The Princess Paradox

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It's the recurring nightmare of high-minded modern parents of daughters. You ask your relatives to lay off the pink pinafores at the baby shower. You give your daughter Legos and soccer balls, not Barbies. You encourage her to play fire fighter and immerse her in Dora the Explorer videos. Then one Halloween rolls around, and your empowered, self-confident budding Marie Curie tells you that she wants to be...a princess.

Call it nature or nurture, harmless fantasy or insidious indoctrination, but Hollywood is discovering that it still pays not to fight the royal urge. Following 2001's $108 million — grossing The Princess Diaries, Hollywood has waved its wand and conjured a set of Cinderella stories for girls, including next month's The Prince & Me and Ella Enchanted, as well as A Cinderella Story in July and a Princess Diaries sequel in August. That's not to mention other fairy-tale projects (Shrek 2) and transformational stories like 13 Going On 30, in which a gawky teen is magically morphed into a fashion-plate magazine editor played by the perpetually miniskirted Jennifer Garner.

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We've come a long way, it seems, from the girls-kick-ass culture of just a few years ago (Charlie's Angels, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) in which a 360 flying-roundhouse kick was a girl's best friend. (On the proto girl-power cartoon, Powerpuff Girls, one of the heroines' worst enemies was a spoiled brat named Princess Morbucks.) But brush off the fairy dust, and you find a new kind of Cinderella, one who would rather save Prince Charming, thank you, and who has learned the lessons of feminism — or at least learned to pay lip service to them. You can have the girly dream of glass slippers and true love, these films say, as well as the womanly ideal of self-determination and independence — and any contradictions between them are no match for the movies' magic.

Ella Enchanted, for instance, is a spoof of Cinderella in which the title character (Diaries' Anne Hathaway, Hollywood's queen of princesses) spends her free time protesting the discriminatory anti-elf and -giant policies of the family of Prince Charmont (Hugh Dancy). What she wants at first is not love but to free herself of a fairy's curse that forces her to be obedient. In The Prince & Me (what, The Prince & I would have been too egghead-y?), Paige Morgan (Julia Stiles) is a workaholic soon-to-be medical student who rolls her eyes at friends rushing to get their M.R.S. degrees. When she falls for Eddie (Luke Mably), a rakish-but-sweet exchange student who turns out to be Danish Crown Prince Edvard, the prospect of becoming queen upsets her dreams of working for Doctors Without Borders. (Stiles, who played Ophelia in the 2000 film Hamlet, should know that dating the prince of Denmark can be a pain.) "The Cinderella story has always frustrated me," Stiles says. "What I like about The Prince & Me is that my character is a lot more active and is ready to live a life by herself and be independent."

SPOILER ALERT: Skip this paragraph if you don't want to know how these movies end. O.K., here's the shocker — they end happily. What is surprising, however, is that, in the original ending of The Prince & Me, Paige broke up with Edvard to go to med school (in the final version, she gets to have both the guy and the career). And what's downright shocking is that Paramount approved the first, decidedly non-fairy-tale ending. "But when I saw it," says director Martha Coolidge, "I knew it was wrong. What was wrong about it was not what we thought — whether she got together with him or not. The real issue was about him making a compromise and the monarchy making a compromise."

Reinventing fairy tales has been a favorite project of feminist authors from Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber) to Marlo Thomas (Free to Be...You and Me), who understood that wish-fulfillment stories are about teaching people what they should wish for. Among an earlier generation of women, the wish was to be able to do everything men could. For the modern Cinderellas' audience, which takes that freedom as a given, the wish is to also be able — unashamedly — to fall in love and go to the ball. Indeed, in Prince, Paige realizes that she needs to be "rescued" from her disciplined but single-minded careerism as much as she needs to assert her independence. Girls asserting their right to choose the fairy-tale ending is not a bad thing, says Thomas, since now the movies are balanced by varied depictions of young women in films from Whale Rider to Blue Crush. "What women have tried to achieve for other women," she says, "is choice in every step of their lives."

But to succeed on both the feminist and the fantasy level, the new Cinderella has developed rules and conventions as strict as a Joseph Campbell template. She should be pretty, but in a class-president way, not a head-cheerleader way. She should be able to stand up for herself (recall the Crouching Tiger moves of Shrek's Princess Fiona). She must be socially conscious — a result, says Meg Cabot, author of the Princess Diaries books, of Princess Diana's charitable work. And she should above all not want to be a princess — at least until she changes her mind. In Diaries, Prince and Ella, it's not the girl who must prove herself worthy of princesshood; princesshood must prove itself worthy of the girl.

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