Carrie Murphy is a poet, freelance writer and birth doula.
It’s no secret that girls love princesses. I loved them too. I love them still. I loved a princess in a book that taught me that paradise is a hut in the woods with a man who loves you. The book was The Ordinary Princess and I stole it from my third grade classroom (sorry, Mrs. Huegelmeyer). I’ve read the book at least a few times a year every year since, which means I’ve been reading it, my own tattered lavender-and-pink-copy, for eighteen years.
I was always a girly girl; my parents have albums of pictures of me as a child, playing dress up in a white slip I called my “married dress,” and with with lots of blush on my cheeks and rhinestones on my head done up as a princess for Halloween. I loved Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid. I walked around pretending my hair was cascading down my back, so heavy I had to tilt my head down. I pretended the newel post on our stairs was a prince asking me to dance. I didn’t like The Jungle Book because it didn’t have any girls in it. I loved princesses, I loved movies about girls who wore pretty dresses and had happy endings. And then, when I was about eight, I read The Ordinary Princess.
It’s a fairytale, yes. It’s a book about a princess named Amethyst who is “cursed” at her christening with ordinariness, which means she is plain and plucky and smart. She’s nicknamed Amy (so normal!) and she doesn’t have long blonde hair or pale white skin like her perfect princess sisters. When her parents try to marry her off in spite of her plainness, she escapes to a neighboring kingdom and gets a job as a kitchen maid. She has two best friends, who are a bird and a squirrel. She falls in love, of course, but I won’t spoil the story.
If you’re a girl who likes doing her own thing, who likes adventure and also likes pretty things and fairy stories, The Ordinary Princess feels like your place, like your space. A story made for you, for girls like you, who have freckles and laugh too loud. Girls who dream of Prince Charming and dresses sewn with pearls but who also love digging in the dirt and running barefoot through the woods. Because it’s ok to like both things. It’s ok to love fairy tales and have dreams and want to look pretty but also to have a hot heart inside that wants to tell the truth.
Princess Amy in The Ordinary Princess was everything for me: she had all the trappings of a conventional princess (gorgeous dresses, an endearingly quirky king father) with a heart like Caddie Woodlawn and a work ethic like Laura Ingalls Wilder. My love for princesses never really died; I spent most of middle school absolutely positively convinced I would marry Prince William somehow, someway, someday. And, in 2011, I woke up at 2 am Mountain Time to watch his wedding, breathless and crying and believing every second in the media-driven fairy tale of Will and Kate, her white lace dress, the bold gold fringe on his jacket and that magical kiss meant for millions of eyes.
My feminist self is at odds with this, this romantic holdover from my childhood. There’s been tons of talk in the past few years about the danger of “‘princess culture,” the posy-pink epidemic that’s taken over the minds, hearts, and wardrobes of little girls. (Much of the blame, rightly, lies on Disney and their pantheon of princesses). I’ve been taking care of kids since I was a kid myself, so I’ve seen this explosion of Pepto Bismol and dolls creep slowly, then suddenly, up through the 2000s. It is dangerous. My friend’s three-year-old placed a crown on me just the other day, so I could be a “bad queen” and she could be a princess who had to escape from me. She is incredibly smart and independent (and her parents monitor everything she watches), but the victimized, passive, stereotypically “feminine” behavior that characterizes a princess has already set in. The “princessification” of girls’ toys and girls’ media teaches them, often, that being nice and being pretty is more important than like being smart or strong.
But I’m here, and I loved princesses and I’m still smart and I’m still strong. Because it’s not like the yearning for a perfect princess life ever stops. We all want a passionate love, a person who will ride horses and slay dragons for us (even, or maybe especially, metaphorical ones). We want to be recognized, singled out, to feel special in the eyes of the world. We want nice things. We want happy endings. We want pageantry, we want beauty; hell, we even want cute animal sidekicks. And for me at least, a tiara still holds a bit of thrall.
But, when we’re older, we know that these things, these good things that make up a good life, don’t come packaged in stardust and glitter. They do not come out of a wand or a castle or reflected in the handsome eyes of a strapping young prince. These things, heart and courage and safety and recognition and home and yes, even love; these are things that you must work for, strive for, and earn.
Amy’s happy ending in The Ordinary Princess is directly a result of her taking her destiny into her own hands. She makes her own fate, she finds her own man. She’s the heroine of her own story, not the decorative centerpiece to a tale of other’s dashing exploits. Amy does her own dashing. And that’s been enough to make this book one of the most important texts of my life.
I’m grown up now, way too old for fairy stories, or so I think. But I’ve never become bored with The Ordinary Princess. Each time I read it, the book opens itself again and lets me into all the nooks and crannies it contains. Now, in my late twenties, I’m struck more at the cute simplicity of the book, rather than the play on the princess mythology I loved when I was child and a teenager. But it’s a book that holds magic; The Ordinary Princess is just the right dose of magic and modern. It’s a benevolent old fairy with a wand, true love, and a feminist princess who refuses to be locked up and saved. The princess we all want to be.