Plot Summary: 1914. When her adoring father enlists to fight for the British in the First World War, Sara Crewe is sent to a New York boarding school, where her kindness and imagination transform her classmates’ lives for the better. However, Sara’s belief that all girls are princesses is tested when word comes that her father was killed in action.
Trigger/content warnings: This blog entry contains discussions of the death of a parent, the separation of children from parents, cultural appropriation, racism, colonialism and classism.
In this entry, I look at princess culture, cultural appropriation, race, class and innocence in the family film A Little Princess. (The content under the cut contains spoilers.)
Ten-year-old Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews) leads a charmed life. She is beautiful, intelligent, endlessly imaginative and kind, with wonderful toys and clothes, numerous friends and a doting father. At her New York boarding school, Sara is almost universally beloved by her classmates, and has enough social sway to align herself with girls like plump, shy Ermengarde (Heather DeLoach), tiny, motherless Lottie (Kelsey Mulrooney) and Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester), an isolated Black child servant.
However, Sara loses everything when her father, Captain Crewe (Liam Cunningham) goes missing in action during the First World War. All her privilege is stripped away as she is forced to become an indentured servant. She must dress in rags, work grueling hours and sleep in a freezing attic, all while mourning the loss of the person she loved most in the world. She is made to feel completely worthless and alone as Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron), the school’s headmistress, revels in Sara’s downfall. Yet, gradually, Sara rediscovers the beauty in life and is able to take a stand for herself and for other girls who have nothing.
To begin with, the film is an aesthetic wonder. According to Maslin, it is “[l]ess an actors’ film than a series of elaborate tableaux … [with] a visual eloquence that extends well beyond the limits of its story” (1995). One striking element of the film’s production design is the use of the colour green as a unifying element, much in the same way that other period films use a muted or sepia colour palette.
The film’s insistence that all girls are princesses is an interesting early example of the princess culture that has swept the globe with the rise of the Disney Princess franchise. Postrel examines the potency and seeming ubiquity of this cultural phenomenon:
Every little girl dreams of being a princess. (A Google search for that exact phrase turns up more than 821,000 instances.) The power of the archetype predates Disney’s marketing machine and will no doubt outlive it, because to play princess is to embrace two eternally alluring promises: You are special and Life can be wonderful. Those promises are princess glamour’s stable emotional core. But what exactly they mean changes with audience and circumstances (2013, 49).
Though princess culture often represents princesshood as conferred solely by adoring fathers, it is Maya (Pushpa Rawal), Sara’s ayah in India, who first introduces Sara to the idea that “all women are princesses.” Sara’s father agrees with Maya when Sara relates this to him later on, but he only ever says it the once. Sara adopts this creed as a personal life philosophy. “Even dressed in rags and living in a bare attic room, she [Sara] is special – and so are all the others around her, regardless of whether they’re nice, snobbish, or bossy. Princess or pauper, there’s no difference in Sara’s eyes” (Berardinelli 2005, 384-5). The film’s title bears this out: “A Little Princess (as opposed to The Little Princess), implies the heroine is one of many” (Bellantoni 2005, 175).
This philosophy is at the core of one of the film’s pivotal scenes. After Sara loses her father and her fortune, Miss Minchin takes all of her possessions (aside from her favourite doll) in order to recoup the debts Sara has incurred. This includes a locket Sara’s father gave her, which holds photographs of both her parents. In a comic scene, Ermengarde enlists a group of Sara’s former classmates to help her the locket from Miss Minchin’s study. The girls take the locket to Sara in the attic, where Miss Minchin discovers them (but does not realise that they were there to give Sara back her locket).
Sending the girls to their rooms, Miss Minchin punishes Sara: “You will perform all her [Becky’s] chores in addition to your own without breakfast, lunch or dinner! It’s time you learn, Sara Crewe, that real life has nothing to do with your little fantasy games. It’s a cruel, nasty world out there and it’s our duty to make the best of it – not to indulge in ridiculous dreams, but to be productive and useful! Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Quietly, Sara answers, “Yes, ma’am … but I don’t believe in it.”
Miss Minchin asks incredulously, “Don’t tell me you still fancy yourself a princess! Good God, child, look around you! Or better yet, look in the mirror!”
Sara replies, “I am a princess. All girls are! Even if they live in tiny old attics, even if they dress in rags, even if they aren’t pretty, or smart, or young, they’re still princesses – all of us! Didn’t your father ever tell you that? Didn’t he?”
This is something of an armour-piercing question for Miss Minchin, who fights back tears as she screams, “If I find you up here with any of the girls again, I will throw you out into the street!”
Princess culture, and the idea that girls who are loved are naturally someone’s little princess, can feel rather alienating to me, as I was not a remotely princessy child. From where I’m standing, as a woman in her mid-twenties in 2015, it seemed like it was much easier to not be into princesses in a time when the Disney princesses were characters in films, rather than an all-pervasive cultural phenomenon driven by nostalgia and genius marketing. I was never anybody’s little princess, and I didn’t want to be. Below is a photo of me aged roughly nine, dressed the way I truly felt on the inside.
Storybook witches were my first feminist role models. In Winnie the Witch, The Wacky Book of Witches, The Worst Witch, Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat, The Witch’s Shopping Spree, Witches in Stitches and The Witch’s Handbook, witches got to live in awesome tumbledown houses filled with books, or spooky castles, or dripping caves. They had cool pets like cats and ravens and toads. They took long luxurious baths. They had tea parties and danced around bonfires with their friends and pets. They got to think uncharitable thoughts about people. They turned everything, even going to the supermarket, into a grand adventure. And if they were ugly, fat, covered with warts or even just gawky like the child witches in Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch series, they didn’t care a bit. They got to show emotions other than wistfulness, cheeriness, despair or mild chagrin. In my eyes, princesses were the girls who sat around sighing, singing about wanting something more. Witches were the ones who were living the dream already.
It’s not my intention to suggest that all girls should want to be witches instead. I don’t believe all girls should have to want to be anything in particular. Herein, as I see it, lies the problem. In our post-Disney Princess franchise culture, everyone has to want to be a princess because “princess” is shorthand for “important, worthy, special and beautiful.” This is evident when you see people online having bitter arguments about whether Mulan counts as a Disney princess. Being dubbed a princess is seen as proof of a girl or woman’s worth; people love Mulan and feel that she is worth a great deal, ergo she must be counted as a princess.
The power of marketing has elevated the Disney princesses to the extent that they are considered the epitome of feminine grace, poise and value. This is, ultimately, the reasoning behind the Tumblr campaign where people hold up cards asking for a Disney princess like them, and art pieces that cross your Facebook feed showing the Disney Princesses as disabled, as women of colour, as elderly, as tattooed, as fat… In my eyes, the reasoning goes: if we can be like Disney princesses, or make them like us – fat, tattooed, disabled, whatever – then it will mean we are beautiful as well.
I would like to stress that there is nothing inherently wrong with loving princesses, identifying with princess culture, or wishing to see yourself reflected in the most pervasive girl-centred franchise of the past decade. That said, I am profoundly leery of a culture focussing all its hopes onto a particular group of icons who are defined by their gender, their slimness, their heterosexuality, their cis-ness, their conventional attractiveness. There are as many ways to be a woman or girl as there are women and girls in the world, and a good many of them have no interest whatsoever in being princesses. For them, the phrase “all girls are princesses” is implicitly followed by the mild threat, “whether they like it or not.”
Ultimately, when Sara makes her “I am a princess, all girls are!” speech to Miss Minchin, she is not saying that she is the heir to the throne of a country. For better or worse, she means that she has self-worth regardless of her circumstances, because she exists, because she is a girl. She is saying that Miss Minchin has no right to mistreat her, because she has inherent worth. This has liberating and problematic possibilities, both because of the ways girls are devalued in society and the cultural assumptions that come with princesshood.
As a 1990s adaptation of a Edwardian children’s story, A Little Princess comes with some colonialist baggage. The film never actually specifies why it is that Captain Crewe lives in India, or what he does there, only that he is fabulously rich and can give his cherished only daughter an idyllic childhood as a result of their being in India. After her father’s disappearance and presumed death, Sara recalls India: “The air is so hot there, you can almost taste it. … It’s more like spices, really. Curry and saffron. … Tigers sleep under trees and elephants cool themselves in the lakes. The warm wind blows through the fields and the spirits ride it, singing as they look down on us. Their voices echo through the mountains, and the sky is all different colors, like a peacock’s tail.”
In a retrospective on the film, Tison outlines the problematic elements of this portrayal of India:
I understand that the movie is told through the perspective of a little girl, but that little girl’s father is an extremely wealthy member of an imperialist nation who was living in India as a result of colonization. Sure, she thinks of India as home, but that in itself is problematic because what she loves about it is its exoticism. This doesn’t take away tremendously from the emotional impact of the movie, but it does make it obvious that the dialogue about cultural appropriation wasn’t quite the same in the ’90s (2015).
This is the difficult thing about adapting an Edwardian children’s book for a contemporary audience. The issue of colonialism raises itself, and you either have to address it or ignore it. Screenwriters very rarely take the latter option, because institutional racism typically goes unacknowledged in children’s media, since the concept is considered “the product of a corrupted adulthood” (Pitcher, 2014, 98). This stems from the pervasive idea that children do not notice race, and that discussing race with children will “poison their minds” (Winkler, 2009, 1). Herein lies the incentive for children’s media to depict a world where characters never encounter racism, and characters who believe themselves to be good people never unwittingly perpetuate it. This is arguably at least partially why so many White people grow up believing that unless you’re a Nazi or a member of the KKK, it’s impossible to be racist. Interestingly, in the original book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, textual evidence could point to Sara being a girl of colour. According to Mirchandani:
if we look beyond Sara’s performative identity as a proper European gendered subject, we realize that her racial coding remains, at the same time, entirely ambiguous. Early in the story the author repeatedly elaborates upon Sara’s “odd” appearance. We are told that Sara has “an odd charm of her own” and that “her hair was heavy and quite black … her eyes were greenish gray … but they were big, wonderful eyes with long, black lashes… (Burnett, 1905, 9). Sara also refers to herself as “not fair in the least” (Burnett, 1905, 8). At one moment the novel informs us that “the polite young women behind the counters whispered to each other that the odd little girl with the big, solemn eyes must be at least some foreign princess – perhaps the little daughter of an Indian rajah” (Burnett, 1905, 11). We’re also told that Sara’s mother was a French women who died when Sara was born. Not even the father’s best friend has seen her; he only heard that Sara’s mother had wanted her to be sent to a French school. The narrative then fails to explain why her wishes were completely disregarded. I am not suggesting that Sara’s maternal heritage is necessarily suspect. However, the curious way in which she gets racially coded by the narrator and the “young women” in the novel, and the timely elimination of her mother do suggest an ambiguous racial identity (1997,14).
The possibility of Sara being biracial is historically backed up by the prevalence of Eurasian children in British India as a result of colonialism. According to Cohen:
India was famously the place where families banished their black sheep, hoping to keep their mischief far from home. But India loosened the morals of even otherwise reputable Britons, or so it seemed to scandalized contemporaries. There were over 20,000 British men in India at the turn of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of them unmarried. They left a rich human legacy: more than half of the children baptized in Calcutta’s St John’s Church were illegitimate Eurasians (2013, 4).
Such children were occasionally brought back to the United Kingdom by their White fathers, to be educated and integrated into White society. This usually involved hiding their origins by attributing the child’s colouring to a fictitious “Portuguese mother or even Jewish intermarriage,” or else by the child’s father passing himself off as a guardian, rather than a biological parent (Cohen 2013, 11). This also usually entailed separating the children from their mothers for the remainder of their lives, in a haunting example of the ways that institutionalised racism can permeate the family.
The film is also interesting in terms of its portrayal of fabulously rich and desperately poor girls inhabiting the same space. The first moment that Sara sees Becky is a good example of the gulf between the students and the servants. This moment occurs just after Miss Minchin outlines the timetable for students at the school, which involves classes in math, science, French, Latin and dancing, regular walks outside and bedtime reading. It is at this moment that Sara spots Becky busily mopping the floor. She stares at Becky for a long moment, looking troubled. Becky, by contrast, does not even look up from her work. In this moment, we can tell that her days include precisely none of the activities (both pleasurable and improving) that the school’s students engage in. She is surrounded by White girls of her own age who are seen as in need of protection, leisure and education, but because she is Black, poor and parentless, none of these same privileges will be extended to her. The notion of White children as innocent beings in need of special protection only became part of the Western cultural lexicon in the nineteenth century. It proliferated in part because it was politically useful; invoking the image of children in relation to political arguments “made these arguments appear to be apolitical, or simply evocations of truth.” (Bernstein in Keches, 2010).
For me, the slow process of Becky coming to trust Sara and love her as a sister is one of the most beautiful aspects of the film. In the first act of the film, Sara ventures up to the attic to find Becky sitting, humming sadly and rubbing a chunk of ice against her blistered foot. When she realises Sara is standing in the doorway watching, Becky drops the ice in alarm. Yet even before Sara has finished apologising, Becky is saying woodenly, “Is there anything I can do for you, miss? I just came up here to change my shoes. … Begging your pardon, but we’ll both be in trouble if you stay.” Some time later, Sara apologises by leaving a beautifully wrapped box containing a pair of fur-lined slippers on the end of Becky’s bed, with a note: “Hope we can still be friends.” For the first time in the film, we see Becky allowing herself to behave like a child, hugging the slippers to her chest before trying them on and giggling at how pretty they look.
The perfect turn-of-the-century childhood only existed because other children – who were poor, migrants, parentless and/or children of colour – were not allowed to have an unfettered, carefree childhood. But for children of all backgrounds, their class status was used to control their destinies. Essentially, class was used as a way to control girls and assure the continuation of patriarchy. During the Industrial Revolution and the turn of the century, middle and upper-class girls were considered to be unusually delicate, especially during menstruation. For this reason, doctors recommended that they should refrain from taxing their brains by studying maths or science. Claiming that putting undue stress on their brains would stunt their reproductive capabilities, doctors urged girls “put away the trigonometry and do some needlework” (Dyhouse, 2013, 68).
However, working-class girls working in domestic service or factories were conspicuously absent from this conversation. Nobody seemed to care whether a fifteen-year-old Italian migrant girl working in a mill had killer cramps, and the idea that she should take it easy and put her feet up for a solid week every month in order to preserve her “reproductive apparatus” would have been viewed as ludicrous (Dyhouse, 2013, 55).
While A Little Princess has aged less well than I wish it had in terms of its cultural appropriation, it features a predominantly female cast of characters (including racebending Becky, who was White in the original novel), represents girls as courageous and imaginative, comments on race and class in a way that child viewers can understand and has some of the most beautiful production design and costuming I’ve ever seen.
- Interview with Vanessa Lee Chester by Lauren Le Vine (Refinery29)
- Click for a collection of opinion pieces on princess culture. (Huffington Post)
- Film Production Notes. (Barry Levinson)
- Bellantoni, Patti. 2005. If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die: The Power of Color in Visual Storytelling. Oxford: Focal Press.
- Berardinelli, James. 2005. Reel Views 2: The Ultimate Guide to the Best 1,000 Modern Movies on DVD and Video, Volume 2. Boston: Justin, Charles & Co., Publishers.
- Burnett, Frances Hodgson. 1905. A Little Princess. New York: Scribners and Sons.
- Cohen, Deborah. 2013. “The Nabob’s Secrets.” Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day. London: Penguin, 3-37.
- Dyhouse, Carol. 2014. Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women. London, Zed Books.
- Keches, Krysten A. 2010. The Invention of Childhood Innocence. Harvard Gazette. http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/04/the-invention-of-childhood-innocence/
- Maslin, Janet. 1995. FILM REVIEW; Fairy Tale Doing a Child’s Job: Reveling in Exuberant Play. The New York Times, 10 May 1995. http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=990CE0DD1E30F933A25756C0A963958260
- Mirchandani, Manisha. 1997. Colonial Discourse and “Post”-Colonial Negotiations: A Little Princess and its Adaptations. New Literatures Review 33: 11-24.
- Pitcher, Ben. 2014. “Race and Children: From Anthropomorphism to Zoomorphism.” Consuming Race. New York: Routledge, 98-113.
- Postrel, Virginia. 2013. The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Tison, James. 2015. Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘A Little Princess’ Turns 20 Years Old, But Will It Still Make You Cry All These Years Later? Bustle. http://www.bustle.com/articles/82158-alfonso-cuarons-a-little-princess-turns-20-years-old-but-will-it-still-make-you-cry
- Winkler, Erin N. 2009. “Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race.” PACE 3(3): 1-8.