Exploring America’s Fascination with Princesses Through Movies

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Prince Harry’s latest news proves America is obsessed with princess stories in real life and at the movies.

Princesses rule. (Disney)

Prince Harry has confirmed he is dating American actress Meghan Markle (Suits) in a rare statement from Kensington Palace on Tuesday. Unfortunately, the reason for the prince’s statement was to call out the “racial undertones” of articles and “outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments” about his long-rumored girlfriend. He expressed fears for Markle’s safety and essentially released the statement as a way to tell the infamous British tabloid media and social media trolls to back off. Despite the unfortunate circumstances around this statement and the U.S. election currently underway, this royal love story made “Prince Harry” a Twitter trending topic in the United States. Because nobody loves a royal drama more than the American people.

Modern princess vibes courtesy of Meghan Markle.

American fascination with royalty arguably started with Princess Diana, the ultimate celebrity princess whose stateside visits are the stuff of tabloids and legends. But while most royal headlines today surround Princess Catherine, Prince Harry’s new American girlfriend could change things. The U.S. certainly isn’t going to have a monarchic system in place anytime soon (fingers crossed) but we’ve certainly fantasized about Americans becoming princesses and queens through movies and, in one case, in real life. For now, the most we can do is follow Ms. Markle’s royal adventure across the pond and revisit some notable movies that underscore America’s royal obsession with princesses.

Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) and her Westley (Cary Elwes). (The Princess Bride)

The classic princess: The Princess Bride

Rob Reiner’s 1987 cult hit The Princess Bride is not your average princess fairy tale. The story revolves around a farmhand named Westley (Cary Elwes) who must rescue his true love Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) from the loathsome Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). He meets a ragtag group of friends along the way and action-packed sequences ensue over the course of the main journey to fulfill this Renaissance-era romantic tale. The film is most celebrated for its quirky comedy and highly quotable lines, but at the heart of it lies the main reason for the story: Princess Buttercup. In her first major movie role, Wright portrays Princess Buttercup in a way we imagine the classic fairy tale princess to be – bold, beautiful, sweet and princess-like. She embodies the most classic sense of the word “princess,” and though the terminology has evolved over time this version is one not to be missed.

Queen Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews) and Princess Mia. (Buena Vista)

The modern day princess: The Princess Diaries

If you are looking for the ultimate present-day princess fairy tale, look no further than The Princess Diaries. In a play on the fish-out-of-water trope, Anne Hathaway plays Mia Thermopolis, a nerdy teenager from San Francisco who discovers her grandmother Clarisse (Julie Andrews) is actually Queen of the fictional European kingdom of Genovia and her late father was the Crown Prince, making her a princess. In the vein of similar woman-gets-a-makeover movies like Pretty Woman and Miss Congeniality, Mia undergoes “princess lessons” despite her hesitance to the idea of becoming one. Directed by Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride), The Princess Diaries is about as saccharine as a princess movie can get. Though it raises questionable standards of beauty and success, it’s talented cast and charming story is enough to warrant a viewing and even a sequel.

The Disney Princess Brand. (Disney)

Princess as franchise: all the Disney Princess movies

Walt Disney has built an empire on princesses – even The Princess Diaries is a Walt Disney Pictures production. But The Mouse House’s heart and soul lies in animation, and the Disney animated princesses are each iconic in their own right. This section is reserved for all the Disney princesses who combine to create the “princess brand” that Disney has built its company on alongside the Marvel and Pixar brands.

Disney princesses embody various styles of princesses including the classic definition of a ladylike princess – Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, for example— to princesses who break the glass ceiling and are heroines of their own stories – Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Rapunzel and Tiana to name a few. There is also the new wave of Disney princesses who are challenging the norms of what we think a princess story should include. Frozen is a great example of this as it was praised for its depiction of feminist princesses who didn’t need a prince or a man in order to succeed. This step forward for princesses everywhere defies an age old Disney tradition of Disney princesses falling in love —like Jasmine with Aladdin, Beauty with Beast, Ariel with Eric and so forth.

Frozen is inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen and follows Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) on an epic adventure with a team of goofy male assistants (including an iceman, snowman and reindeer) to save her sister Princess Elsa (Idina Menzel) from her ice-producing powers that have trapped the kingdom in eternal winter. The (sometimes too) catchy songs, funny sidekick moments and story of positive female friendship – or, in this case, sisterhood – led Frozen to become the highest-grossing animated film of all time and a feminist success story for Disney.

Disney’s got several projects in the works with new princesses including Moana and live-action versions of Beauty and the Beast and Mulan. The word on the street is that these movies will have strong princess characters just like Elsa and Anna but we’ll have to wait until we can watch these films to confirm.

Grace Kelly in Rear Window

The real life American princess: Grace Kelly

Though this is not a particular film or set of films, it is worth mentioning Grace Kelly when talking about movie princesses. She embodies the actual realization of the American princess fantasy as an American actress who became the real life Princess of Monaco.

Kelly started her acting career at the age of 20, appearing in theater and television before gaining stardom and an Academy Award nomination in 1953 for Mogambo. She followed that up with The Country Girl, where she won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of a deglamorized, long-suffering wife. She also held roles in classic Hollywood titles such as High Noon, Rear Window and High Society, working alongside legendary leading men including Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. She portrayed a princess in the film The Swan, but it was her real life romance with Prince Rainier of Monaco that made her a true princess.

At the age of 26, Kelly retired from acting to marry Rainier and begin her duties as Princess of Monaco. Kelly’s turn from American actress to European princess caused a sensation in the media. The press even dubbed her nuptials as “The Wedding of the Century.” Kelly was offered multiple movie roles afterward, but her duties as a princess always came first and she became involved in philanthropic work. Although she wasn’t acting any longer, her real life princess role made her a true royal American princess and Hollywood movie legend. Director Alfred Hitchcock even quipped he was “very happy that Grace has found herself such a good part.”

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Writer. Audio/Creative Producer. Columnist, Film School Rejects.