I have a friend in London who is a professional defender of princesses. Jerramy Fine is an American expat, a staunch royalist and the author of several books on them, including her latest, The Regal Rules For Girls, aimed at young women who wish to learn the correct curtsey should they ever meet the Queen, and where to go on holiday in the hope of bumping into (and eventually marrying) Prince Harry. We meet for lunch every couple of months or so to continue a debate: Do princesses actually matter?
Jerramy's position boils down to this: "Princesses are icons of grace, dignity and powerful femininity. In the age of Rihanna, they are excellent role models for our daughters."
My view? "Sure, Kate Middleton is a very well-behaved brood mare, but her life is a tedious nightmare. You can't possibly be implying that we should teach young women to aspire to marry dull future monarchs just because it might afford them some sort of abstract 'icon' status, which is, in practice, more like a form of public incarceration?"
To which Jerramy usually responds, with a demure smile, that Kate Middleton is not actually a princess but a duchess. And, of course, she is quite correct.
We recently had a date to watch Diana, starring Naomi Watts – Jerramy, for reasons of earnest fascination (she truly adores Diana and her legacy); me, for reasons of morbid curiosity (The Daily Mail called it "squirmingly embarrassing, atrocious and fabulously awful" – a ringing endorsement, in my view). Our response to the film was unanimous: Rubbish! But that probably had more to do with the mellifluously swelling soundtrack, plodding script and appalling overacting than the vision of princesshood itself – on which we remain respectfully divided.
And now it looks as if we will have another princess-movie date night in the near future, should we wish to subject ourselves to it. Later this year, Grace of Monaco, starring Nicole Kidman, will open – the latest royal biopic about a fine-featured blonde who married a less-attractive prince, was hounded by the media and died in a car crash. If the trailer (released this week) is anything to go by, we're in for another opera-slathered parade of sweeping staircases, sliding stretch limos, glittering chandeliers and popping flashbulbs. And in the middle of it all: a shy, pale girl who looks as if she'd rather be curled up with a cup of mint tea than feted as an effigy of ideal womanhood.
Princess Grace, who was forced to give up a successful career as an actress in order to serve as yacht ornament and it-bag inspiration, is hardly a feminist role model for the year 2013. Yet our fascination with her and her fellow princesses persists. The question is: Why?
A clue, I think, lies in the sonorous voice-over that accompanies the trailer. "Long after the House of Grimaldi has fallen, the world is going to remember your name," intones a faceless, God-like voice over images of Kidman looking bashful in various ball gowns. "You are the fairy tale, the serenity to which we all aspire. And peace will come when you embrace the roles you have been destined to play. For no matter where you are, in years to come, they will continue to whisper your name: the Princess Grace."
Ah, I thought, I finally get it. Our continued obsession with princesses is essentially sadistic. We want to watch their struggle and ultimate submission. The cultural transaction is as simple as it is brutal: We, the adoring public, provide them with attention, riches and status. They must "embrace the role" no matter how dull, restrictive or privately agonizing.
The royal men, by contrast, we basically ignore. Let Prince Andrew have his dubious business contacts, Harry his strip poker, Albert his children out of wedlock. It's only the princesses we ever seem to hold to task – to demonize and idolize, in turn – for they are the sacrificial lambs of Western womanhood, the painfully thin yardsticks by which we measure goodness, decency and that most abused of all terms: beauty. As Grace of Monaco's ominous voice-over puts it, these women will find "peace" only when they lay down their individual agency and become "the fairy tale, the serenity to which we all aspire." Have you ever heard such an incredible load of steaming horse manure in all your life?
I recently reread the original Brothers Grimm fairy tales and found that they are, like the lives of real-world royals, full of miserable moneyed people and gruesome events. The modern, Disney-sanitized versions of these stories are the ones that such so-called icons as Diana and Grace sought to live up to, and which have filled little girls' heads with passive pink gossamer nonsense ever since.
Pretty girls who marry men born to money and titles, and who then give up their interests in order to breed and be photographed, are tragic, yes, but not in a romantic way. We need to stop venerating princesses, and start making more movies about real women who've actually done something. As I recently told Jerramy: Rihanna might be vulgar, but at least she knows how to shake it.