Friday, December 1, 2017

Harry and Meghan: Going Beyond the Disney Princess

The happiest news of recent weeks is surely the engagement of Britain’s Prince Harry and commoner Meghan Markle. Markle is surely not the most obvious choice to be a royal princess bride. In fact, some have compared her to the infamous Wallis Simpson, whose love affair with King Edward VIII led to his abdicating his throne in order to marry the woman he loved. Back in 1936, Mrs. Simpson was widely considered unsuitable to be an English king’s consort because not only was she an  American but she’d also had two failed marriages prior to her romance with the man she called David Windsor. (Her portrayal in The King’s Speech as a haughty glamour girl is hardly a sympathetic one. Which is understandable when you realize that in the post-abdication years the couple, from their hideaway in the south of France, apparently became Adolf Hitler enthusiasts.)

Like Mrs. Simpson, Meghan Markle is American-born. In fact, she’s a native Angeleno with no apparent high society ties. Yes, she’s had a previous spouse, though only one. (These days, being divorced is hardly a rarity.) She’s an actress by trade, and an independent woman by inclination. Most remarkable of all, she’s the produce of a mixed-race marriage, with an African-American mother and an Anglo dad. The fact that the Queen of England has welcomed the match is a sign of a real shift among British nobility, though this hasn’t stopped British tabloids from posting nasty stories about Markle’s “ghetto” roots.

Naturally most of the public, both here and in England, has been swept away by the Cinderella story of a commoner marrying a prince. The pending nuptials seem especially exciting in an era wherein every little girl seems to want to grow up to be a Disney princess. (Even William and Kate’s small daughter, Charlotte, is said to yearn to be a princess someday: she’s totally oblivious to the fact that in reality she IS a princess.) 

Disney’s animated films these days lean strongly toward young female characters who are, or become, princesses. Take, for instance, Anna and Elsa as ice-princess sisters in the Disney mega-hit of 2013, Frozen. But Disney had jumped on the princess bandwagon as early as 2001, with the release of The Princess Diaries, a film version of Meg Cabot’s popular series of YA novels. The Princess Diaries, which marked the screen debut of the adorable Anne Hathaway, can be considered wish-fulfillment for every awkward young girl. Hathaway’s character, Mia, is a gawky and not-very-popular American teenager, until she suddenly stumbles upon the family secret: she’s actually the crown princess of the (purely fictitious) European kingdom of Genovia. Which means, of course, tiaras and balls and all things royal.  

Little girls fantasize that being a princess means pretty dresses and romantic escapades galore. I can’t help remembering one of my favorite films, which has an entirely different message. In 1953’s Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn is Princess Ann, who—when traveling outside of her own country—is stuck listening to dreary welcome speeches and making diplomatic small talk at formal receptions. The film’s focus is on her escape into the streets of Rome, where she gets a trendy haircut, rides on the back of a motorcycle, participates in a street brawl, and otherwise has a commoner’s kind of fun. She can’t dodge her royal duties forever, but we know that in the interim she’s learned something about being an independent young woman. 

Here’s hoping that Meghan Markle, the American commoner on the brink of becoming British royalty, never feels the need for an escape route.

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