Take a look at the ‘girl’ section of any toy store and it is impossible not to notice the myriad of toys, accessories, costumes, and paraphernalia geared towards young girls that carry a princess theme. ‘Princess’ is a term very commonly used as a pet name for girls by their parents and strangers alike. I recently discussed the live-action movie that came out earlier this year based on the story of Cinderella, released by Disney. Disney, in fact, has always focused special attention on stories of princesses, but in recent years this focus has become more narrow and explicit. A large component of merchandizing and product has been the princess line and discussions as to which one of the female Disney created (or borrowed) characters qualify for the title. Toys, makeup, jewelry, cartoons, spinoffs, songs, all centered on the princess theme. Whatever the original intentions of the show, Once Upon a Time (a Disney produced television series I’ve never watched but know people who do) has become mostly another medium the company uses to further the influence of its stories about girls who fit the princess mold, capitalizing further on this image and aspiration.
Disney, however, is not the only culprit of the princess goal, it’s just its most explicit megaphone. From the stories that inspired most of the Disney films, to classics like Roman Holiday, to more recent incarnations of the same old stories, princesses dominate our culture. There is nothing close to a royal family in the United States (we made sure of that with the American Revolution), yet there is still a strong fascination with real like princesses, showcased especially with the quantity of media attention paid to Princess Kate, her wedding, her pregnancies, her style, etc. As a society we are fascinated with an institution that is a walking anachronism, devoid of much actual meaning, a living museum of a societal structure abandoned long ago. And yet… We still are telling young girls that this is the ultimate goal for a woman. A few years ago The Bachelor had girls vying for an Italian prince (in name only), and just last year there was that debacle of I Want to Marry Harry, with an impostor playing the second Windsor brother, who at this point has become 5th in line for the British throne.
But is there something that all those Anne Hathaway and Julia Stiles movies are not telling us about what happens after the happily ever after wedding? Of course. Life in the castle or palace isn’t always perfect. And that prince? Not always charming. His family? Sometimes worse than those evil stepsisters that mostly just taunted and provided some light bullying. Last year two movies about two of the most high profile twentieth century princesses came out. One had a very quiet theatrical run, the other, after months of development hell, eventually was shown on television, forgoing movie theaters altogether. The films have a lot in common. Both films are directed by European filmmakers (with nearly identical first names) with a very successful film that won them praise and awards. Also the two stars of their respective movies are real life best friends, both respected and talented Aussie actresses. Both movies are very imperfect and could, should, have been better, and yet they both remind us that being a princess is not all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, sometimes, being a princess is quite the opposite of the promised happy ending little girls are constantly told should be their life’s goal.
GRACE OF MONACO
Director: Olivier Dahan
Writer: Arash Amel
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Tim Roth, Frank Langella, Parker Posey, Milo Ventimiglia, Derek Jacobi, Paz Vega.
Grace Kelly was America’s sweetheart. A talented Oscar winning actress who even appeared in three of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films. Then she met Prince Rainier III, the reigning monarch of the European microstate of Monaco, and she fell in love. The couple married, Kelly retired from acting, and they settled in the principality and by 1962, the year this film focuses on, they had two of the three children they would eventually issue (the fancy term for having kids that royalty uses). Nicole Kidman plays Kelly. Kidman is a fine actress, but her casting is a bit bizarre given that she is about 20 years older than the princess should be. I will not, though, complain about this too much, given that routinely young actresses are given parts that they are way too young for (Jennifer Lawrence ::cough cough::). The overstuffed film sometimes is clunky and has a bizarre pacing, not sure what to do with the talent assembled. All one must do is take a quick look at the cast list and see that there are just too many well known actors stomping around the palace, most without much to do other than the occasional head nod and curtsy. Most of the film’s drama is focused on Monaco’s precarious relationship with France and then president Charles de Gaulle, along with Grace’s unhappiness related to the estrangement she feels growing between herself and her husband, but also the population of the country she is at the head of. Hitchcock’s offer for her to return to acting in his latest film only adds to the tensions that exist between the princess and all those around her, with the exception of a friendly priest played by Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon). Eventually Grace must sacrifice her pride, her acting, her American-ness for the sake of her marriage and her country. And they lived happily ever after.
Director: Oliver Hirschbiegel
Writer: Stephen Jeffreys
Cast: Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews, Juliet Stevenson.
Much less star studded is the film depicting the last two years of Princess Diana’s life. The film begins after Diana (Naomi Watts) and Charles’ separation and with the woman already living in her own home (if you can call Kensington Palace that). Most of the movie focuses on Diana’s relationship with Dr. Hasnat Khan (played by Lost‘s Naveen Andrews), a Pakistani heart surgeon the princess meets during a visit to a hospital. After the memorable BBC interview during which Diana discussed her bulimia, her self-harm, the affairs she and Charles had while still married, she was finally granted a divorce. After the official end of her marriage Diana began to work on humanitarian causes and tried to use her celebrity to draw attention to the many issues that plagued the kingdom and the world. The film touches on her work with landmines in Angola, but it’s mostly glossed over. Her work and help with the HIV/AIDS crisis, homelessness, leprosy, homelessness, cancer, addiction, and mental illness are never even mentioned. It’s a shame that the film focuses so much of its attention on Diana’s romantic relationship and on her need to feel loved and her craving of companionship. Ultimately the film does the same thing that the media did to her, and that is a true disservice to her memory. Firstly, the film depicts Diana being complicit in the paparazzi attention she began to receive (and implies she did it to make Khan jealous) in the last few months of her life, while spending time with Dodi Fayed. Secondly, it reduces someone who seemed to genuinely care about making the world a better place to someone who was desperate for attention and affection. Ultimately, as we know, the paparazzi hounding reached horrific levels of heinousness. The princess was followed and taunted all because she had married a man who would be king. The stalking would never let up until a fateful August day in Paris. And they lived… oh wait.