Netflix really, really, really wanted me to watch The Princess Switch. Following two weeks of full-screen previews rolling each and every time I logged into my account, I finally succumbed. The streaming service’s algorithm clearly thought it knew me better than I know myself. We’ll see about that, I thought testily, determined to prove the Netflix Gods wrong. I pressed play. What followed was a banal yet completely charming hour and forty minutes of Christmas rom-com fluff. I am ashamed to admit, I enjoyed myself.
The Princess Switch is previously teen movie star sensation Vanessa Hudgens’ newest film, in which she plays not one but two leading roles. When American pastry chef Stacey meets her lookalike Margaret, Duchess of a Small-Made-Up-European-Country-Ending-In-‘ia’, the two agree to trade places for 48 hours. Think, The Parent Trap meets The Princess Diaries meets Freaky Friday — with a solid dose of holiday cheer thrown in for extra cheese.
The film contains all the standard tropes of an identity switcheroo. There’s the requisite scene in which the pair discover one another and can’t quite believe they look completely identical (right down to Hudgens’ wrist tattoo that someone in make-up has forgotten to cover up). There are handsome men (one of them a prince!), who are unappreciated by the protagonists but post-switch her twin sees their real value. There’s even a cute kid who can smell what’s up (while all the adults miss the bleeding obvious) and an attentive maid/governess, completely devoted to her charge’s true happiness.
Whilst The Princess Switch absolutely delivers on its feel-good promise, I was still left rather frustrated by it – and not because of the recycled plotlines, the terrible call-backs and all-around comedy of editing errors either. No, my frustration stemmed from the fact that a ‘princess fantasy’ simply won’t budge as the ultimate dream – even for women in generations Y and Z. Why is it that movie makers continue to earn their pay cheques based on the assumption that the dream life for women and girls is that of a princess?
Sure, the royalty factor provides an avenue to display some seriously over-the-top gowns and expensive bling (as well as a bizarre Marge Simpson style twinset and pearls situation). However, any high-income career with a public profile would meet the needs of such a plotline. Why can’t the princess switch be replaced with a presidential one? Or even a Hollywood starlet switch? Or an aspiring popstar switch? Any glamorous role that allows the protagonists to have actual, you know, jobs.
Despite the best efforts of feminists, princess culture dominates the world view of little girls. Their clothes, toys, story books, stickers, accessories, TV shows and dolls all conform with the idea that marrying a prince who will take care of you – and everything else – is the ultimate dream. At their core, these are tales of transformation. And as Angela Ndalianis, associate professor of cinema studies at the University of Melbourne argues in The Age, it’s a storyline that’s equally addictive as house renovations on The Block or rapid weight loss on The Biggest Loser.
One state of being (the royal one) is held out as more desirable than the other. One is a fantasy life and one, just a bit ordinary. The assumptions that underlie this encourage the comparison of our dull daily existence with that of a – supposedly – better one. In The Princess Switch, the happy ending is the marriage of an ordinary girl to a prince. There’s no real celebration – and certainly no on-screen depiction – of the dream future that the duchess who is dating a (seriously good looking) single dad will live.
The princess fantasy allows little girls – and adult women – to imagine every single stereotype of feminine perfection in a neat package. A life is imagined where you’re rich, beautiful, thin, beloved, taken care of, famous and without any real job to do – all at once. As Mica Lemiski points out for Vice, the Stacey character in The Princess Switch has more than a passing similarity to Meghan Markle. Our society’s obsession with royal weddings, babies and tours provides a nightly news version of the fairy tale (and one that’s more socially acceptable for grown-ups to indulge in).
Laura Kennedy explains in the Irish Times: “Little is less progressive than marrying into aristocracy and living a cave existence that suffragettes died to pull women out of: a life of domestication where you are not free to express your opinion, must change your appearance as “modesty” dictates, and have at least your public persona defined almost entirely by your relationship with your husband and in-laws.” Yet these movie narratives consistently fail to genuinely explore any of the less-than-pleasant realities of life as a member of the royal family.
Is our adult interest in the lives of crown-wearing Europeans harmless? Probably. And is a Christmas rom-com that establishes living in a palace as the dream to beat out all other dreams, equally so? Again, probably. But why is it that a life of restriction, lack of ambition, relinquishment of agency and no control over your own money still the epitome of feminine achievement? And is it really something we should be packaging up in movie-length format as worthy of young girls’ ambition?
Yes, it’s kind of Grinchy but all this princess drama makes me uncomfortable.
Pass the eggnog and my tiara, would you?
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