Living In Cinderella’s Shadow: The 5 Best Live-Action Princesses

Cinderella

Disney has found a viable new market to exploit: live-action princess movies. Traditionally relegated to animated films, the Disney princess fast became public shorthand for any strong female lead, regardless of whether or not they were actually of royal blood. This is, for instance, why Pocahontas (a chief’s daughter in a non-monarchical society) and Mulan (a soldier with no autocratic ties) are commonly granted the title contrary to the nitpickers’ cries against it.

And while it’s true that there has been an over-abundance of animated princesses that have graced the silver screen over the past century, there have been no shortage of live-action counterparts to them. This has been especially true over the past several years, as many now-adults that grew up with the classic Disney films of the 90s prove hungry for more adult depictions of their childhood favorites.

This list is for them: those people who want a somewhat adult counterpart for the strong (specifically noble) female characters who have a very real stake in their own narrative. Although not all – or even most – of these ladies are Disney branded, they undoubtedly fit the bill otherwise.

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5) Maleficent from Maleficent – Before she was transformed into “the mistress of all evil,” Maleficent was a a girl whose dominion was over the enchanted creatures of the forest – at least according to last year’s feminist revision to the classic fairy tale. Like John Gardner’s Grendel, Maleficent fleshes out a generally flat (if insatiably memorable) villain from Disney’s rogue gallery.

In this regard, Maleficent is a resounding success. The enchantress is strong-willed, well rounded and doesn’t need to randomly know Kung Fu in order to get her point across. And although horrendous things happen to her in the course of the film – which can be varyingly interpreted as a rough analogy for either date rape or a double mastectomy – she uses that to fuel her revenge, for good or for ill.

That last part, I feel, is key to understanding all of the women on this list. It doesn’t matter as much (to me at least) if those listed are good characters (ie, morally aligned with some nebulous concept of honor, compassion and selflessness) as long as they are good characters (ie, individuals with strong characterization and a narrative arc that they themselves direct toward a self-determined conclusion). They can be as abhorrent as Maleficent keeping an innocent child alive long enough to psychologically torture her father with the certainty of her death, just as long as they are granted agency within their own story.

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4) Giselle from Enchanted – Giselle is the live-action prototype of Frozen‘s Anna. She’s the stereotypically flighty, impulsive princess with a post-modern edge about her. Yes, she runs off to marry a guy that she’s only just met. Yes, she’s somehow more naive about actual human interaction than Goku. And yet, somehow, she stands as one of the most well-rounded and memorable female characters to crop up in the last couple decades, and it’s small wonder why.

I already touched on my frustration with the assumption that all female characters need to know Kung Fu (or some equally hyper-masculine skill) in order to be considered strong or independent. If it fits the character and the story that she finds herself in, that’s one thing, but that’s rarely the actual case. It’s as if in everybody’s rush to make amends for the historical lack of agency given to female characters they overcorrected: making men in dresses instead of actual women.

Giselle is a reminder that women – shocking as it might be to hear – are people. They are as different from one another as they are from men (or, similarly, as men are from other men). For every butt-kicking Sarah Conner or hawk-eyed Katniss in the room, there’s bound to be a few that are more traditionally feminine: more comfortable in a traditional romantic dichotomy, where a sure-armed man will swing in to save them from the lumbering troll in their midst. And when the moment comes when they need to step up to the plate, they do so: proving themselves just as physically capable as the men in their lives through sheer determination and will. After all, it’s not about making a feminine counterpart to traditionally male leads; it’s about making realistic women, regardless of what that means.

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3) Éowyn from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – If Giselle represents one extreme of the female spectrum, Éowyn represents the other. She is a skilled – if inexperienced – fighter who is just as capable a fighter as any of the men she yearns to fight alongside. Traditional as well as her social station denies her the combat she so desperately longs to join, however. She is not only a woman, after all, but a princess of Rohan.

But when push comes to shove, she disguises herself as a soldier and rushes into battle like a Captain America with long, flowing hair, seeming to argue that “there are men laying down their lives [and] I got no right to do any less than them.” And in her role she performs exemplary, slaying the Witch King of Angmar who prophecy dictates that no man can kill.

Although her part is relatively small within the context of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is critically important. And, what’s even more, it’s organically so. It’s not some minor part inflated to herculean importance to try to appeal to the women in the audience or to make a point about female equality. Éowyn is important because she is a strong character of real depth who refuses to be relegated as a footnote in the story of her life and of her people.

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2) Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones – I struggled trying to arrange the last two princesses on this list. On the one hand, Daenerys’ story is far from concluded (even in the books), so there’s no real indication of what else she’ll get up to before she’s written out of the picture. On the other hand, her chief rival on this list has largely been augmented by ancillary materials over a number of decades, so separating her on-screen character from what augmentative novels have turned her into is an incredible ordeal in of itself. Having to settle on only single winner, however, I ultimately had to side against the Mother of Dragons.

I can think of few female characters, royalty or otherwise, who possess greater agency within their own narratives than Daenerys of House Targaryen. Although she starts off as little more than a pawn to be used by her brother, Targaryen loyalists and Dothraki horse lords, she ultimately sets out on the path that she foresees best benefitting herself and her fallen household. She refused to be relegated to the ceremonial life of a widowed crone in Vaes Dothrak, avenged her murdered husband, revived the extinct draconic species and leads her shattered Khalasar through the desert when her advisors called it suicide. She waged a moralistic war against slavery in the far East, eventually resulting in the conquest Meereen, which she successfully held it off against invading and insurgent forces.

Although her record in battle is pristine, Daenerys herself is far from a flawless. Although her decision to plant herself in Meereen to gain a greater understanding for the duties of a Queen were well-founded and far-seeing, the logistics of doing so proved to be an absolute nightmare for her fledgling forces. And while her war against slavery certainly holds the moral high ground, it brought down greater wrath upon her than she could realistically hold off. The key, though, as is always the case, is that she chose the direction of her narrative herself, with realistic skill and intelligence becoming of her background and character.

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1) Leia Organa from Star Wars: Episodes IV-VI – Although the story of Star Wars is most principally guided by the actions of men, there’s no denying that Leia Organa paved the way for the princesses of later years. She had an unprecedented degree of autonomy within the Star Wars narrative and refused to be relegated to merely being a damsel in distress. Granted, we first see her being detained by the story’s principle villain and her rescue from the Death Star consumes a large amount of screen time, but that sub plot does not define her as a character as it traditionally does other women.

Her treason against the Empire – the very reason why she needed to be rescued in the first place – is the direct cause of Luke’s involvement in the Rebellion. The intelligence that she was able to smuggle out through R2D2 resulted in the destruction of the Death Star: which, by the way, she was able to upload mid-battle, just before taking down a few Storm Troopers of her own. When enslaved (an implicitly raped) by Jabba in a failed bid to rescue Han, she doesn’t resign herself to submission. Rather, she waits for an ideal moment and kills her captor. She didn’t need any rescuing the second time around.

And as I mentioned when discussing Daenerys, there’s a vast library of ancillary materials expanding on her as a character. For those who are interested moving beyond the screen, she’s succeeded in juggling a career as a high profile politician, her work as a Jedi and raising a set of Jedi twins, all while being married to the galaxy’s scruffiest looking nerf-herder. I can only hope that The Force Awakens does her character as much justice as the last thirty years of tie-in fiction has.

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