Sunday 10 June 2012

A Real Princess

When I was a little girl, a princess was defined by her fragility.

Within the treasured, tattered collection of yellow-spined Ladybird fairytale books that lined the shelves in my bedroom, the princesses were all delicate-limbed, blushing, fine-browed beauties. In every tale their lineage was clearly established at the start: beloved child of the king and queen, possessing unparallelled beauty and all-round loveliness and tenderness. Doe eyes mandatory. Tiny waists, too. These were not girls who ran and jumped or asked questions or bickered. Time and again they waited patiently and in mortal peril to be rescued by a strong, brave challenger, who was coming to rescue them primarily because they were a. a princess and b. beautiful.

In case there was any risk of small girls missing the point, one of the stories -- The Princess and the Pea -- clarified that a true princess was so tender that she would feel a pea beneath twenty mattresses and be able to display her pedigree in the purple bruising brought by morning time. (Much to the prince's satisfaction.)

I loved those books. I pored over them for hours and traced the silken dresses and flowing locks with a finger, imagining how I would look in similar apparel. I didn't really clock the significance of the princesses' inaction. Eventually reading led me to more sophisticated tales, through Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis to Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters and A.S. Byatt and Margarets Drabble and Atwood, and a world of heroines and women writers that took me far, far away from Snow White and Rose Red and Rapunzel.

Unless I went to the cinema, where the myth of the real princess still reigned. As an eleven-year-old I shifted with boredom through some of the male-populated blockbusters -- yawning and scratching at the endless men of the Star Wars franchises and pausing during the frantic plots of Back to the Future and Indiana Jones to wonder where the girls like me were. Women in those films were still there just to be kissed and rescued. They might get to throw the odd punch to make the chase more exciting, but eventually according to the rules they'd be caught -- twice, once by the man and then by his enemy, thus setting up a daring rescue mission for the film's hero. They might get the odd sassy line -- but too many wisecracks and their character would be downgraded to the frumpy tom-boy. After these films the playgrounds at school would be full of boys shouting and pretending to shoot and stab and brawl, while the girls stood around in gangs. (I went to the library.) These days the game seems largely unchanged except that the boys now come home and live out their version of the action on computer games, shooting and stabbing online (male) opponents. (Grace makes for her books and drawing paper.)

In between time, 'princess' has become a derogatory word. Alongside the fluttering eyelashes and belling skirts of story heroines -- and their modern-day spin-off, those cringe-inducing Disney characters and costumes for little girls -- it now means a woman who is hard work. A woman who is spoiled, vain and self-centred.

Who would want to be a princess? I find myself wondering, and I keep them well away from my tiny girl, my flaxen-haired three-year-old baby Betty, whose sneakers are perpetually filthy and who can load her big brothers' Nerf guns (tongue sticking out, one eye shut as she sights the barrel) in seconds. (There is another post here on girls and guns, but that's one for next time.)

Then last week Grace and I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman. Grace started the film curled sideways in the seat beside me, head under my arm, her fingers laced in mine, as she anticipated alongside the excitement of seeing the film, some anxiety about loud noises and bloody fight scenes. As the film unravelled, so she also unfurled, gradually straightening, unlinking from me and sitting ramrod upright, her face lit by the glow from the screen, eyes and mouth open wide as though she would drink it in if she could. The princess in this film is indeed beautiful and good (tick, and tick) but she is also strong and bold and ferocious in armour, beneath fluttering pennant. In one scene, she gallops along in slow-motion, at the head of an army, her sword at the ready, determination for vengeance in her eyes.

At this point Grace turned to me and said breathlessly: "That's a real princess, Mummy! Not like those rubbish stories!"

And suddenly the penny dropped. All those boys fighting and playing and shouting and dreaming of battles and winning. What fun! Where were those films for us women when we were growing up? Where were the films where the heroine was a depiction of the character you'd like to be? Where were the films that held possibilities, dreams and ambitions for you? As I watched Grace and watched the film I felt goosebumps. To see her connect with a woman who inspired her in this way was electric. I never thought I'd say it but: thank God for this Snow White. (And, frankly, also for the film's Wicked Queen, whose assault on the Kingdom is the vengeance of a woman who has been told that beauty alone is what gives her her worth and thus plots revenge on the world that created her.)

I watched the credits roll and thought that perhaps it was ok to let my daughter play at being a princess again.

Be good, and be brave, and let it be your armour, I told her silently.

We emerged from the cinema to find that a storm had broken. Outside, the skies swirled with black clouds and rain teemed down. Grace and I looked at the huge, heavy drops and then at each other. We grinned. Then we opened the doors, and ran out, whooping.

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