On 21 December 2001, an icon was born in the form of Anne Hathaway’s Mia Thermopolis, the unlikely princess of Genovia. Two months after the death of her father and at the age of 15, Mia is experiencing the awkward stage of puberty, which to my four-year-old self was already a magical thing to witness. She has glasses, braces and bushy hair, vomited at the prospect of public speaking, and seems resigned to her complete invisibility to her more popular peers. Move over Disney; here is a princess we can relate to. When she receives the news that her absentee grandmother Julie Andrews is coming to town and has invited her round for tea, Mia is somewhat bewildered but agrees to the meeting – and the rest is history.
Through the endearingly clumsy Mia, a whole generation of misfits learned to embrace their weirdness and face their fears. The Princess Diaries taught girls that things were going to be different for them – that their looks and their ability to bag the hottest guy at school doesn’t define them, and certainly isn’t worth it.
There are droves of men who try to exploit her, whether that be her high school crush for his 15 minutes of fame, or later down the line the government who try to block her intentions to take away the castle they use as their holiday home. Yes, Mia is given a total makeover to become the gorgeous, powerful and confident woman we leave making out with Chris Pine on the eve of her coronation in The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, but she always manages to maintain a strong sense of identity which even inspires her somewhat sceptical grandmother.
While duty calls for the sleek-haired and mild-mannered princess whom Mia must represent, her free-spirited goofiness always remains intact. From turning up to a press conference soaked to the skin in a hoodie and Docs to orchestrating mattress-surfing slumber parties in order to improve international relations, Mia makes sure she never loses sight of who she is in all the chaos.
There is a refreshingly feminist element to The Princess Diaries which is a far cry from Disney’s tendency to present marriage as the ultimate goal for their princesses, defining them as much by their husbands as their own pre-existing identities.
Mia persuades the Genovian government to drop their policy that a princess must marry in order to become queen, breaking off her royal engagement and proving that women can say no to men and still retain their support.
While some may scoff at the idea that a film about a reluctant princess could so strongly inspire young women and girls (as a story about a girl who has her privilege handed to her), to a four-year-old girl who too felt like they didn’t really fit in growing up, that is what happened.
The Princess Diaries sets a determined and defiant mood against the shallow standards schoolgirls so often measure each other on, encouraging supposed misfits to aspire to believe in their own abilities, and not to fear the background noise of what society has to say about them.
Image: Mireille Ampilhac via Wikimedia Commons