The princess is the ultimate representation of social and hierarchical power

Knight, do my bidding.

A girl told my son “I’m a princess, you’re a knight, fetch me a glass of water!”. It was then that I realized that a princess typically isn’t someone to save. I was so proud of my son when he said “no”, because I suddenly realized how hard it is to escape the shackles of that special story.

A princess is the one person in the country, who reigns surpreme in both hierarchy and social standing. People in stories might hate the king, but the princess is beloved by most. Remember princess Diana. In life she was a role model, and her death moved most people in Europe. No one in his or her right mind would admit killing her, not even among close friends. This is different with a king: You can kill a king and still keep your friends. But a princess is out of reach.

The princess might be seen as tragic -- having to sacrifice love for the good of the kingdom -- but she is still out of reach to any man. And she can destroy any person with a mere accusation. The one who insults a princess is condemned both by the power of the state and by society.

The only capability a princess in stories lacks is physical force, and the only way a man outside royalty can be more to the princess than a servant, is saving her from some horrible fate. Since she reigns surpreme in everything but physical force, this fate will have to be fought by physical strength.

The power she uses is indirect: The princess in stories did not create her power, she inherited it. But this does not mean that it is not real: If the king is not depicted as evil, then the guards are loyal to the princess, and this loyalty is real power.

This is why it felt strange to me when people celebrated stories in which the princess also wielded physical power as an inversion of the archetype of a princess needing to be saved. Making her also physically strong made her the most powerful person on every level. But it did not invert power. Instead it just increased the concentration of power.

An inversion of power would have been to tell a story of the cleaning maid who trained in secret to become a guard and who finally saved and married the fair and friendly and handsome and harmless prince. The end result would have been the same: A queen who wields both physical, social and hierarchical force. But the path would have been one of a strong woman who makes her own path.

Please sit back for a moment and imagine that story. Then come back in 5 minutes. If you have a clock at hand, please check the time, then take 5 minutes to let your imagination flow.

… 5 minutes later …

How does it feel to see the woman at the bottom train to fight her way up? How does it differ from the princess who gets trained by her personal guard?

The archetype of the royal prince in shining armor, fair and strong and beloved by everyone, has mostly disappeared. We rarely have these stories nowadays, because they are much less interesting than stories about people who have weaknesses, and because so many real royal princes hugely underperformed compared to the archetype. And writers in the past century worked a lot to dispell hierarchy and the story of the good and noble king with the inherited right to rule. Nowadays we ask why someone should have the right to rule others.

If these stories which glorify hierarchy come back with the martial arts princess, that does create a female version of the archetype of the royal prince saving the world, but it does not reverse the archetype of the knight saving the princess. Instead it uses a weakened version of equality as excuse to bring back justifications for hierarchy.

However this does not mean you should not tell stories of martial arts princesses, if you like them.

Those stories might actually be pretty cool, and might capture the imagination of a whole generation, as Street Fighter did with Chun Li (though she wasn’t a princess), or Starcraft did with Kerrigan1, or Alien did with Ripley. If you have a millionaire with super-human strength and extreme intellect saving people from the shadows (yepp, Batman), there’s no reason not to have a princess who takes up the good fight.

Also what I call the martial arts princess here is not the princess who rebels against her upbringing and is ready to give up her power for freedom. That is a genuine story of liberation. The martial arts princess is about just adding physical power to social and hierarchical power (as most magical girl princess anime stories do2).

But stories of martial arts princesses won’t get my cheers for being on the forefront of equality. They might get my cheers for being great stories, but my cheers for equality are reserved for stories of women who make their own paths without strengthening the chains of existing hierarchy.

  1. Kerrigan from Starcraft 1 could be described as adopted renegade warrior princess, later betrayed by her king, and finally ruler of the swarm as the queen of blades thanks to her own sheer force of will, strategic brilliance, and ruthlessness. 

  2. I like anime a lot, but that does not get me to ignore problems that are common in anime. 

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