On Friday, my daughter will be one of the millions (billions?) watching Prince William marry Kate Middleton. It’s not just because she’s princess-obsessed, and fairy-tale obsessed, but also because real-life princesses make excellent antidotes to the syrupy fairy tales that enrapture our girls.
The heroines of princess stories are usually poor but virtuous girls who face adversity, then find their one true love, only to have their stories cut short at the church door. So it’s jolting when real marriage doesn’t measure up, and “princes” don’t magically make all the bad stuff go away. We can’t even blame Disney, because the stories were created long before his Princess-merchandizing industry existed. With real princesses, there’s the familiar tiara, and all the glamor, but there are also difficult lessons, not so happy endings, and women with voices that linger long after “I do.”
The Cautionary Princess
The best example of this is Princess Diana, whose life post-fairy tale wedding puts an asterisk on “happily ever after.” She’s the anti-Disney princess, because what happened when this young princess married quickly, the adversity happened during the marriage, and the prince took some of the blame for that. But even better than being a cautionary tale, Princess Diana managed to make it out the other end a stronger and happier person, which is an important lesson missing from every fairy tale.
The Reverse Fairy Tale
Princess Victoria of Sweden is almost the opposite of every fairy tale story, with a woman who bucked tradition for love. She started out with the crown, rather than having it be her prize for getting the guy. She’s next in line for the throne, so it was especially extraordinary and controversial that she married her personal trainer. The lesson here, is about finding the right person for a spouse, no matter where they come from.
The Rare Happily Ever After
Of course, there are those times when the happily ever, really comes true. Because that can happen in real life, as it did when Princess Grace married Prince Ranier of Monaco, though the interview process she had to undergo before the engagement took place, was pretty interesting. (And personally, though everyone talks about Princess Diana’s dress, I think Princess Grace’s by far outshines them all.)
The Powerful Leader
But my favorite princess story has to be Theodora of Byzantium. While not a modern story, it is the story of a girl who grew up in adversity, and who captured the attention of the would-be emperor, Justinian I. Theodora and Justinian didn’t marry immediately. His mother was against it, because she was a “dancer” and so unfit to marry into royalty. But after his mother’s death, Justinian’s father allowed them to marry, and the couple rose to the throne, ruling over the Eastern Roman Empire for 38 years. Theodora ruled alongside her husband, and was his most trusted advisor, even advising him to stand his ground during times of turmoil when death threats faced them and others advised them to flee. After her death, she was sainted for her good works helping poor women and children.
So sure, my daughter will be dazzled by the dress, the tiara, and the pomp and circumstance as Kate and William marry, but hopefully she’ll also remember the real people behind all of that, and see their ability to make choices, to make mistakes, to learn, to grow, and to grow up. And knowing what happens to a real life princess is going to be a much better model than anything Andersen, Grimm, or even Disney dreamed up. And if that teaches her to work for her happily ever after, I’m all for it.