In Defence of Princesses (Real Ones)
I remember the first time I saw Disney’s The Little Mermaid, at age 7 on VHS at home with my sisters. I cried at the end. Ariel had to leave her sisters and her father and that broke my heart. I knew she got to be with Prince Eric and that’s what the whole movie had been building to, but it seemed like an unhappy ending, choosing between her family and her love.
I liked Ariel as a character though. Aside from her amazing fringe, I liked how she knew what she wanted in life, declaring the dignity of her sixteen years, and arguing back about what she wanted. She was the first Disney princess I remembered who wasn’t sweet and passive. I liked Beauty and the Beast’s Belle for the same reason, how she saw through the vile Gaston, how she got into a shouting match with the Beast and won, how she took initiative to care and nurture and fight when she could have waited to be rescued.
There are problems with the narratives: the symbolism of Ariel giving up her voice in order to get a man; the question of whether Belle has Stockholm Syndrome, falling in love with her captor. But I had been waiting for princesses like these. They didn’t spend their time exulting in housework. They weren’t foolishly taking apples offered by complete strangers. They weren’t waiting passively for rescue; in fact, both are involved in the climactic battles at the end of their movies. And rather than being the one the hero leans over to kiss, in each film it is the woman who leans over the unconscious prince (Ariel on the beach after the shipwreck; Belle when the final rose petal falls). In my 7 and 9 year old mind, they were a vast improvement on the traditional princess gender role. I loved them.
I was meant to of course. Disney was well attuned to the contralto of the day and knew that empty-headed pretty faces didn’t cut it for the daughters of the 80s, no matter how kind and sweet. In recent years, Frozen has enchanted a generation of young girls, and it feels to me like the culmination of what I had wished for Ariel: here is a love story between sisters.
Fairytales that are different to the traditional norm teach us different things about the Christian gospel. The parallels are clear between Prince Philip slaying the dragon to protect and claim Sleeping Beauty, and the warrior Jesus defeating the dragon to claim his bride, though it must be remembered that warrior Jesus effects his victory by being nailed to a cross. Fairytales like these remind us that while we were still powerless – as passive as a sleeping princess – Christ died for us. They invite all of us, whether men or women, to identify with the princess. They point to the initiative and strength of the rescuer.
However, it’s not really the case that the biblical story reaches its culmination in the slaying of the dragon. Instead the fulfilment comes when we get a picture of the bride. She is depicted as a Holy City, this new heavens and new earth where there is no death or mourning or crying or pain (Rev 21:4). That is of the old order of things which has passed away. The picture is of peace, harmony, prosperity and unity. While it is clear that it is Christ who has brought about such an amazing future, is equally clear is that this is the future for the people of God. This is our destiny, and what is to shape us.
That identity crystallises further when we understand that the great battle has already been fought — on the cross. It has already been won — in the resurrection. We are already claimed — by the seal of the Holy Spirit. Our task now is to learn to live as citizens of this new kingdom. Any wonder Jesus declared, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God” (Matt 5:9). Traditional fairytales might remind us of what has been done on our behalf, but they do a pretty poor job of helping us to think about how the coming kingdom of peace and prosperity, already assured and beginning to emerge, might shape us now.
This is where the new fairytales can be of great help to us. The biblical story is not only a story of a helpless people and broken world in need of rescue. It is also of a people created to bring order out of chaos together, to be co-workers with God in tending the garden kingdom. The language of Genesis 1 is of humans, male and female, ruling as God’s vice-regents. You might even say princes and princesses! They are not merely decorative: they have a job to do, to “fill the earth and subdue it.” If we are tempted to think that one of them can go it alone, Genesis 2 rebukes us. The man is poised on the precipice of failure on his own, until God brings him one like him whose strength he needs. The word ezer (helper) is also used of God’s military intervention on behalf of Israel (Exodus 18:4, Deut 33:29). Warrior Deborah and Jael live out this truth; so too do the rebellious midwives of Exodus 1, Shiphrah and Puah, and saviour queen Esther. It’s this same strength that empowers the pregnant Mary to carry her child, and to testify that the Lord raises up the humble (Luke 1:52).
Stories where the princess is active in bringing about change remind us of the role God has for women to play in his kingdom. Ariel’s refusal to accept the status quo brings mutual respect between merpeople and humans. Belle’s willingness to stand up to the Beast precipitates a course of events which see him become more human, not less. This is crucial: women’s strength is not a threat to masculinity. In fact, it makes all of us more human, and more able to carry out the task God has given us in the world. As we learn to wield this power and marry it with our emotionality like Frozen’s Elsa, we become better custodians of God’s world.
We must tell these stories – and other stories of women in non-traditional roles – because they shine a light on who we are as women and men who are a claimed bride, to live into the new creation reality. We are not people of a traditional status quo. We are partners with the One who is making all things new, even fairytales.
Tamie hails from Adelaide and lives in Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES).