Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The List of the Top Ten Best Princesses of All Time

I was having some pizza with Lily, when we decided to make a list of the best princesses. Lily is six and outgrowing princess culture. She's observed that a lot of princesses don't do much of anything. They dance and wear fancy dresses and throw parties and once in a while get kidnapped and rescued. Lily wants more out of her princesses than that and I don't blame her.

Here is our top ten. We've limited the list to actual royalty, which disqualified a couple characters who would have otherwise been included, but look for them at the end of the post.

10.) Ariel, the little mermaid: The most traditional princess selection on the list. Anybody not know this story? Sings some songs, sees a boy, falls in love, forbidden to see him, sells her voice to a sea witch. Ursula, the mer-octopus (there's even a word for them: Cecaelia. How great is that?) is a more interesting character to me at this point than Ariel. In researching this piece I came across an article someone had written titled "Ursula is the best Disney Princess" and makes a compelling case. 

Ariel is okay. Her story is hardly the feminist ideal to which I'd like my daughter to aspire (throw everything away chasing after a boy and become a child bride at 16), but it's an entertaining enough story with some good songs. 

9.) Princess Kida: Hey, remember Atlantis: The Lost Empire? It was a great movie, and it's universally beloved by the three people who have seen it.  On watching it for the first time, Lily observed "Kida is more adventurous than most princesses."  I think she scores as high as she does because the film was so novel (for a Disney princess movie) and it has a great look and a unique style. 

8.)  Starfire: From the Teen Titans cartoon, of course, not the blow-up doll from the new 52. The Teen Titans is one of the more underrated series out there. It appeals to kids without being patronizing, and there's a real joy to it that cartoons often forget. Starfire is an alien princess who doesn't understand earth, but she's played with this infectious enthusiasm, so what could have been annoying is instead a pleasure to watch.

7.) Princess Vespa: This is Lily's choice. I put the question out there on Facebook and a couple people suggested Vespa, but in truth, she had already made the list. I showed her Spaceballs, recalling that though it had its ribald moments, it wasn't that bad and I could just mute the bad words. The memory cheats. It is insanely inappropriate. She was quite taken with Princess Vespa, however. According to Lily, she's prettier than Princess Leia too.

6.) Merida:  I like Brave, but the movie kind of sags in the middle.  My friend Tim observed that the movie has no b-story, and consequently, the story seems a bit thin, ably articulating problems I wasn't able to identify. I wrote about the movie in more detail here.

I like Merida, but I want to like her more. Merida is...complicated. She's independent, but she's more than a little...bratty. Nothing to show that you're ready to chart your own course like throwing a tantrum in front of your parent's friends and then poisoning your mom.

And yet, I love her for her flaws. Lily says that I only like characters who make mistakes and I think that's true. Merida wanted a quick and easy solution to her problems, things didn't turn out as planned and she most of the movie trying to undo the effects of that rash action. Everyone makes mistakes. What matters is how we react to them. 

5.) Rapunzel: Tangled is great another movie. I wrote about it here Review of Tangled (And for a grown man, I sure spend a lot of time writing about princesses.) It's marred somewhat by its ending (cutting her hair should have been Rapunzel's decision), but a great movie nevertheless. Also fun, How it should have ended.

4.) Giselle: Her eligibility is borderline, because it's never made explicit that she's actually a princess. She lives in a cottage with woodland creatures, which is not something princesses are known to do, but so did Aurora (Sleeping Beauty). Let's assume that she's a princess in exile or something. And I'm fudging my own rule to include her on the list, but come on! You can't have a list of the best princesses without Giselle!

At once an embrace and subversion of the princesses that have come before her. Amy Adams is outstanding in the role. I can't imagine anyone doing it better. 

I mentioned above how cartoons often lack joy, but that's not a problem with Enchanted. It never makes a misstep. Sure it pokes fun at the tropes of Disney movie, but it's done with love and reverence. 

3.) Princess Leia: "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?" Oh, burn! Apparently one of a handful of women in the galaxy. Crack shot with a blaster, backtalks Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, strangles a gangster with her chains. She's smart, she's tough, she's a great leader.

2.) Nausicaä: Not actually Lily's number two choice, but I'm exercising veto power in my position as the person who is doing the actual typing. Nausicaä is the lead character in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Her creator, Hayou Miyazaki said Nausicaä is not a protagonist who defeats an opponent, but a protagonist who understands, or accepts. Not that she's incapable of kicking some butt when it's required. Lily suggested a movie marathon the weekend before the return to school to celebrate the last day of summer.   At one point she asked, "Can we watch the movie about the super strong princess?"

I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise as Jen turned her gaze on me.

"What movie is that?" I asked.

"The one where she's friends with the giant roly polys."

"Oh," I said. "Nausicaä." Then I added, "They're not roly polys, they're Ohmu." 

Back before she was born, we decorated Lily's room with an underwater theme. We didn't want to go pink, because neither of us is thrilled about the whole princess culture (There's a great book with a great title called Cinderella Ate My Daughter about it), but if she has to be in to princesses, I think Nausicaä is just about the best one out there. 

The name of the character comes from the Odyssey  She's the young woman who helps Odysseus one of the seven or eight times he washes up on shore over the course of the story. I found this account while I was researching this piece: 

Miyazaki's impression of Homer's Nausicaä came through an account of her in a translation of one of Bernard Evslin’s handbooks of Greek mythology. From Evslin’s description Miyazaki imagined a fearless, compassionate, beautiful, and spirited girl who delighted in nature and spurned convention—an image he admits being somewhat disappointed to see did not seem so splendidly displayed in the Odyssey

She's such a great character. She's not super-strong either, but Lily was referring to my very favorite scenes in the movie and one of my favorite scenes in any movie.  Nausicaä  is out at the periphery of the village and when a bunch of airships land and start disgorging troops. She sees that they're heading for her father, the king, so she starts running to his room.

 The scene cuts to him, an old man, sitting up in his bed. He unsheathes his sword and lays it on his lap. He tells his advisor to hide and she tells him that she'll be staying. We see the troops enter the room, and then the scene cuts to the outside, where we hear the sound of a gunshot. Nausicaä  hears it too, and she sprints up the final flight of stairs and when she bursts into the room and sees these men standing over her father's body, she completely flips the bleep out and demolishes the squad with nothing more than the small staff she was carrying.

 When more troops arrive, these in full plate armor, she picks up a fallen sword and sets on them too.

She's about to kill one of them when Master Yupa, her mentor, leaps into the room and intercepts thrust the blade of the sword with his arm. He has his knife ready to go through the neck slit of the commander's armor, and as his blood drips down the blade, he lectures the commander for violating the rules of engagement, then says to Nausicaä that if they fight here and now, the invaders will massacre the people of the village in retaliation. 

It's not an attitude often found in American movies, where only quislings cooperate with the enemy and naked defiance and open violence are the only avenues to victory. It reminds me of two quotes I like:

At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice. - Maya Angelou

Be patient. You are not winning a game called justice, you are living a life called justice. Bertolt Brecht tells the story of a man living alone who answers a knock at the door. There stands Tyranny, armed and powerful, who asks, "Will you submit?" The man does not reply. He steps aside. Tyranny enters and takes over. The man serves him for years. Then Tyranny mysteriously becomes sick from food poisoning. He dies. The man opens the door, gets rid of the body, comes back to the house, closes the door behind him, and says, firmly, "No." 

1.) Princess Diana of Themyscira, aka "Wonder Woman: When we were first spitballing the list, I asked Lily who she thought would be on the list and she said, as matter-of-factly as I've ever heard anyone say anything, "Well, Wonder Woman would be first, obviously."

Wonder Woman, woman of the hour, with her super-power. 

Her career has not always been kind to her. Her costume is kind of silly (and is not improved by giving her pants, Jim Lee!), her backstory is constantly being rewritten, and no one ever seems to know what to do with her.

I forget who made the observation, but someone once said that male superheroes look like athletes and female superheroes look like models. Wonder Woman is one of the few who is occasionally drawn looking like an athlete, and I really like that. Yes, women can be muscular too. It's nothing to be ashamed of.

I love this picture of Wonder Woman.

Sometimes she wears hoplite armor, which is the kind of thing I think she should wear all the time, to be honest.

Isn't that better than a star-spangled swimsuit?

She predates World War II and her characterization has been all over the map, but at heart, she is an ambassador from a paradise to the outside world, trying to lead by example. 

Lily asked if I could post the following so everyone could see. How could I refuse?

"I like princesses who are brave, and pretty but not too fancy, and don't always wear their crowns. 

Like Wonder Woman, even though she usually wears her crown.

From Lily

(Wonder Woman looks nice. I'm kind of envying her hair.)"

She didn't want me to include that last part, but come on. Wonder Woman does have nice hair.

Disney Princesses: 

Mulan: Mulan might have made the top ten, except for the fact that she's not actually a princess. But when her father is going to be conscripted, she disguises herself as a man and fights in his place. 

I totally called the plot twist in a movie for six year old girls. (Stupid Huns. You can't hide in a dragon when Josh is on the job.) The villain's death certificate reads "Death through horrific misadventure", which is pretty par for the course for Disney Villains. 

My big complaint was about the voice acting. I'm just not a big fan of celebrity voice actors. Harvey Fierstein and Eddie Murphy, both lent their extremely distinctive voices to the film and I kept imagining the pair of them in a recording studio. Miguel Ferrer is an actor whom I really enjoy and he performed the voice of the lead villain. The movie had a lot of Asian actors in small parts, but the main characters were all famous Americans trying to talk with accents, which didn't thrill me.  

Snow White: Snow White was the first full length animated film of its kind. It's from 1938, and while beautiful and ground-breaking, it doesn't hold up well 75 years later. Snow White is an utter cypher. However, she paved the way for what would follow. 

Sleeping Beauty: True to the name, I fell asleep watching this movie. Aurora is no one's favorite princess. I did like the character design on the fairies though.

Cinderella: I like the movie more than the Princess. Cinderella is pretty much the archetypal Disney princess, heart of gold, persecuted for no fault of her own, waiting for someone to deliver her. That's fine. She's not much of a go-getter, though.

The movie is really well put together. One doesn't usually notice the pacing on a cartoon, but this was so well constructed that it would seem artificial if it wasn't done so perfectly. The evil stepmother is evil in minor, petty, believable ways, and seems so much scarier because of it. 

Belle: I hate to say this, but, as much as I love Belle, she talks the talk, but doesn't walk the walk. "There must be more than this provincial life!" Your elderly father goes off to invention fairs! You're content to sit around reading in a meadow all day and singing about how boring your life is. 

And, admittedly, she eventually steps up, but she didn't change her situation. Someone changed it for her. And that's an understandable trait, and one I share to a certain extent. And I never thought I'd be quoting the Offspring in reference to a Disney princess, but there's a line in "Cool to Hate" that always struck me as being very true. "I like to hate stuff/cause then I don't have to try to make a change." It's easier to curse the darkness. 

And it sounds like I don't like Belle, but I really do. She's smart, she's brave, she's tough, she's principled. So, she needed a little nudge before she could grow to her potential. That's true for a lot of people.

Pocahontas: I'm sentimental about Pocahontas because I saw the movie right when I started dating Jen. I was working nights then, and I bought a stuffed Meeko and put it on her car after my shift ended in the morning. 

I think Pocahontas as a Princess has a number of problems, not the least of which is that she's the Indian Princess viewed through Privileged White People Idealism. Still, the movie had nice songs.

Tiana:  "The Princess & the Frog" was Lily's first movie in the theater when she was three years old. I was concerned that she wouldn't be old enough for the whole theater experience, but she was really good throughout the whole thing. The closest thing we had to an incident was when we had a potty break and she wanted to wash her hands in the urinal, but really, who among us hasn't made that mistake?

Tiana is a pretty good princess and almost seems a response to the issues raised here and elsewhere about the other princesses. Wishing is only going to get you so far. It's hard work that really gets things done.

Overall, the movie was really nice. Oprah Winfrey was in it as the mom. I like Oprah Winfrey okay, but she's like the richest woman in the world, and there aren't that many of these parts to go around, and I swear that she plays every black matriarch in every movie that has one. (Like Ian Holm is with Hobbits.) There aren't that many roles for older actresses, much less older African American actresses. I'm sure the studio wanted her for the cachet she would bring to the film, and she does do a fine enough job but I think she should have passed on it and let another actress perform the role.

I really liked the character design for the villain, Doctor Facilier. He kind of had a Baron Samedi vibe going on what with the purple and black and the top hat. I was surprised that he killed the plucky firefly sidekick, but he wouldn't have been much of a villain if he couldn't manage that. I thought they did a reasonably subtle job with racial issues, without having them them overwhelm the narrative. I wouldn't call it a classic, but it was a solid entertaining outing. 

Jasmine: Jasmine is a pretty decent princess. Active and proactive. She does as much to defeat Jafar as does Aladdin and she doesn't even have a magic carpet or a wishing lamp. I don't particularly care for the movie, but that's no reflection on Jasmine's merit's as a princess. 

Non-Disney Princesses: 

Princess Azula: From Avatar: The Last Airbender. I wanted her on the list, but Lily wouldn't have her. She's a princess and an outstanding villain. Near the end of the series where her paranoia has consumed her and she's driven away all those who really cared about her, it's hard not to feel sorry for her, too. 

Princess Peach: From the Mario games. I would have included her in the top ten list, but she was in another castle. Ha ha! 

(Too soon?)

Anastasia: Is a Grand Duchess a princess? You know what? Close enough. Anastasia is unique for the list as she's the only one who is a real person, but we're really reviewing her appearance in the animated film from the 90s. I really dug this movie. I have a soft spot for the real Anastasia. Wikipedia says this: "The Tsar's children were raised as simply as possible. They slept on hard camp cots without pillows, except when they were ill, took cold baths in the morning, and were expected to tidy their rooms and do needlework to be sold at various charity events when they were not otherwise occupied." 

So I was already favorably inclined towards the society depicted in the film. I have great deal of affection for the movie itself as well, partially born from it's wealth of details. My favorites, from the imdb are:

The portrait in the ballroom of the whole family includes a dog. The dog existed. This spaniel named Joy belonged to Anastasia's brother, Alexei, and was found alive at the house where the family was killed. Anastasia's own dog, Jimmy, did not survive.

The music box in this movie actually existed. It was given to the real Anastasia by the real Marie Feoderovna for her thirteenth birthday, but was "silver with a ballerina on top."

It was pretty entertaining. but I think, on reflection, that it could have worked without the fantastic elements. Rasputin didn't really seem to belong in the movie. And Bartok the albino bat? I mean, I know you need something to put in the Happy Meals, but Geez, couldn't it have been a bear in a ushanka or something?

Angela Lansbury played Marie Feoderovna, the Dowager Empress, and both Jen and Lily called her the Queen and ignored me when I corrected them. (I expect I'll just have to get used to that.) "She's not the Queen, she's just the King's mom!" 

Galadriel:  Galadriel is a princess, the only daughter and youngest child of Finarfin, and "the mightiest and fairest of all the Elves that remained in Middle-earth". Despite that pedigree, she doesn't do all that much during the Lord of the Rings, does she? She just kind of hung out in Lothlórien and handed out some presents.
Looked really pretty doing it, though

Princess Fiona:  But the one from the Amber novels, not from the Shrek movies. I was working in a video store when the original Shrek came out and the manager played it all time. In my nightmares, I still hear Mike Myer's ridiculous brogue saying, "It's on my to do list."

Princess Mononoke: Like Nausicaä, one of Miyazaki's great characters. Unlike, Nausicaä, not actually a princess, despite her name. She's not even my favorite character in the movie. I think I like both Ashitaka and Eboshi more.

Buttercup, the Princess Bride: Again, wonderful, but not a princess.

Princess Irulan: From Dune, and a couple of the sequels. I have to include her, or Greg will use his gom jabbar on me. 

Danielle in Ever After: I'll put this one  here so Jen won't be mad at me. I thought Anjelica Huston acted circles around her, though.

Snow White in Mirror, Mirror: This was a fun movie. Julia Roberts was born to be an evil queen. Also, Bollywood dance number at the end. 

Vanellope von Schweetz: From Wreck It Ralph. Loved the movie, hated this character, but she's technically a princess.

Xena: I don't know if I've ever seen an episode of Xena all the way through. But she's unquestionably a princess, no doubt about it.  Oops, apparently not. See comments.

Dr. Princess: From Adventure Time. My friend Eric suggested her. But I don't know anything about her. 

Mia Thermopolis: My friend Kristin suggested this one, but she was already on my list. Anne Hathaway's character from the Princess Diaries. I knew before her turn as Fantine that Hathaway had real chops as an actress and this is the film that convinced me.

Twilight Sparkle: From My Little Pony! Because Phil demanded it!

So, that's the list Lily and I came up with. I welcome any comments and suggestions. 


  1. Wonder Woman undeniably looks cool in Hoplite armor, but, well, royalty probably wouldn't wear the stuff citizen warriors used.

  2. So why do you hate Vanellope?

    1. I thought the character was annoying and Sarah Silverman, whom I usually like, was lackluster. She wasn't bad. She was fine, but she was the weakest of the main cast by a considerable margin, and there are just so many voice actors out there who could have done a better job.

  3. I'm one of the three people who watched (and loved) Atlantis. Although, to be fair, I've forgotten pretty much everything about it, save for a general feeling of enjoyment. I need to watch it again.

    Also, last year I went to a Halloween party as Dr. Facilier. Totally won the "best costume" award. Woo.

    1. I kind of have a love/hate relationship with Atlantis. It borrowed a number of elements from an earlier anime series called "Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water", and the co-director went online to disavow any connection, saying he had never heard of the series until they were almost finished with the movie.

      I confess I find that questionable, because it's extremely unlikely that someone working in a niche product such as a cartoon about Atlantis would be completely unaware of other products already extant in the same arena.

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  5. Actually, Xena is not a princess. At all. Not even a little bit. That's just the title of her show.

    And I guess I must be the last of the three people who watched and enjoyed Atlantis.

    1. Cfc: Actually, Xena is not a princess. At all. Not even a little bit. That's just the title of her show.

      Hmmm...I suppose I might have learned this if I had actually watched an episode all the way through. Live and learn.

    2. There we go. Fixed the Xena entry.

  6. Lily chose excellent princesses for the list. I thought Spaceballs was hilariously inappropriate, especially when you kept missing the parts you should have muted or fast forwarded :) Hey, Lily handled it very maturely when she said that she wouldn't let the bad words ruin her enjoyment of the movie. That's because she is awesome.

    1. Oh, good god, don't remind me. I still have holes in the back of my head from where Jen's death gaze bored its way in.

  7. I think my favorite part about writing this was learning that Wonder Woman's bracelets were forged from the shards of Athena's Aegis. It makes me like the character even more.

  8. Mulan was voiced by Ming Na Wen, who plays Melinda May on Agents of Shield. She is from Macau and is ethnically Chinese, I think.

    1. I did a little digging, and I found that the cast didn't skew as non-Asian as I had believed. I think I was under that impression because Fierstein, Murphy and Ferrer were so prominent.