Throughout the year, I will be asking authors from a variety of genres as well as a host of others from editors to academics, what they think makes a definitive princess.
This month we are joined by Tiffani Angus, Senior Lecturer in Publishing and Course Leader on the MA Creative Writing at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. She has had short fiction published in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and even erotica. She has just signed a contract on her first novel, Threading the Labyrinth, an historical fantasy set over 400 years in the same English garden – like Children of Green Knowe, but for grown-ups. Her academic research centres on gardens in fantasy fiction, women’s bodies in apocalyptic fiction, and time travel.
1. What three attributes do you think a princess ought to have?
Quick wits: a princess grows up to be a queen, so she needs to know about power, which can make people crazy, greedy, and even evil. They’ll do what they can to take advantage of her – they see her as “just a girl,” so she needs to be able to read a room and read a person and react accordingly.
Courage, especially when she’s scared shitless: I want my princesses to fight for what is right, and that means stepping outside the boundaries of what is expected of them (girls again, right?) which takes courage in spite of shaking in fear.
Curiosity about the world: rather than be the princess in the tower who expects the world to come to her, she has to be curious and interested in the world and her people so she knows what is going on with them.
2. What characteristics do you think are so overused that they’ve become tropes?
The girl who doesn’t know she’s royalty and then has to be taught how to act according to her new title, and does it well.
This might not be a trope – it might not be as prevalent as the tropes in previous answers – but the question made me think of The Princess Diaries and that terrible trope of “take off her glasses and see how pretty she really is!”
I have an aversion in general to the “chosen one” trope, but male characters often have strength or powers that mean they’re the chosen ones and their quests use these skills. Often, female characters happen to be part of a bloodline and then they have to be trained up to fit the job description – to be pretty and graceful and patient. Blargh.
Also, the hair thing, though that is so entrenched in ancient stories that it’s difficult to detangle it (pun intended) from bigger ideas about the power of hair.
3. If I forced you to choose, which would be your favourite Disney princess?
Moana or Merida. Moana goes on a quest to save her people, and Merida has to save her mother. Moana isn’t doing anything for a prince, and although Merida and her mother argue over Merida’s “destiny” to take a husband, the story leaves that behind. They’re both active, have smarts, and are curious about the world!
4. A lot of people look down on the older Disney princesses, such as Snow White and Aurora, as being too passive and subservient. Do you think there are good qualities in these outdated princesses that modern girls and boys can aspire to?
Thinking back on the early princesses, all I can see is their passiveness. Perhaps, though, you can turn that around and show that though the films are named after them, it’s not “all about them” and there are other characters with their own motivations. You’ve got the dwarves working away, Maleficent seeking revenge on the king, the fairy godmothers doing what they can to help. So perhaps those films – if presented in a different way – could teach kids that, although they star in their own stories, not everything is about them.
On the other hand, the world lacks kindness, and those princesses were always kind.
5. What’s the ideal outfit for a princess, including a can’t-do-without accessory?
Lately I’m loving Margo’s costumes in The Magicians TV show (while she is the queen of Fillory): they refer back to what we think of as “princess costuming” with some corsetry and flowing sleeves and ruffles and rich fabrics, but are modern and sexy and sometimes a bit over the top. Why dress boring if you’re a princess?
The can’t-do-without accessory has to be a tiara with all sorts of hidden weapons, as if Bond’s Q, or Edna Mode, had made it.
6. Although it’s rarely written about, princesses eventually turn into queens. Which fictional (or real) queen do you consider to be a particularly inspiring character?
I have a crazy love for Elizabeth I; I did lots of research on her while doing my PhD because of her connection to gardening history. Think about it: she grew up in this crazy family; her father had her mother executed; she was shunted from home to home on her family’s whims; she was possibly sexually assaulted by her step-father/guardian; she was interrogated when a teenager; her sister kept her locked up in the Tower for a while; and she finally became queen at 25.
She could speak and write several languages, loved clothes, had lots of spies, and played her courtiers against each other to get what she didn’t want to spend money on (in one case, Robert Dudley and Willian Cecil tried to best each other by creating magnificent gardens in her honour). She refused to marry and a cult of virginity grew around her. A time period and population are named after her!
She was brave, audacious, clever, ruthless, intelligent, and vain, and she played the game well.
Copyright 2015-2019 Charlotte Bond
"Northern Lights over Low Row" Copyright Sandra Cockayne