A princess never lays her weapons on the table. A princess never raises her voice. A princess strives for perfection. A princess, in other words, is a royal bore.
At least that’s how it seems to Merida, the red-haired, bow-and-arrow-wielding teenager at the center of the new Pixar movie “Brave” upon hearing her mother’s precepts for ladylike behavior. Merida would prefer to live a more adventuresome life than the tightly scripted one into which she’s been born as the daughter of an ancient Scottish king, an inconvenient yearning that sparks a nasty quarrel with her mother and a crisis in the kingdom.
The animation studio’s first female protagonist after 12 features centered on male heroes, Merida is one of a growing band of pop culture princesses whose defiance, athleticism and pluck would shock their pie-baking, floor-scrubbing, dulcet-voiced Disney ancestresses.
Driven by cultural changes and marketplace forces, these new screen princesses mix equal parts fantasy and female empowerment. In the dark, PG-13 action film “Snow White and the Huntsman,” Kristen Stewart plays the classic fairy tale heroine as a Joan of Arc-like figure who commands a ragtag army in a suit of armor and with grimy fingernails; in “Mirror Mirror,” a more whimsical Snow White adaptation also in theaters this spring, Lily Collins trades her skirts for a pair of poufy pantaloons and learns to swashbuckle from the seven dwarfs.
Small-screen princesses have evolved too. Ginnifer Goodwin’s Snow White on ABC’s family-friendly “Once Upon a Time” is a self-reliant elementary schoolteacher, while on HBO’s emphatically adult “Game of Thrones,” princess Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is the leader of a race of nomadic warriors who hatches baby dragons, walks through fire and eats the heart of a stallion.
At a time when male characters outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films, according to the Los Angeles-based Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the emergence of these warrior princesses has been cause for celebration for some. But princesses carry cultural baggage too, and many modern audiences primarily associate them with the pink ghetto of the toy aisle.
“I’m pleased to see more females on-screen and more strong protagonists,” said Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” a book about the pervasiveness of princess culture. “But I feel very mixed about it. There was a time when a princess was the only fantasy you could have as a female, the only way of getting out and getting power. But that was in the year 1100. You’d like to think there’s another option in today’s world.”
The idea of princesses has been so contorted over time, “Snow White and the Huntsman’s” Stewart confessed in an interview. “Besides Kate Middleton, I don’t even know what a princess is.”
A few centuries past their peak political relevance, princesses remain a remarkably enduring attraction — about 300 million people tuned in around the world last year to watch Catherine Middleton marry Prince William in London’s Westminster Abbey.
‘Fairy tale aspect’
For “Brave” producer Katherine Sarafian, who followed the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s nuptials while mothering a newborn and supervising a film crew of hundreds, the appeal of princesses lies in their very elusiveness.
“I’m fascinated by the ritual, routine, the pomp and circumstance, the age of it all,” Sarafian said. “People are born into some seat of power that they didn’t really earn. It’s birthright. It’s so, so ancient. And so not relatable. Maybe that’s why I like it. The fairy tale aspect. This has nothing to do with me. This is not at all like my life in Oakland. But it’s like soap operas and melodrama. I can’t look away.”
“Brave’s” filmmakers, led by directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, sought to create a character who was more grounded, however. Chapman wrote the story, which was inspired by her relationship with her own spirited daughter, and additional screenplay credits go to Andrews, Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi. Eighteen months before the film’s release, Pixar replaced Chapman at the helm with Andrews, due to “creative differences,” according to the studio’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter.
Despite the directorial handoff, one creative decision that remained constant was Merida’s strength. Rather than waiting to be kissed, she is waiting to run a kingdom, in a manner that will combine the diplomacy of her mother, Queen Elinor, with the boldness of her father, King Fergus. Merida’s gender, Sarafian said, was not at the forefront of the filmmakers’ minds.
“It wasn’t ‘How do we make this girl appealing?’” she said. “It was ‘How do we make this teenager appealing?’ We tried to treat her as a relatable teenager with a rebellious streak, but because she’s adventurous and athletic and outdoorsy, her gender is not the most important thing about her. That’s the goal, and I hope all genders and ages embrace it and find something in there.”
In an era of female fantasy blockbusters such as Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games,” princesses provide an appealing metaphor for power for filmmakers.
“A princess adds stakes to the story,” said Evan Daugherty, who wrote “Snow White and the Huntsman” from his dorm room at New York University. “It becomes more than just about any girl off the street and about leadership. Maybe being a princess isn’t so great after all. Let’s dig into the idea of what it really means to be a princess. There are real rights, responsibilities and challenges that go on with leading. It’s not just wearing fancy dresses and going to parties.”
Daugherty broadened Snow White by expanding the role of the huntsman, a minor character in the fairy tale who is played in the film by the meaty hero from “Thor,” Chris Hemsworth. “It has a female protagonist, so there’s a bit of an idea that it’s meant more for women than for men,” Daugherty said. “Was there a way to muscularize this fairy tale?”
One of the curious hallmarks of recent princess movies — including Disney’s $200-million-grossing 2010 Rapunzel update, “Tangled” — is that studios do their best to market them as something else in the belief that they will alienate boys. While the stories are modernizing, the sales pitches for the movies often hew more closely to conventional gender lines.
In the case of “Brave,” some ads have emphasized bawdy humor, like a Scottish lord who shows his backside and a bit of physical comedy involving a woman’s cleavage. “Snow White and the Huntsman” spots favored action involving gathering armies and exotic creatures.
“Having ‘Snow White’ in the title gets people’s attention, but then they have to determine whether they want to see it,” said Joe Roth, who is a kind of fairy godfather of the genre, having produced “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Alice in Wonderland.” “It’s probably off-putting to a 14-year-old boy, and you have to earn your way back in.”
In the case of “Snow White and the Huntsman,” the action appeal seems to have worked — the film has grossed $123 million at the domestic box office, and its opening weekend audience included a broad demographic range estimated at 53% female and 52% over age 30.
Future film projects signal a continuing evolution of the princess archetype. An action-driven sequel to “Snow White and the Huntsman” is in the works; Reese Witherspoon’s production company is adapting the forthcoming children’s series “Pennyroyal’s Princess Boot Camp,” about a school that trains warrior princesses; and Disney began shooting “Maleficent” this month in England, a reworking of the Sleeping Beauty tale from the point of view of the evil queen sorceress (Angelina Jolie).
Once upon a time, no one worried whether princess movies would appeal to males: The 1937 “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which has been re-released in theaters several times, is the 10th highest-grossing movie of all time after adjusting for inflation, putting it above crowd-pleasers such as “Avatar” and “Return of the Jedi.”
But in the last decade, princesses have narrowed in their appeal, thanks in part to a merchandizing bonanza. In 2000, Disney’s consumer products division grouped Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel and its other princesses under one brand, Disney Princess, which generates some $4 billion annually in sales of toys, clothes and such products as the “Tangled” vanity play set complete with mirror and three tiaras.
Disney Princess created a long-term problem for a company built upon fairy tales, driving nearly everyone but tutu-clad little girls to either disdain or ignore princesses.
“Disney has been very successful at helping young girls to identify with its princesses,” said Karen Wohlwend, an assistant professor in literacy, culture and language education at Indiana University, Bloomington. “Now, what do you do if you want other people to identify with them? To so strongly mark something has a double edge to it.”
The new $16.50 Merida doll associated with “Brave” is a dramatic break from the mold, however. She’s not wearing a pink ball gown or a tiara, but a teal “adventure dress,” complete with archery glove and bow and arrow. Other toys associated with the film include a plastic sword with “dueling sound effects” and a plush stuffed bear.
– Rebecca Keegan
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