Jan 20 2011

Superheroes and Princesses

Virginia Postrel of the Wall Street Journal offers an interesting comparison: “The princess archetype embodies a feminine version of the appeal… The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay ascribes to superheroes. They express the ‘lust for power and the gaudy sartorial taste of a race of powerless people with no leave to dress themselves.'”  What do you think? Are the two that comparable? Any other observations, arguments or baseless insults?

20 responses so far

20 Responses to “Superheroes and Princesses”

  1. B. Macon 19 Dec 2010 at 9:35 am

    One contrast I would draw: I think one of the main trends of superhero stories is delivering justice for others. To the extent that justice factors in princess stories, it seems to me that it’s more of justice for the princess–for example, Cinderella and Snow White overcome the people that have wronged them and achieve a happy life for themselves but helping others (besides their boyfriends) does not play a prominent role, as far as I can tell.

    In contrast, while superheroes are frequently wronged, I don’t think that righting these wrongs against oneself is a major focus of most superhero stories. For example, in most versions of Spiderman and Batman, the guys that killed Peter’s uncle and Bruce’s parents are almost completely invisible (respectively an unnamed burglar and minor antagonist Joe Chill). The characters spend vastly more time dealing with antagonists that endanger other people.

    Hmm, what do you think?

  2. steton 20 Dec 2010 at 8:20 am

    I think that this is more true of the ‘retellings’ of the princess stories. In the graphic novel Rapunzel, for example, she’s a superhero who cares very much about helping other people.

    I suppose that the ‘feminine vs. masculine’ thing is supported by the expectation that boys/men are (stereotypically) involved in the public sphere, while girls/women are more concerned with the private sphere. But the culture’s changing, and with it our stories.

  3. Sean Higginson 20 Dec 2010 at 12:27 pm

    I think the only place where this comparison can even begin to be valid is by comparing cartoons (ie. Disney Princesses, Superhero Squad) which have similar target audiences of children age 8 – 12. Disney Princess stories do have the same differeneces that B. Mac mentioned, but I think it can be noted that the Princesses tend to share the superpower of being able to speak (or otherwise communicate) with animals.

    I think that superhero stories do a better job a bridging the gender gap (but this may just be in my own household).

  4. Trollon 20 Dec 2010 at 2:51 pm

    I don’t think anything’s wrong with girls liking princesses…Bella/Twilight on the other hand

  5. B. Macon 20 Dec 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Troll, what about Twilight strikes you as less acceptable than most princess stories?

    (I feel that Bella, like most Disney princesses*, tends to be reactive and dependent upon her boyfriend).

    *Jasmine strikes me as a notable exception; she’s unusually independent of Aladdin. First, she justifiably gets upset that Aladdin lies to her, whereas Bella just soaks up so much mistreatment from Edward. (Relatedly, she casts aside her first would-be suitor for being unfriendly to her, but Bella seems to be drawn to that). Second, compared to most princesses, Jasmine is unusually heroic in the final confrontation; she distracts Jafar at a crucial moment with charm and trickery.

  6. Simbon 20 Dec 2010 at 5:31 pm

    How’s Mulan for you B. Mac?

  7. Beccaon 20 Dec 2010 at 6:32 pm

    I agree with Troll. The main plot arc of princess stories are basically about achieving happiness, whether that’s escaping the bonds of a cruel step-mother, bringing honour to the family (Mulan), etc. In Twilight, though, pretty much all Bella does over the course of the series is accommodate others (whether that’s Edward or someone else) and suppress her own happiness (can’t remember the exact line right now, but it’s something like “I felt a wave of happiness, but I suppressed it under a cloud of depression” – oh God, better not be happy!).

  8. B. Macon 21 Dec 2010 at 8:53 am

    Oh wow, was Mulan a princess? She’s very much non-stereotypical. (She’s not born into royalty or a high rank, she wins the final battle rather than watch her boyfriend do it, does more to overcome the antagonist than most of the princesses, etc).

  9. Sean Higginson 21 Dec 2010 at 9:39 am

    They’ve turned her into one, though she is not a princess in the actual sense.

    And on a side note, how about dem Bears?

  10. B. Macon 21 Dec 2010 at 10:10 am

    I’m pleased we steamrolled a first-start QB playing without his team’s star running back, but I was more impressed by Matt Flynn against New England. Admittedly, NE is horrendous against the pass, but 250 yards/3 TDs/1 INT is solid.

    PS: I applied this week to do sportswriting for ESPN. Okay, that’s enough for my football tangent.

  11. B. Macon 21 Dec 2010 at 10:25 am

    If princesses were generally more engaged in martial daring/badassery, I think the concept would have more crossover appeal with guys. “Citizens, I need firepower!” 😉

  12. Trollon 21 Dec 2010 at 11:04 am

    Well, Twilight is full of bad messages, but the worst offender is New Moon where Bella becomes a zombie after Edward breaks up with her. (Like Becca said.)

  13. Trollon 21 Dec 2010 at 11:05 am

    I forgot to add, Princesses seem to work for their happy ending in any movie starting with “The Little Mermaid” and after.

  14. B. Macon 21 Dec 2010 at 12:48 pm

    One thing I like about the princesses starting with Jasmine is that they contribute in their climactic battles. (Indeed, Mulan takes the leading role in the final battle).

    I don’t think Ariel and Belle contributed there.

  15. Sean Higginson 21 Dec 2010 at 1:13 pm

    I don’t know, Belle’s tears apparently were capable of reverting the Beast’s curse. Maybe she’s half Phoenix.

  16. B. Macon 21 Dec 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Well, okay, but did she do anything besides crying in the climax? Even the clock did more. 🙂

  17. Contra Gloveon 21 Dec 2010 at 3:16 pm

    @ B. Mac

    If princesses were generally more engaged in martial daring/badassery, I think the concept would have more crossover appeal with guys.

    The Fire Emblem series has you covered, B. Mac!

  18. Beccaon 21 Dec 2010 at 5:25 pm

    Belle is my favourite, mostly because I’ve been known to walk around town with my nose in a book, too, but she was un-shallow enough to fall in love with the Beast even though he’s, well, a literal beast. That’s what saved Beast in the end, not just her tears. Even if she didn’t contribute too much action-wise she’s certainly better than the stereotypical princess.

  19. Trollon 21 Dec 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Well, Belle was smart and she didn’t take any crap from Gaston. Ariel was the first Disney Princess who started to work for their happy endings. (Although I question some of the things she did, like leave her world forever for this guy she barely knew.) But do Princesses have to fight in the end to be competent? Cause “Princess and the Frog” had a very satisfactory ending even though Tiana didn’t fight, she stood up to Dr. Facilier in a great speech.

  20. B. Macon 21 Dec 2010 at 11:08 pm

    “Do princesses have to fight in the end to be competent?” No, but I’d like the character to participate in the climax, whatever that is*. Disney climaxes tend to be a final fight, though.

    Alternately, if the climax is set up as a fight, perhaps the protagonist does something that majorly affects it without actually being a combatant. For example, I think Pocahontas plays a major role averting a fight between the natives and colonists.

    (*Climaxes don’t have to be fights or even confrontations. It could be a character making a major decision or asking someone to marry him, etc).

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