Sara Crewe: I am a princess. All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics. Even if they dress in rags, even if they aren’t pretty, or smart, or young. They’re still princesses. All of us. Didn’t your father ever tell you that? Didn’t he?
I wish I could embed the video, because the reaction of Ms. Minchin is as important as Sara’s realization. (I realize that quoting the movie instead of the book is probably sacrilege, but the movie holds a special place in my heart, too, for a variety of reasons different than the reasons I love the book. Ms. Minchin’s reaction is a big part of that, and that’s a subtlety you can only get from the movie.)
Some people say that we, as girls and women, shouldn’t endeavor to be princesses, because royalty these days (as espoused by Tim Roth on Lie to Me) is simply a bloody useless strain on the taxpayer.
And to tell the truth, when we think of princesses, we imagine it as glamorous and leisurely, the way that we think of celebrities – the A-list is our new royal family, B-list the peerage of our realm. But the truth is that royalty, like celebrity, is political – it’s strategy, diplomacy, every move carefully calibrated to avoid offense or weakness. There is little privacy, and you have to work so freaking hard just to keep up the lifestyle, the appearance, and the presentation that people expect from you.
Yet when Sara says that all girls are princesses, she doesn’t mean being waited on hand and foot, wearing pretty dresses, and marrying Prince Charming, although sometimes it seems that’s what people want it to mean. When Sara says that all girls are princesses, she means that all girls have power, no matter how many obstacles the power faces.
When Sara thinks of princesses, she doesn’t think of waiting for her prince to save her, even if the movie follows the infuriating Ramayana parallel (that incidentally ends very badly after that part of the story). She isn’t thinking of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Instead, maybe she’s thinking of the princess in Bruce Coville’s The Dragonslayers, or perhaps the princess in Patricia Wrede’s Dragons series.
This scene brings to mind one of my favorites of the Disney female protags, Mulan – interestingly, I think the only one who isn’t a princess or doesn’t become a princess, if I remember correctly. This movie probably has the best message in general for the broadest range of girls and women, because while Mulan is lovely, beauty isn’t so much a part of the story – instead, honor and courage is the main thing. She wants to make her family proud and find her place, even if it doesn’t fit with what’s expected of her. She’s willing to risk her own life to save her father, risk dishonor in order to honor her family, and willing to risk both of those things again to save the emperor, even when she’s been shunned and shamed for her deception.
All of the Disney women are fighters in their own way (I wrote this post before Brave, which I still haven’t seen), but Mulan takes it to a ten. She’s a warrior; it’s what she is. More than Triton saying that Ariel’s grown up, nothing gets me more than Mulan’s father tossing the gifts of honor from the emperor to embrace his daughter and love her for the strength that she has. Her story doesn’t have the same popularity as the princesses, but when Sara Crewe is talking about princesses, I think of Mulan.
When Sara Crewe describes princesses, I think what she means is that all girls have something that drives them forward, that can keep them going, that can make them sufficient for themselves when no prince deigns to lay claim. In knights, it would be called valor. It makes them active members of their world, not passive vessels.
When she says “princesses,” she means that all girls have value, not the value that others place on them for things like beauty, fame, riches, charm, youth, people who find her desirable – things that fade or sometimes never happen to a woman. It’s not external factors that make a princess. A princess is a girl who is valuable, full stop. And all girls are princesses.