Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole

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.



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.

brave merida fighting warrior

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.



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 battle 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 battle.


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.



The Frog Prince 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:

Princess and the Frog-04

Moral Lesson

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 battles 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. Continue reading “The Frog Prince Fairytale”


  2. What if Disney’s Princesses were horror stories? from io9. (I would argue that some of them already are.)
  3. Is a Disney Free Daughter Really A More Empowered One? from Jezebel
  4. Someone takes photos of women dressed as Disney princesses and posts them to Flickr. In fact 2012 was a big year for princess memes and Internet trends. Can We Please Stop With The Hipster Disney Princesses came from Mommyish.
  5. Turns out there’s a rule. Nothing surprising. Turns out Princesses kinda have to be white, even Latina ones.
  6. Meanwhile, Movieline wonders if the Anti-Princess movement has finally arrived? And by anti-princess, they mean all those princesses who don’t behave like traditional princesses but who are still princesses.
  7. Did you catch the little girl telling Pippa Middleton that she doesn’t like princesses? Unfortunately I can’t decipher what Pippa said in response, but she was obviously as amused as the rest of us.
  8. What would you do if your son wanted to dress up as a princess? I’D LET HIM.
  9. Six Princess Books For Parents Who Really, Really Hate Princesses from Good Men Project
  11. Stop Telling Girls They Are Princesses from Daily Life
  12. Earth To Disney: There is no princess gene, from Princess Free Zone
  13. Grace Kelly Dies: Books about princesses from YA Reading List
  14. Kickass Princesses Part 1 and Part 2 from Bad Reputation
  15. It’s time we all grew up and ditched the Princess Fantasy thing from The Guardian


girl thing 73 Its a girl thing (24 photos)