Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Paper Bags and Bums

As a child growing up in the 80’s, my copy of Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess, shared officially with my twin sister was more mine than hers and I would lay in bed studying every word and picture, no doubt with my dirty feet pressed up against the wall leaving marks, and my finger up my nose.

It also happens to be my youngest son’s first official book that is truly his -- not from the book collection passed down from his older brother. My 9 year-old and 4 year-old sons and I occasionally read it before bed if the mood is right, with our fingers up our noses.

Unlike traditional fairy tales that model gender roles in which female characters are passive princesses waiting to be rescued, cared for, and protected by men, The Paper Bag Princess is radically alternative with a feminist-spin.

The Radical, Feminist Plot

Princess Elizabeth is a beautiful, rich, pre-pubescent princess with fine clothes and is set to marry the equally pristine Prince Ronald. A dragon burns down her castle, including her clothes and carries off the Prince. Elizabeth puts on a basic brown paper bag, chases down the dragon, outsmarts the beast, and rescues the Prince. The Prince upon being rescued takes one look at her and tells her to “Come back when you are dressed like a real princess”. Elizabeth calls him a bum and walks off. And they don’t get married.

He thinks she's a disgrace...she thinks he's a Bum

I may have been young, but Munschs’ themes and metaphors opened the floodgate thereon in for my habit of “reading into things”. The very basic concept of a princess, *gasp*, SAVING a prince was so radical, it’s being blogged about right now at this very moment for the purpose of reminding ya’ll that this type of fairy tale is still considered “alternative”.

The herstory of the idea for Princess Elizabeth goes like this: At a daycare in Ontario, Munsch came across a young girl called Elizabeth who would walk in and throw her coat on the floor expecting someone to hang it up for her because she had a slew of brothers who did everything for her. Her nickname amongst staff was “Princess”. Sexist perhaps, but I digress. Robert Munsch told two stories each day to the children, and he often changed the plots of stories each time and was “doing a bunch of dragon stories” with a prince always saving the princess. His wife Ann, who was the director at the center pointed out that most of the women who brought their kids to daycare were single moms and most children did not have princely role models at home. Ann asked, “Why can’t the princess ever save the prince, Bob?” So he obliged. It became “a story that the MOTHERS liked,” explained Munsch, “and it stopped changing and became a story that was asked for again and again.”

stunned and shirtless, Elizabeth is still a princess

As a child, and now, I love that the princess raises above vanity -- a theme that is THE focal point of every single fairy tale forced down my throat as a young girl. I love that she was drawn shirtless with an un-sexualized body. I love the symbolism of the charred, mutilated crown that remained on her head throughout her journey. I love the air of dignity and industriousness of the paper bag.

She finds herself in a post-apocalyptic situation where etiquette and expectations are tossed out the window and we watch her make her own choices. I love how her parents are nowhere in sight. I love that in each beautifuly-drawn illustration by Michael Martchenko her face captures the true emotions of a girl - the anger, the disappointment, the confidence, the smugness, the victory, the adoration, the joy.

pleased princess and out-of-puff dragon

When faced with the intimidating dragon, Princess Elizabeth uses her brain and cleverness as opposed to her beauty/sexuality to problem-solve. I LOVED the reverse gender roles, I loved seeing Elizabeth standing next to a defeated dragon, staring up at the caged, vulnerable prince. In my childhood this was the ONLY fairy tale where a girl wasn't depicted as irrelevant, dim, passive, stagnant and stuck indoors!

Elizabeth rescues Ronald
I asked one of my parents if it was possible that Ronald was mean to her not because he really meant those cruel words but because he was shaken by being saved by a girl. They called this being emasculated and it was “a terrible thing”. I decided that day that masculinity wasn't just a privilege for the boys, but something girls deserve to feel too.

The general reception to this story at the time was confusing, apparently. Bronwyn Davies, Feminist scholar and author, did some research on the impact of this story (she was provoked to search for alternative children’s stories to read to her own daughter for role models to combat the materialistic and highly-sexualized consumer culture that surrounded girls). Davies discovered that children viewed Princess Elizabeth as "bad once she stepped out of her female place” and her findings illustrate the 1980s as a time of changing gender roles in society. Davies found that children who had a mother working outside the home and who had a father who shared in the housework were able to grasp the feminist message of the story.

What does Elizabeth walk away with at the end of the story? Not the prince, not a trophy, not a new status or an elevated hierarchy, not a new outfit or tangible object. 

Aside from feminism, the message of self-love may be the most important concept to discuss with your kids -- boys and girls.

Twins! (Wendy & Hayley)

What I love most about the paperbag princess, is that she makes me think of my twin sister, Hayley, who every single time we went tobogganing during those long Winnipeg winters would pull me in the sled the whole 2 blocks to the hill and the whole 2 blocks home, our parents nowhere in sight. She marched to the beat of her own drum, is both perfectly resilient and perfectly vulnerable and taught me how to stand up for myself. Hayley's a dragon-slayer, but she's a generous and compassionate one. And things that I could never really understand, she always had a way of explaining them to me. 

And I have, like I’m sure every girl has, fallen for that deceptively beautiful man who turned out to be someone who took advantage of my one-sided devoted adoration. Reading the simple last lines from Elizabeth always brings me back to basics:

The Paper Bag Princess is NOT an anti-male sentiment, It simply highlights that unkind, disrespectful behavior from a partner, any partner, is sometimes just unacceptable.

According to Munsch, the moral of the story is: “there are a lot of bums out there and you don’t want to marry one.”


Other Readings:

The Princess Who Saves Herself
(as per the book’s Kickstarter): The story of an awesome kid who lives with her pet snake and plays rock ‘n’ roll all day to the huge annoyance of the classical guitarist witch who lives down the road. Hijinks, conflicts, and a fun reconciliation ensue, all showcasing determination, bravery, and understanding.

Frogs and Snails and Feminist Tales: Preschool Children and Gender
(as per Google Reads description:) How and why do children become masculine or feminine? The way in which gender is constructed in our society means that in learning to be good people, to be members of our society, children must learn the way maleness and femaleness is done and they must get it right. Gender is a public rather than private category, and children recognize that they are not free as individuals to vary the way gender is taken up. Using children's play, their conversation, and their responses to feminist stories, this study provides both detail of the gendered world of childhood and new insights into the social construction of gender. This revised edition includes the addition of a chapter reflecting on the methodology, as well as detailed textual improvements.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture:
(Wikipedia): The book explores the phenomenon of princess culture and in particular how the concept is marketed to young girls. It expands on the theme set out in the article, incorporating child beauty pageants, American Girl stores, and a Miley Cyrus concert. Orenstein concerns herself with young girls' self-esteem and the sexualization of girlhood.

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