Are Girls Princesses or Honorary Boys?

First, a couple disclaimers:

One, I have not seen Brave or any of the new Snow White features as of the time of this writing. I intend to see Brave this weekend, but we’ll have to see what this weekend brings.

Two, as a future parent, I’m not disturbed by the Disney Princesses as they appear in film. They all represent a young woman who is trying to figure out who she is based on who she wants to be OR she is raised not knowing she’s a princess at all. What I am disturbed about is the marketing of the Princesses that seems to communicate the glamour of being a princess, overlooking the journey to princess that these characters take.

So, in light of the release of Brave and the popularity of The Hunger Games, there has been a bunch of discussion going around about female heroes again. This is a particularly troublesome character. In order to follow the hero’s journey, as we know it from Joseph Campbell, she has to do particularly un-feminine things, such as shoot arrows and take no interest in dresses or boys. But in so doing, she is essentially being an “honorary boy,” as Roger Ebert described Merida of Brave. While this is all well and good, it still places these female heroes on a fundamentally male path, and communicates to girls that they have to be “honorary boys” if they want to succeed in their quest. Even the recent incarnations of Snow White show her becoming a Joan of Arc-type of militant vigilante against the evil queen. Again, becoming an “honorary boy.” In this category, Katniss from The Hunger Games stands out because she is not trying to exert any kind of independence, per se. She feels the call to duty upon her father’s death to become the breadwinner for the family. She chooses to become a hunter because she’s not yet old enough to work, and the decisions she makes throughout her adventure are in the name of protecting her family as best as she can. I’ll get back to this point in a moment.

But the contrast to this “honorary boy” character is the princess model. As I mentioned above, the Disney princesses as they are portrayed in the films are not what’s problematic about them. Sure, they seem to come across complacent and passive, but to stop the analysis here misses the point of many of these princesses. There are three types of these princesses:

  1. There are those who know they are princesses, and seek to find their own course in life. These are characters such as Ariel, Pocahontas, and Mulan.
  2. There are those who are princesses, but don’t know it because something happened to their parents when they were children and they were raised in a different life. These princesses have an unspoken quest to reclaim their princesshood. Examples include Snow White, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), and Rapunzel.
  3. And there are those who are not princesses at all, but catch the eye of the prince. By staying true to their own personalities, they are elevated to the level of princesshood. There are several examples in this category, including Cinderella, Tiana, and Belle.

Each princess is asked in the course of her journey to sacrifice something she holds dear in order to complete her quest. This something is ultimately returned at the end of the story. This sacrifice is necessary. Without it, the princess remains tied to the life she knows and loves, like a security blanket. She’s told that she cannot move forward without this sacrifice. In the male hero journey, there’s a sacrifice of home in order to go on a quest. But in the female version of the story, the journey itself is not a necessary component of her mission. It’s the willingness to sacrifice something that starts her quest. If she is launched on a literal journey, she must fulfill her mission without this one item that she identifies with, thus forcing her to dig deep into herself and bring up a part that would likely have remained hidden forever otherwise.

So why does Katniss stand out? Katniss breaks the mold of the girl hero trope. She’s motivated only by her role as protector and breadwinner. She is otherwise a completely ambiguous character. She is neither princess, nor “honorary boy.” She just is. And because the trilogy is told in the first person, we are given a glimpse into her struggle between how she perceives herself and how everyone else expects her to behave. And (small spoiler here) as she caters more and more to the social norm, the less and less grip she has on herself. (end spoiler) See my previous post for further comments about Katniss.

I know a couple of people who are taking on the challenge of identifying just what the female hero’s journey is, because it’s clearly not the same one as the male hero journey. Campbell’s model can still apply, but it gets tricky when you apply this model to a female hero who is not an “honorary boy.” As an example, while one could analyze the journey of Eliza Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice using Campbell’s model, it does feel forced, as though we are trying to fit the puzzle piece into the wrong spot. I’ve long suspected that the female hero’s journey is one of rooting as opposed to one of questing for a boon. Establishing a home. When she’s younger, no girl is thinking along these lines. She is thinking about how quickly she can leave home and become her own woman. Somewhere along the way, however, building her own home becomes important. Perhaps it’s a portable home, or maybe it’s a permanent home. Perhaps it involves are partner and/or children, or perhaps not. Those are secondary elements to the feeling of “planting roots.” Looking through many of the female heroes who have over time influenced our conceptions of women, rooting is the end goal. But finding those heroes in a world filled with “honorary boys” is a challenge.