I have a confession to make: I’m a trained film scholar. That sounds more dangerous that it is, though for a while it threatened to kill my enjoyment of movies. This blog was conceived as to keep those critical, scholarly muscles toned while I pursue a career elsewhere.
Last year I flexed those muscles preparing and presenting a paper on film versions of Snow White. As an academic, my training and most of my work has centered around Latin American film and video, particularly feminist work and images of Jews. But now that I am not affiliated with an academic institution and have no pressure to build a curriculum vitae, I write about what I think about. And, as a mom, I think a lot about princesses. (As a scientific experiment, I’ve posted my conference paper here. I have little intention of pursuing publication, but welcome all comments.)
I’ve decided to kick off 2014 with a periodic series of reviews and rumination about princess movies, both animated and live action.
Earlier this fall I watched the Disney Channel original move Princess Protection Program (2009) with Culture Sprout. She loves princesses and she thinks Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato are heavenly, so what better way to pass an easy 88 minutes with my kiddo? I expected this Disney star vehicle to be a fluffy, silly movie that I’d probably keep half an eye on. I won’t say I was riveted, but I will admit to being happily surprised at the film’s portrayal of teenage life and its deviation from the standard Disney princess format.
Princess Rosalinda Montoya (Demi Lovato) is rehearsing her coronation when her fictional country, Costa Luna (a sort of Latin American-Italian influenced place, in a Gomez Addams kind of way), is invaded by a despot from the island next door. She is rescued by the super-secret Princess Protection Program, an international agency that helps princesses imperiled by coups, crushes, and who knows what. Her rescuer, Joe Mason, takes her to safety at his home in the bayou in Louisiana. He means to pass her off as his niece with the help of his daughter Carter (Selena Gomez).
Like most fairytales, this one is set in motion by the death of a parent, the king, and the arrival of a villain who wants to usurp power. The princess is doomed, if not cursed, to abandon her country in order to save her own life. She must rely on the kindness of strangers in a strange land. From here, the film actually exposes many tropes of fairy tales and pokes fun at our cultural obsession with royalty. You see, Rosie is ill-suited for a life without servants. She quickly learns that Carter will not help her get ready for bed, that she has to share a bedroom, and that not everyone sleeps in pink silk nightgowns. She must discover what it is like to live as a real person in a real world, including a high school full of nerds, jocks, and mean girls.
But there is another princess in this movie. The kind of princess Culture Sprout can relate to–an only daughter of a devoted father. She also has to learn to share, and to trust. Together Rosie and Carter have to face down the mean girls at high school, particularly Chelsea (Jamie Chung) whose sole preoccupation is with getting voted prom queen. Chelsea wants so badly to be prom queen that she’ll lie, cheat, and back stab her best friend. To beat her at her own game, Carter and Rosie enlist the help of all the wallflowers and the nerds. Shades of The Princess Diaries (Gary Marshall, 2001), to be sure, but not star-studded in the same way (you really can’t beat Julie Andrews as the Dowager Queen, unless you can get Maggie Smith.)
In the end the real princess teaches Carter that each girl has a princess within. That being a princess is not about gowns and jewels, but about being kind, caring, and thoughtful, and about taking care of the people who depend on you. The girls demonstrate pluck and courage, bringing down not just Chelsea (I’ll admit I cheered at her comeuppance) but also the general who invaded Costa Luna. In the process, they elevate the wallflowers and delight the nerds. The high school social order renovated and Rosie is successfully crowned queen of Costa Luna. (This is not a spoiler–it’s a Disney movie. It has to end this way.)
Of course, it was Disney-clean. These teens don’t smoke, drink, make out, or generally do anything more real than send text messages. But, just as there are stock good girl characters there are also stock mean girl characters. The movie is tailor-made for opening a discussion of the right and wrong way to treat people. And, while Disney princess movies (especially the older ones) generally annoy me, particularly when I enjoy them, this film tickled me. I’m not really sure why–maybe just because the feminist in me didn’t feel guilty about enjoying the film! Or maybe because if I had to define its genre, I couldn’t call it a fairytale. There is no magic, no curse, and no prince or fairy godmother to save the day. Rather, it combines the elements that make the best and most fun coming of age movies rise to the top–character growth, ingenuity, and pluck. While this isn’t quite Clueless, it also isn’t Little Mermaid (which I watched with Culture Sprout last week). Princess Rosalinda only lives happily ever after because she recognizes Carter as a friend, trusts her, and earns her respect. Together the girls prove that girls can do just about anything, or at least solve their own problems, big and small.