Action Princesses and Making the Hero’s Journey Available to Everyone

Jaclyn Friedman has a fascinating column in the Guardian about the fact that even empowered princesses don’t do as much for girls as ordinary-boys-turned-heroes do for boys:

The studio whose most iconic heroes include a toy cowboy, a rat, a fish, a boy scout, and a lonely trash compactor (all male-identified, of course), couldn’t figure out how to tell a story about a human girl without making her a princess. That’s the problem in a nutshell: if the sparkling minds at Pixar can’t imagine their way out of the princess paradigm, how can we expect girls to?

The past decade may have seen a welcome increase in on-screen female action heroes, but we’re still far from gender parity in the genre, and even when they’re not princesses, they’re nearly all trained assassins or Chosen Ones. Joseph Campbell wrote indelibly about the power of The Hero with a Thousand Faces – an ur-hero who’s living a mundane life when he’s faced with a challenge through which he can discover his greatness. It’s easy to see why this matters: everyman hero stories teach every boy that he can make himself great through his own actions, regardless of how dull or difficult the lot in life he’s been handed.

Princess stories – even Action Princess stories – inherently fail the Conrad test.

I do think there’s something really important about teaching girls that the gender norms laid out for them are add-ons, rather than restrictions. Leaching the meaning out of a word like “princess” is a task that has value. But if we’re ascribing strength to states that girls in the audience think don’t apply to them, if the lesson and Brave and other movies is that if your father hasn’t hooked you up with weaponry and training as a child that adventure is still out of site, then we’re winning one battle at the expense of another. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case—the little girls in the audience at the screening I attended didn’t seem to have trouble identifying with Merida. But there’s nothing wrong with empowering girls who aren’t princesses, in making the journey to heroism a little longer, but proving it can still be traveled no matter where in the process you start.