Princess Smartypants is an example of a children’s picture book which uses gender reversal to tell a story that would never really happen. What if women of high socio-economic status could choose their own marriage/non-marriage partners? The ending plays into the stereotypically MRA fear — if women were allowed autonomy they may choose not to include men at all.
Princess Smartypants has been talked about quite a bit by children’s literature critics, though I personally feel it’s not as successful as it looks at first glance. It’s still notably, however, as an early example of reversal as a way of highlighting inequality.
Gloria Steinem wrote in her 1994 book Moving Beyond Words that she has ‘gained a lot of faith in reversals’ as a way of highlighting structural inequalities and prejudices:
[Reversals] create empathy and are great detectors of bias, in ourselves as well as in others, for they expose injustices that seem normal and so are invisible. In fact, the deeper and less visible the bias, the more helpful it is to take some commonly accepted notion about one race, class, ethnicity, ability — whatever — and see how it sounds when transferred to another. […] To uncover the difference between what is and what could be, we may need the “Aha!” that comes from exchanging subject for object, the flash of recognition that starts with the smile, the moment of changed viewpoint that turns the world upside down.
Steinem then goes on to make a great job of turning Sigmund Freud into Phyllis Freud, with all of the misogynistic and historically dangerous ideas reversed, in a world where women hold the power instead of men; where the uterus is revered rather than the phallus.
STORY STRUCTURE OF PRINCESS SMARTYPANTS
Types of Archetypal Journeys
Heroes in stories will set out to accomplish one of the following 10 things. Here, of course, we have a story about number five:
1. The quest for identity
2. The epic journey to find the promised land/to found the good city
3. The quest for vengeance
4. The warrior’s journey to save his people 5. The search for love (to rescue the princess/damsel in distress)
6. The journey in search of knowledge
7. The tragic quest: penance or self-denial
8. The fool’s errand
9. The quest to rid the land of danger
10. The grail quest (the quest for human perfection)
Babette Cole subverts the reader’s expectation that the prince and princess will end up married. These days it doesn’t seem such a radical story at all, but that’s only because we’ve seen it before.
I feel this story is very much an ancestor of the Pixar film Brave:
A princess whose parents tell her its time to put away childish, tomboy things and get married
The princess doesn’t exactly fit the princess ideal — Merida because of her wild, red hair and Smartypants because of her large, red nose.
A succession of tests for potential suitors
In which the suitors make bumbling fools of themselves by slapstick means.
I’m no huge fan of Brave. I do know a few little girls who love it to bits, mainly because of the archery. But there’s something not quite right about the story arc, and I feel it’s a bit cheap to play the princes for laughs.
As expressed eloquently by Circadian Rhythms:
This [narrative] isn’t just saying that women don’t have to marry, it’s saying that women can humiliate men, force them to work, then don’t marry them. In fact, Princess Smartypants can only live happily ever after when she has rid herself of essentially all men (who are, needless to say, intimidated by her transfiguring osculations). Just like all women! We females can only be free once men have become the toads they are at heart!
Not only that, but the scene in which the prince is made to go shopping with the Queen mother shows him humiliated, not just because of his crawling position, but because he is in the lingerie department, weighed down by a load of female undergarments. It’s impossible to view this scene as humbling without also acknowledging at some level that female undergarments are inherently funny and shameful.
However, back in the mid 1980s when Princess Smartypants was published, the world was seeing feminist inversions of classic tales for the first time.
STORYWORLD OF PRINCESS SMARTYPANTS
This is a parody of fairytales in general and borrows parts from all the famous ones.
The castle is in ‘fairytale land’, but in a modern (1980s) twist
The story makes use of the rule of threes, with three bumbling suitors
Thrones, crowns, moats, a forest, horses and castles
(Comically) scary mythical creatures
A high tower made of glass (Rapunzel/Cinderella?)
A magic ring
Thrown into a pond (The Frog Prince etc)
Princess Smartypants has been born into a life with a rigid path; she must marry into royalty (and produce heirs).
However, she doesn’t want that life. She wants to remain single and buck conventional gender roles.
The parents, who represent the entire culture of marital expectations
She’ll vet some suitors, but she’ll set such enormous tasks that there’s no way they’ll be able to accomplish them.
The big struggle scenes comprise a large proportion of a picturebook, and sure enough the princes are put through a series of tasks which involve her scary pets or scary rides.
But ultimately, Princes Swashbuckle is able to accomplish all of these tasks. Princess Smartypants has lost the big struggle.
Except Prince Swashbuckle is not interested in her.
A ‘swashbuckler’ is an idealistic hero archetype. He rescues damsels in distress, defends the downtrodden, and in general saves the day.
However, to a modern audience the swashbuckler hero feels like a parody of himself. He is often a little bit camp. This much is left unsaid; instead, Princess Smartypants is required to kiss him (following her own rules of the game) but he turns into a frog, in an inversion of the Princess And The Frog fairytale.
This famous tale is also known as The Princess And The Frog, The Frog Prince, A Frog For A Husband and similar variants. In most of these stories the princess is depicted as a spoilt brat.
Sometimes the story goes so far as being called The Kind Stepdaughter And The Frog, which is actually more like The Fairies (which stars a fairy rather than a frog and has jewels falling out of the young woman’s mouth) than it is like my versions of this frog fairytale from childhood. In the 1980s I had this Ladybird edition:
Humans Marrying Animals
There’s an entire category of Märchen about humans who marry animals, or rather, a human being who has been (off-the-page) transmogrified into the form of an animal. I suppose these humans have been cursed by a witch, and I would very much like to know that particular backstory, but anyhow, “The Frog King” is the standout example of this folklore motif. This is a European story, but can be found all over the world. Mermaids, seals and swans are also popular as marriage partners in animal form.
Where the groom is an animal, the young woman doesn’t want to marry an animal. It never occurs to her that if everyone is forcing her to marry this talking animal, he might actually be a human underneath. These marriages are forced.
Where the bride is an animal, she’ll be the victim of trauma. Again, stories emphasise the trauma of the female partner. She’ll have been abducted, forced into an unhappy marriage, perhaps her husband hit her or broke some other societal taboo. Then she finds a means to escape (e.g. a magic cap/skin/feather cloak). There will be storyworld rules about what you are and aren’t allowed to do with this woman: You can’t look at them in a certain time/place, you can’t call their name, you can’t ask certain questions or she’ll vanish (e.g. “The Porpoise Girl”, a Micronesian tale, or in Irish tales about the Merrow/mermaid). The best known fairy tale about an animal bride is the “Swan Maiden”. This story has been traced back to Rig Veda (India).
There’s no shortage of fairytales which teach the lesson that girls must just marry who they’re told to marry. Even if they find the man repulsive, once she gets to know him she’ll suddenly wake up to herself and find him attractive. This may be an example of what Marina Warner has called the ‘death by engulfment’ fairytale. Unlike fairy tales starring boys and men, who fight big struggles to overcome their personal demons, the death by engulfment plot is about the psychosexual trauma of being a young woman forced into marriage and childbearing. A story such as The Frog Princess may well have been created and retold by women rather than men, as a way of coping with being a reproductive vessel throughout the long history of humankind in which women had no say over their reproduction. Bluebeard is another example of a ‘death by engulfment’ tale. “Go with the flow and everything will be all right,” this story tells them.
The fear of childbirth is now known as tocophobia. In the age of the Internet, women have been criticised for sharing stories of childbirth online and therefore inducing new tocophobia in other women, but the variety of fairytales such as The Frog Princess show us clearly that women have ALWAYS been frightened of childbirth. That’s because childbirth is frightening.
More widely, we might consider fear of engulfment as a liminal space between girlhood and womanhood — a period of unguarded impulses, savagery and cruelty in sexual love, mixed with the desire for security and and protection. Katherine Mansfield’s young women are often said to be in this space, afraid of adult relationships, wishing to remain in an emotional state of childlike fantasy.
Beauty and the Beast is another example of a ‘death by engulfment’ tale. This traditional belief about how female desire works can be seen in Beauty and the Beast and Ricky With The Tuft. In his conclusion of Ricky With The Tuft, Charles Perrault specifically explains to the reader that the magic in his story is simply a metaphor for the way women are inclined to fall in love. Though men always seek physical beauty, women look instead for virtue and some kind of essential goodness.
“Men like young, beautiful women but women like older, powerful men.”
This view of female sexual desire has been so pervasive throughout the history of literature that it may have even succeeded in persuading young women themselves. Which is exactly why a story such as The Frog Prince would have come into existence. When women literally belong, as chattels, to their husbands, it is one challenge of man to indoctrinate their daughters into believing that whomever the father chooses for her on her behalf is indeed the best choice, even if he does not seem so at first.
The Frog Prince And Rape Culture
The discourse around rape culture that’s heightened over the past decade has turned a fairytale such as The Frog Princess into a very obvious rapey, creepy story and I find it amazing how seldom this particular tale is updated for a modern young audience, even as other tales are frequently riffed on.
The Frog Prince requires a certain view of morality that can be seen even in much more modern children’s literature:
This view of lying and morality is heavily gendered. Overwhelmingly in traditional stories it is young female characters who are punished heavily for promising something, often under a degree of duress, then going back on ‘their word’. Note that in the Ladybird edition, the princess actually says:
“I’ll give you anything you wish for… You can have my clothes or my jewels or even my golden crown, if only you will find my golden crown.”
She promises anyTHING. She does not, at any stage, promise a frog herSELF.
When the frog specifies that he wants to marry her, she assumes (quite rightly, I would think) that he’s ‘talking a lot of nonsense’. After all, retrieving a ball, golden or not, from a shallow pond is hardly a favour that warrants sexual slavery for the rest of one’s life.
Apart from the frog’s complete manipulation of her intent, evident in transcripts of rape trials all around the world, there are other significant real-world problems with the moral lesson in this book:
The young woman learns she has no right to change her mind about anything, even if she matures as a person. And main characters always change the course of a story; that’s what makes a story a story.
In cases where the promise involves male disappointment, she learns that his right to receive is greater than her right to refuse.
She absorbs the idea that a ‘yes’ in a previous situation also means an unspoken ‘yes’ in a subsequent situation.
As long as the prince has ‘a kind face’ and she is sexually attracted to him, previous horrible acts of duress dissipate as if they never happened.
I have no time for the view that young readers get nothing out of such fairytales, being too naive to even understand the nature of sexual consent. I asked my six year old daughter, who enjoys this story, who was the ‘goodie’ and who was the ‘baddie’ in this story. At the time, she said “The princess should have kept her promise.”
“Should she have to marry the frog, even if she doesn’t want to?” I asked.
I highly recommend asking your children similar questions after reading this story to them. You might be surprised by what they’ve absorbed. It should come as no surprise; everything in the illustrations and text encourages empathy with the frog rather than with the too-beautiful-for-her-own-good princess.
Take this image for instance. We have a frog alone, in the foreground. His hopes for happiness have just been dashed. Also, the young reader familiar with fairytales will know this is actually a prince.
“Wait for me! Wait for me!” croaked the poor frog. “I can’t run as fast as you can!”
This show of abject helplessness reminds me very much of an episode of The I.T. Crowd in which Roy elicits manipulative empathy by pretending to need a wheelchair.
The difference is, the comedy version makes fun of Roy; the fairytale frog elicits genuine empathy for the frog.
Characterisation In The Frog Princess
Since the Greek myth of Narcissus it’s difficult to read a story about a solitary figure next to a pond without assuming a degree of vanity. This beautiful princess, the youngest of seven daughters, is the most beautiful of the lot. Often in fairytales the beauty equals goodness, but in this particular retelling, her beauty equals self-absorption and vanity. She must be punished for such narcissism.
Story Structure of The Frog Princess
Whose story is this? Do I treat the princess as the main character, or the frog? The frog is the man with the plan. The princess is reactive. But that’s not how we can tell the main character of a story: Best to ask, “Who changes the most?” At first glance the frog changes the most — from frog to human. But this is not a psychological or moral change. Instead, it’s simply a change of circumstance, and those don’t count when we’re talking specifically about character arcs.
Indeed, the Princess undergoes the change of heart. The princess is the main character.
The Princess has been playing with a ball near a body of water (a well or a pond, typically) and the ball falls into it. She is unable to retrieve it herself.
The image of the young woman outside in nature playing on her own with a ball must be a fairly strong one in the collective imagination. The painting below reminds me of this fairytale.
After getting her ball back she has no plans at all. She wipes all memory of the frog from her mind. The frog has other plans. His plan is persistence. There are so many ideological problems with persistence.
Even when a girl is crying, the frog’s needs come first:
When he had finished eating, the frog turned to the princess and said, “Now I am tired, please take me to your room and we will lie on your little, silken bed and go to sleep.”
At that the youngest princess burst into tears. She did not like to touch the cold, little frog and she could not bear to think of him beside her in her own bed.
Note that the princess doesn’t like him because he is ‘cold’ and ‘little’, but those are the very attributes the reader is encouraged to sympathise with.
Notice how the Ladybird illustration omits the majority of the bed. It is far more confronting to show the princess and the frog in the bed together. Arthur Rackham didn’t shy away from it. Again, the perspective is from the frog’s point of view, but this is slightly shocking. Because if you’re a frog looking at a girl in her bed from the feet up, as if approaching the bed, you probably should be shocked.
The frog turns into a prince and she realises she loves him now.
My reading of the text is uncomfortably sexual; after sharing her bed with a male character for the first time, suddenly she is in love. Probably because she hadn’t read Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex.
Frog and Princess get married and the prince takes her away to his own family’s palace in a different kingdom. The princess has officially been married off as chattel.
The Disney Movie Adaptation
I can’t bring myself to watch it, but this snippet sums it up to save me a few hours:
[Disney] strayed waaaaaay too far from the central motifs. No spoiled princess, no pact that ends with the girl having to share her bed with a reptile, no violence integral to the story – in many versions, the frog becomes a man after the girl has thrown him against the wall in disgust and anger. There was violence in the Disney movie, but it was parenthetical, and banter is a poor substitute for real conflict.Soapboxing
What would an excellent retelling of The Princess and the Frog look like to me? Regardless of the plot, the re-visioned story would require an inverted set of moral lessons:
Girls are allowed to change their minds.
A man’s sexual desires are not to be placed above those of a woman expected to fulfil them.
Beauty does not equal spoilt-bratishness; nor does it equal goodness. Beauty is what it is, but naivety and isolation might indeed make you the target of some predator in the woods.
A girl/woman is in charge of her own sexuality. She knows what she wants and does not need to be coerced by any men in her life. One night with a man doesn’t transform a woman. The penis is not a magic wand.
A marriage based on deception and coercion never leads to a happy ending. If the story followed this princess to her castle, we’d find she leads a miserable life with this entitled deviant of a man. (And I suspect he’d turned into a frog for a very good reason in the first place.)
This tale irritates the hell out of me. As catharsis I wrote my own. It’s called “The F**k Princess“.
Olivia and the Fairy Princesses is the third Olivia book I’m taking a close look at; the first was Olivia, which I really liked; the next was Olivia and the Missing Toy which I really didn’t and now for a story which has garnered Olivia a bit of a reputation among reviewers on social media for being a great feminist read.
The ideology in Olivia and the Fairy Princesses is clear: Little girls don’t need to ALL dress up as pretty pink fairytale princesses if they don’t want to . They don’t even have to be pretty. And if they do want to dress up as a princess, there are plenty of options from other cultures from which to choose.
I live in the Village in New York City, and it has become radically gentrified in the last 15 years. All of these little girls walk around with their wands and their tutus. There are squads of them roving the streets. And Olivia would want none of that.
The story came out of working with my sister, who is also my assistant, and doing the marketing. We oversee as best we can the kind of toys they produce. We kept running into this problem – they all wanted to do pink, pink, pink. I had to say, “No, no, everybody’s doing pink! How many pink tutus can you sell?” Marketing people just want to stick to something safe, I guess.
“There are no mean girls in this book. There’s no rival here,” Falconer says in the PW interview, pinpointing a common problem in books about groups of girls — authors and screenwriters are inclined to oversimplify the complexity of girlhood hierarchies. Few authors have a really nuanced grip on what girl cliques really feel like when you’re in them. Falconer side-steps the problem here, wisely, I think.
So who is the opponent? The opponent is ‘The Dominant Culture’ — the Unwritten Rule Of Girls Must Be Pretty & Pink.
With a picture book, your main age range is from about 3 years old to 6, which is just before all that Queen Bee stuff starts to kick in.
But take a look at chapter books and middle grade novels and you’ll start to find a lot more Mean Girl opponents — they’re usually blonde and pretty, even if the prettiness simply equals nice clothes, shiny accoutrements and ringlets. We see it all the way from Ramona to Junie B. Jones. There’s even the ‘blonde equals prettier’ thing going on with the Ingalls sisters.
The new situation portion of this story is absent, probably because this is a series and we know we’ll hear from Olivia again. We can safely assume that she’ll continue to behave as narcissistic queen of the world in the next book, too!
So, is this book feminist?
IN THE YES COLUMN
Olivia is free to have her own mind.
Olivia stands up to her father who calls her a princess.
Olivia doesn’t conform to the Western Beauty Ideal of prettiness. She is confident even when dressed up as a warthog.
IN THE NOT SO MUCH COLUMN
The gender roles of the parents in the Olivia series are far from feminist. Take another look at the breakfast table scenes, in which the father is always reading the paper and the mother is always tending to the kids. Take a close look at the mother’s face in the image below. Does she look happy about this situation? Why not??
Despite being an avid reader of the newspaper, who is it with the job/privilege of reading picture books to Olivia each night? Apparently we have a crisis of boys and reading. Why aren’t the pig parents alternating the nightly reading to Olivia? Perhaps the father is busy tucking the younger siblings into bed? Unfortunately we don’t see that on the page, so we are left to conclude that keeping up with current events and politics is a male domain whereas reading fiction to young ones is a female one.
“At Pippa’s birthday party, they were all dressed in big, pink, ruffly skirts with sparkles and little crowns and sparkly wants. Including some of the boys,” Olivia explains, carefully adding that some boys like to dress up pretty, too. Later, she explains, “For the school dance recital, everyone was trying out for the fairy princess ballerina. Even a couple of the boys.” At first glance this might seem inclusive. But doesn’t the word ‘everyone’ cover it already? By tacking on, twice, that a couple of boys were included in this pink business, the unintended consequence is that these boys are othered. Part of me wishes the boys could have been depicted via the illustration. But then I thought of the practicalities of this; how do illustrators even depict gender in picturebooks, given that everyone is wearing pants (and even then, genitalia doesn’t equal gender)? They do it with pink: pink for girls, every other colour for boys, who are the default. Maybe bows on heads and extra eyelashes for girls. So without saying in the text that some of these pink characters are actually boys, the reader would never know. Could this inclusiveness been achieved another way? I think so. It just takes a bit of imagination. Since the author is already using Western gendered names for Olivia’s family, he could have included a scene or two in which pretty pigs with boy names just happened to be in the scene. In general, if you want to express a political message in a picture book, it’s best not to preach it. And even though this entire portion of the book is a monologue that ostensibly comes from Olivia, it’s a straight didactic message nonetheless.
Pink is obviously ubiquitous in girl culture — no one would deny that. I also find that when little girls dress up in pink their behaviour actually changes. They’re less keen to muddy their pretty clothes, which hampers their activities. They seem to become more coy and aware of the outside gaze when out in public dressed as a princess. But I still don’t like to see all those little girls dressed in pink run into the corner when Olivia enters the room dressed as a warthog. This suggests that if a little girl does dress in pink then she is also cowardly. I don’t like to see that correlation underscored in fiction, because what we’re really doing is showing how little girls in pink are meant to behave, and the only way you can not behave like that is by dressing in something other than pink. This isn’t actually an option for lots of little girls, whose parents ONLY dress them in pink!
Here’s something I don’t quite understand: Even though Olivia has shown us that she’s more than capable of thinking outside the gender box, when she goes to sleep at night what does she dream of doing? “Maybe I could be a nurse and devote myself to the sick and the elderly,” or “maybe adopt orphans from all over the world!” Olivia dreams of caring for others, in other words. Next she does think she might be a reporter, exposing “corporate malfeasance”, but I’ll argue that showing the female Olivia on the periphery of a scene with two male pigs is yet another scene in which gender roles are reinforced rather than challenged. (Rich baddies = male; underdog goodies can be female.)
One could also argue that there’s nothing wrong with being a princess. When all the other girls in a story are doing the same thing, the message risks sounds like ‘not like other girls’ pseudo-feminism.
This particular Olivia story has an overtly feminist message, but when you look more closely, at the pictures as well as at the words coming out of Olivia’s/Falconer’s mouth, you’ll find the feminist message somewhat undermined.