long road to gender equity in storytelling, and there's still so much work to be done.
Obviously, Disney didn't invent princesses. But the word "princess" and Disney are inextricably linked in modern culture--it's hard to think of one without thinking of the other. And the thought takes you to familiar images. Ball gowns. Tiaras. Sparkles. Bows. Ponies. Pink. They are the ultimate study in femininity. They are, for too many young girls, the definition of female.
This is why Princess Leia is important to me. I first saw Star Wars when I was maybe seven or eight. She's the first face we see, and she's on a reconnaissance mission, wielding a blaster on a ship full of armored imperial dudes. She wears a modest white dress, a symbol of her purity. She talks back to the big guy. Leia's utmost allegiance is to the rebellion. She is here to shut you down. She is here to blow up the patriarchy. She happens to be a princess.
I don't think it's a mistake that the details of Leia's royalty are pretty scant. It doesn't really come up too much over the course of the films. She is Princess Leia and that's that. We do see her consistently assume responsibility in any situation. She shows extraordinary leadership, from her "don't just stand there, find something to brace it with" moment in the trash compactor to the Battle of Hoth, where the rebel general defers to her authority. She is the most important person in any room. But is that because of the title? I don't think so. I think Leia would be who she is with or without the hypothetical crown. The title isn't for her--it's for me.
After Carrie Fisher's death, Twitter user @anne_theriault posted a stream of tweets explaining her belief that "General Organa was Carrie Fisher's Most Important Role." It's a beautiful tribute, and I don't disagree. Anne writes "She's not young. Not wearing a gold bikini or a robe. She's dressed to do what she's been training her whole life to do: lead the rebellion." If you want to hear me pick apart the objectification of women in the Star Wars universe, I can do that. I could discuss the slave bikini until the sun blows up. And I could go on for days about poor George Lucas decisions. But I'd argue that calling her Princess Leia was a good one, and that title means something really powerful to me.
I've read a lot of Czech fairy tales and legends in exploring my national heritage, and it strikes me how many of them center around princesses. And these are not just king's daughters who pine for true love and go to royal balls. These are girls who rule countries, unite warring tribes, and outwit the devil himself. Studying these stories has made me realize that the word Princess means different things to different cultures.
The simplest definition: the daughter of a king and queen
The American definition: the beautiful daughter of a king and queen, who embodies quiet femininity and probably requires the love of a prince to reach her full potential; also a derogatory term for an effeminate male or a spoiled young woman
The Czech definition: the daughter of a king and queen, who has serious power
There's a petition circulating these days (I first saw it on Nerdist) to make Princess Leia an official Disney princess. At first I was kind of tickled but not particularly interested in signing it. It kind of reminded me of posthumous canonization. A symbolic gesture, but would it mean anything to me? Probably not. Yet as I write this, I find myself wanting to seek out that petition and add my name. To see my blaster-wielding, force-sensitive, leader-of-the-resistance, haver of the tumultuous, epic love affair with Han Solo (because sometimes women really can have it all!) heroine alongside an ever-growing, ever-diversifying cast of fierce females would be significant. It would help to expand the definition of princess.
Create your amazing female character. Give her a blaster. Or let her wear pants. AND a dress. Let her sparkle if she wants or command rebel armies if she wants. She can even do both and it's not a contradiction (Princess Bubblegum, anyone?)! Figure out who she is and THEN call her a princess. That's how we rewrite--or maybe even destroy the template. Blow it up like the Death Star. That's how we change the definition. That's how Princess Leia did it.