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Nonfiction

The Princess is Dead, Long Live the Princess!

Princess. These days, it’s practically an epithet, but when the fairy tale was at its zenith, there was a clear correlation between hereditary rank and innate worth. Somehow, despite the shift in our values, there’s a certain segment of the population that is still held by the spell of the fairy tale princess. It’s not the fans of fairy tale retellings—who tend to subvert the princess—but little girls and their mothers, a demographic targeted by Disney. Between the two extremes, the princess occupies an uneasy territory between traditional values, progress, and reclamation. From word-of-mouth storytelling to printed texts to cinematic adaptations, the princess has been defined and redefined in remarkable ways.

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Out of Oral Tradition, Into The Salon

Although “Once upon a time” began as a way to avoid censure from the powers-that-be, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fairy tales, rather than being concretely linked to a specific time (or place, considering the “in a land far, far away” bit) became universal, allowing and encouraging writers from generation after generation to adapt the tales and make them their own. Originally, our stories were not divorced from time and place in this fashion: When we read the Greek myths, we see the markers of time and place which tell us that this story happened in Athens, Cythera, Mycenae, Crete; before, during, after the Trojan War. But when fairy tales were in their prime, circumstances bade otherwise.

Fairy tales enjoyed their heyday in seventeenth century France, during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Two thirds of their tellers were upper class women, writing about the things which were of primary concern to their peers: marriage, childbirth, and inheritance, as Terri Windling has said. The young heroines of the tales were substitutes for their authors, as were the heroines’ wise advisors: the fairy godmothers. In fact, it is the fairy godmother who has given her name to the fairy tale. These French stories were known as the contes des fées, the tales of the fairies, a phrase which can be interpreted as being about the fairies or by the fairies. Their authors were known as conteuses.

The original fairy godmothers were very like their authors: They were aristocratic, typically nobility among the fairies; they were cultured and educated, with much emphasis placed upon their wit; and, perhaps most important of all, they were neither omniscient nor omnipotent. As the authors of the fairy tales had to be cunning in order to accommodate the demands of the Sun King and the world of men, so too were their creations. For example, the first and greatest of the conteuses, Mary Catherine d’Aulnoy, married against her will to a man more than twice her age, schemed to remedy her circumstances by having him condemned for treason. When her plotting was discovered and she was banished, she reportedly acted as a spy for Louis XIV in England, whereby she won the right to return to Paris. There she established her salon and began writing her tales.

Her creations exercise similar guile: Merluche, the godmother to d’Aulnoy’s Cinderella-prototype character Finette Cendron, most seriously counsels her protégé to abandon her wretched sisters and let them starve preemptively lest they betray her. Finette, like a good fairy tale princess, declines. Finette needs no one to rescue her, but happily beheads ogres, triumphs over her sisters, and wins the heart of her prince with little more than good advice, good sense, and the loan of a fairy steed.

So how, then, did we move from Cinderellas who readily swung axes to Disney’s Cinderella, who needed to be rescued by singing vermin? (As Jane Yolen put it, “Poor Cinderella. Poor Us.”) She didn’t do it to herself. From the sixteenth century onward, the popularity of the fairy tale rose with the exponential growth of literacy. While the fairy tale had once depended upon individual storytellers to carry it hither and thither and alter it slowly, print culture took the fairy tale princess and bent her to its own needs.

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To The Mass Market To Buy Me a Tale

The literary fairy tale’s popularity in France brought it next to Germany, riding a wave of immigration fueled by French refugees. As the Brothers Grimm embarked upon a project of story collection in the interest of preserving their Teutonic heritage, they had no idea how much these new arrivals would change their project.

The Grimms set out to capture German folktales, but their process of collection was contaminated by secondary orality. Tales which had been published fifty years earlier in France were retold verbally by recent immigrants to their first-generation children and native German neighbors, sometimes introducing new stories into their lexicon, sometimes altering the details of old ones. And while the Grimms had imagined their work as a scholarly endeavor, annotated and footnoted and destined for the dusty stacks of libraries, upon the publication of the first edition of the Children’s and Household Tales in 1812, they found that the majority of their correspondence came from the burgeoning, newly prosperous, newly literate middle class.

They heard specifically from the mothers of young children who desired to inculcate their offspring into their rapidly fading heritage, who implored the Grimms to edit out the … less palatable … details of the old stories, which had most decidedly not been composed with children in mind. In the six editions that followed, the tales grew less and less subversive, and more and more conventional. So, too, the godmothers and the princesses inside the tales—the former growing ineffectual, the latter simply … passive.

In short order, the British, at the nexus of prosperity, imperialism, and European literature, proceeded to repeat the process, first publishing a translation of the Grimms’ tales in 1823 before proceeding to translate and normalize the fairy tales of various nations, molding them into the uniform “once upon a time” and “happily ever after” brackets that we still keep to today. The godmothers, and, indeed, all the fairies, were quite literally diminished from their ancient grandeur and dignified seventeenth-century French elegance into the minute, garden-dwelling, flower-bedecked, harmless, be-winged, and—there’s simply no other word for it!—twee figures with which we still associate the word today. And as for the princesses? Passivity became their middle name, an image enhanced by their passage into and representation by yet another medium which increased their visibility in the twentieth century: cinema, as envisioned by Walt Disney.

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Disney’s Perfectly Passive Princesses

Disney selected and adapted the tales with an eye toward reinforcing certain specific princess-y traits, and there’s no coincidence that the heroines of two of the first Disney movies, 1937’s Snow White and 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, spend much of their tales not just helpless, but unconscious. At a time when America, and, indeed, the majority of the first world grew more democratic and less concerned with the quality of one’s blood and the rank into which one might be born, the image of the princess became more and more desirable. This can be attributed, first, to the social mobility which made it possible for even those who were “common as mud” to aspire to the trappings of royalty. Second, we have the conflation of “princess” with both the concepts of “femininity” and “just reward”—consider Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, originally published as a novel in 1905 and adapted into a movie starring no less than Shirley Temple in 1939, just two short years after the release of Disney’s Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. Burnett’s story emphasizes the innate nobility which belongs to any little girl who is kind and generous … and the bounty which is sure to follow. And third, we have the gradual transition to a focus on the commercial and material aspects of princess-hood—the trappings!—which focus less on inheriting a kingdom, and more on wearing the proper attire (the phrase “princess dress” brings to mind a very specific image).

This last element can certainly be attributed in no small part to the Disney company’s ever-burgeoning marketing schemes. They began by developing and advertising books related to the movies, grew into designing and selling character-related accessories, and eventually found a way to sell entire personas taken from the films. Only consider the fact that Disney markets both baby accoutrements and princess-themed wedding gowns. Should a woman choose to subscribe to the hegemony of the fairy tale princess, Disney is ready to carry her through her entire life cycle.

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A Royal Renaissance

How to rebel, you might ask? Many contemporary authors are doing so by reclaiming the image of the princess and recasting her. Their predecessors, the Victorians, responded to the co-optation of the fairy tale form by writing original fairy stories, such as John Ruskin’s “King of the Golden River” and Charles Dickens’s “The Magic Fishbone.” This eventually led to the birth of the field of fantasy. Many of these writers’ efforts, such as William Morris’s early novels, would eventually be published under Lin Carter’s Sign of the Unicorn imprint, which brought about a resurgence of interest in the idea of fairy tales not for children.

Much of the credit for the contemporary re-conceptualization of princesses should be granted to Terri Windling. Windling almost single-handedly began the fairy tale renaissance during her tenure at Tor Books, masterminding the creation of the Fairy Tale series (publishing authors such as Tanith Lee, Greg Frost, Patricia McKillip, and Charles de Lint, to name only a few) and editing the Red as Blood, White as Snow collections with Ellen Datlow, among other projects. Stories edited by Windling tended to feature deliberate twists upon tired roles and unexpected role-reversals: tales in which Snow White was the villain and the stepmother the victim, where Beauty preferred the Beast to the prince, where Sleeping Beauty saved herself. Patricia C. Wrede and other authors like her presented princesses like Cimorene, of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, princesses who were practical, competent, and wholly fit to perform the most crucial actual function of royalty (so oft ignored): to prepare to rule. And today, writers are re-imagining not just the nature of the princess and the fairy tale, but the form in which she is presented. Authors like Catherynne M. Valente and Seanan McGuire are reenacting the salons of the seventeenth century conteuses on their blogs, telling stories not purely for financial gain, but also to amuse one another, expand shared universes, and, in the process, critique the world around them, their princesses, their emissaries (I highly recommend seeking out McGuire’s “Wicked Girls Saving Themselves” cycle).

Looking at these contemporary visions of the princess—the animated and highly marketed Disney princesses versus the princess heroines dreamed up by rising stars in the fantasy genre—reveals a dichotomy. In some ways, it appears the stereotyped image of the princess, passive and in need of rescuing, is quite dead; in others, the princess takes an inspiration from some of her most famous avatars, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, and seems magically resuscitated. The princess is dead: Long live the princess?

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Helen Pilinovsky

Helen PilinovskyHelen Pilinovsky writes on fairy tales, feminism, and the fantastic. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University, where her topic was the birth of the genre of fantasy in the 19th century. She has guest-edited issues of The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts and Extrapolation, and published on topics ranging from Victorian literature to contemporary speculative fiction and interstitiality. She is currently working on her second book.