Monday, February 25, 2013

Where Are All the Evil Princesses?

Being mostly an indoors kid, I saw a good number of princesses get rescued. Books, movies and video games feature a lot of captive princesses, to the point that you’d think princesses would stop wearing those tiaras and pointy tassel hats, just as a safety precaution. The royal damsel in distress is such a popular trope that by now it seems like it should have become popular to subvert it: Hero sets out to rescue princess but finds that she’s actually not the embodiment of goodness he thought she was. It seems like such an obvious twist to have the princess turn out to be the big bad, hiding malice and ambition beneath a ball gown and courtly manners, but when I actually tried to think of examples, I couldn’t come up a single one. In fact, I struggled to think of more than a few “bad” princesses in all of popular culture.

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It seems weird, this scarcity of devious princesses, given how many stories have evil kings and queens or even scheming, power-hungry princes — just off the top of my head, Loki in Thor, Humperdink in Princess Bride, Viserys in Game of Thrones. But the notion of the pure-hearted maiden is such a fundamental one, I’m thinking, that it generally precludes evil twists on the character, even despite historical accounts of princesses who weren’t above getting blood on their hands. (In particular, China’s Princess Pingyang could give many warlords a lesson or two in raising a ruckus.) So even if I’ve never seen the Pretty, Pretty Princess character so subverted that she turns out to be the big bad, some pop cultural princesses or princess-like characters have come close. Here’s what I have.
  • Medea is the daughter of the king of Colchis, but she’s rarely referred to as a princess. She is one, technically, and she’s an icon of vengeance. Not only does she betray her family to help Jason get the golden fleece, even dismembering her younger brother to prevent her father from tailing her, but she also goes to town on Jason once their relationship goes all kinds of sour. In fact, she burns Jason’s new wife to death, kills Jason’s kids and peaces out on a dragon-drawn chariot. No, really. But she does all this in reaction to Jason’s cruelty, not, say, evil for the sake of evil.
  • In King Lear, the older daughters, Regan and Goneril, are pretty heinous, and their scheming ends up annihilating the entire family, and they stand in contrast to the youngest sister, Princess Cordelia. (I can forgive Goneril because what else do you do with your life when you have name that sounds like a venereal disease?)
  • Electra is the daughter of Agamemnon, a king, and she goads her brother to kill their mother, Clytemnestra, but she only does this because ol’ mom killed dad. So if anyone’s the big bad, it’s Clytemnestra. Electra is the Christina to Clytemnestra’s Joan Crawford, and if anyone wants to co-write a Joan Crawford-inspired retelling of the Oresteia — a good idea, now that I think about it — I’m all for it. Then again, having your legacy be the Electra complex seems ignominy enough.
  • But then again, there’s Elektra King. The Sophie Marceau character in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough fits the storyline I’m thinking of pretty closely, but she’s not a princess, even if her name is Elektra King — which, you know, subtle — and she’s the heiress to an oil empire. In the end, Bond discovers that Elektra has contracted a nasty case of Stockholm syndrome and become the lover and co-conspirator of the film’s big bad.
  • It was pointed out to me that the king’s daughter from “The Lady or the Tiger?” might work, depending on how you interpret the story’s ending. She allegedly inherited her father’s “semi-barbaric” qualities, and when she motions for her lover to pick one door over the other, there’s a fifty percent chance that she’s sending the guy to the hungry tiger and instant death. She loses him either way, you see, because should he pick the door hiding the lady, he has to marry her on the spot, so there is also a fifty percent chance that she is acting in a very un-Disney-like manner.
  • In the movie Return to Oz, the big bad is Princess Mombi, but it was pointed out to me that she’s not actually a princess; she’s an impostor. And the books don’t call her a princess. Instead, she is just a witch. Why not get technical about it?
  • In the DC Universe, one of the central Teen Titans, Starfire, inherits the title of princess of the planet Tamaran over her older sister, Blackfire, on account of the latter being lame and unpleasant. Blackfire holds a grudge, over throws the Tamaranean royal family, enslaves Starfire for a period and eventually becomes a major antagonist for the Titans.
  • There’s the obscure Capcom character Princess Devilotte de DeathSatan IX, who is to evil what drag queens are to feminine sexuality. She actually might be an exaggerated reaction to relative lack of characters like her, and that’s about as literary as anyone has ever gotten about someone with the name Princess Devilotte de DeathSatan IX.
  • The Batman villain Talia al Ghul sort of works, if you consider her pops to be a sort of king. It’s a stretch.
And that’s all I got. I’m sure I’ve overlooked some, but I think the takeaway is that princesses generally fall into the sunny, bright-eyed, singing-in-the-forest category. In fact, there’s not even an “evil princess” page on TV Tropes, and there’s a TV Tropes page for everything. Blame Disney if you want, but do tell me if you can think of any more.

In closing, please gaze upon this 1868 Frederick Sandys painting of Medea.

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If that expression doesn’t read as “Do not fuck with me because I have ISSUES,” then I don’t know what does. Moo hoo ha, indeed.

EDIT: Bonus Mombi. Worst bonus, I know, but still.

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22 comments:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eversion_(video_game)

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    1. Ah, see, this is one I'd not heard of until now.

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  2. Also, the alignment of Flame Princess from Adventure Time is specifically stated as "evil", though her behavior doesn't really bear it out.

    http://adventuretime.wikia.com/wiki/Flame_Princess

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    1. But this is one I should have gotten. I do know Adventure Time fairly well, and I suppose we'll have to see which path she ends up choosing.

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  3. The idea of Mombi's ability to swap out heads actually came from a different Wizard of Oz princess, Langwidere, and she is evil.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princess_Langwidere#Princess_Langwidere

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    1. Well, there you go. Thanks for the clarification.

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  4. Anonymous1:07 PM

    You could argue that Princess Ovelia from Final Fantasy Tactics is kind of a bad princess. She is one of the two damsels in the game but the other is the sister of the hero so she's the only "breeding option. "She ends up marrying the game's antagonist but one of the last scenes of the game is Ovelia stabbing him and then him stabbing her. It shows how the struggle to win the princess does not always pay off.

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    1. I guess ambushing her husband doesn't put her in the "good" category, necessarily, but for what it's worth, Delita is a dick.

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  5. Princess Luna from My Little Pony Friendship is Magic: Villainous in the backstory and first two episodes, currently reformed, but she hasn't quite got the hang of the whole 'not being ominous and intimidating' thing yet.

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    1. And with this, I have just learned that there are villainous My Little Ponies.

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  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_Knight_Rayearth

    Not featuring a truly "evil" princess exactly, the anime/manga Magic Knight Rayearth involved a significant twist. I won't say exactly, but the heroes summoned to seemingly save the princess in the end do anything but.

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    1. I have looked into it, spoiled it for myself, and concluded that this is actually a good example of what I'm thinking of.

      Wasn't this a video game back in the 90s?

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    2. There was a Rayearth game, but it was a Japan-only release for the ill-fated Sega Saturn system.

      Since MKR was one of the titles that introduced my sister to the world of anime, it should be no surprise that I know this...

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  7. I only have two to add to your list. The character Turandot from the opera of the same name is certainly not kind or gentle, towards the climax she threatens to have an entire city put to death to get out of marrying some random dude, then later has his maid tortured to death.
    The webcomic 8 bit Theater has a character Princess Sara that is evil for evil's sake. She was kidnapped early on in the comic, but was so disgusted with her captor's lack of cunning that she gave him tips. She later usurped her father's kingdom, but that was only questionably evil, since he wasn't doing much with it anyways.

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    1. See, I know nothing of opera, so this is all news to me. I know about as much of webcomics, to be honest. Is this Sara the same one from the first Final Fantasy?

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    2. She's named and modelled after the same princess, yes.

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  8. Anonymous8:57 PM

    There's a conversation about this post on Facebook and I figure you'd want some of the ideas posted there. One guy posted the following:

    He should have done more homework on “Return to Oz”. “Princess Mombi” is a conflation of two book characters, Old Mombi, who is an evil witch, and Princess Languidere, who wants to take Dorothy’s head to add it to her collection. She intends to give Dorothy a replacement head, though, so she’s not all bad....

    Here are some operas:

    Princess Amneris, in “Aida”, is insanely jealous, and gets the man she loves and the woman he loves buried alive.

    Princess Margared, in “Le Roi d’Ys”, is insanely jealous of her own sister, and manages to kill most of the people in her father’s kingdom by opening the sea gate of the city of Ys, which is below sea level, at high tide. (Princess Dahut, in an earlier version of the same story, does it because she has the hots for her own father.)

    Princess Eboli, in “Don Carlo”, brings about the tragic ending when she tattles on the hero for still being in love with his own stepmother (who was his fiancée before his father ever met her), even though they haven’t actually done anything wrong.

    Princess Gutrune, in “Götterdämmerung”, is a party to the plot to erase Siegfried’s memory, although she is not actually aware that she is, in doing so, stealing him from his true love, and setting up the apocalypse.

    Princess Salome seduces her stepfather into beheading John the Baptist.

    The Princess de Bouillon, in “Adriana Lecouvreur”, murders the heroine with a nosegay of poisoned violets.

    In “Suor Angelica”, the cruelty of the heroine’s aunt, a princess, drives her to suicide.

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    1. Wow. These are great. Again, I know very little of opera, but Catholic school should have prepared me to think of Salome when making this list.

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  9. Would Wendy Koopa be a thoroughly bad princess?

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    1. I guess she is, even though she's always an underling. But if I'm remembering the old cartoons properly, they definitely styled her character as a "spoiled princess" type.

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  10. Anonymous2:42 PM

    In The Little Mermaid (Disney version) when Ursula turns into a sexy woman, is that character supposed to be a princess?

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    1. No. As I've just found out by looking it up on Wikipedia, she's not apparently a princess or posing as a princess. But she does have a name: Vanessa. Now is it weird if I admit that I think she's the sexiest female character in a Disney movie? What does that say about me?

      Also, she kind of plays the role of anti-princess, which is sort of like an evil princess. The one I'm thinking of that's similar is Gwnhwyfach, Guinevere’s sister a sort of anti-Guinevere in some of the Arthur stories.

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