A princess, once crowned, belongs to the state and her body becomes a necessary tool for maintaining its political stability.
Over the past five years of researching princesses, I have read, it seems, every book on the market about Western women and royalty. Histories like The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir and Nancy Mitford’s Madame de Pompadour, the mistress to Louis XV; sensationalist unauthorized biographies like Kitty Kelly’s The Royals or Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles; the jocular meta-poetics of Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown, or critical analysis of classic short tales such as Fairytale as Art Form and Portrait of Man by Swiss literary theorist Max Lüthi; all have crossed my desk as I worked on my third novel, The Force of Such Beauty, which follows an athlete who marries a prince.
When Ms. requested that I share what I’d discovered—if I could sum up all those archetypes and real lives, those formats and frames of royal bodies—I almost wrote back and said that’s not an article, it’s a single, grotesque sentence: Princess stories are narratives of state control over women’s bodies.
This single phrase gives us so much more than its compact nature would have us believe at first glance. For whether she is falling in love, being traded for a bag of magic beans, the safety of one or both parents or peace between nations, a princess, once crowned, belongs to the state and her body becomes a necessary tool for maintaining its political stability. Princess stories are narratives of state control over women’s bodies.
Regardless of their format—picture books, feature-length cartoons or live-action nightmares played out in the newspaper—the monarchies to which princesses belong are sales pitches for a political tale as old as time: that women can feel secure if, and only if, we’re able to make ourselves valuable to a valuable man. Princess stories are narratives of state control over women’s bodies.
Although monarchy may seem like an irrelevant anachronism, or at the very best, a contemporary rarity, its legacy of control over of women’s bodies is in fact woven into everyday American life—in the family itself. The most meaningful political unit in American politics, aside from the corporation, is the family. A structure that creates a tax benefit for the primary earner, not a meaningful system of social support, the family is a micro-monarchy wherein kings, queens, princes and princesses have been renamed to breadwinner, caretaker and dependents. Its primacy as a political chit and system of exclusion has kept women not only seeking its security and safety, but arguing on its behalf, to undermine all of our own interests, for decades.
The monarchies to which princesses belong are sales pitches for a political tale as old as time: Women can feel secure if, and only if, we’re able to make ourselves valuable to a valuable man.
In “What’s Wrong With ‘Equal Rights’ For Women,” the stump speech she used to help halt the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, Phyllis Schlafly unwittingly etched the rhetoric of the princess story into a terrifying boilerplate: “Children are a woman’s best social security—her best guarantee of social benefits such as old age pension, unemployment compensation, workman’s compensation and sick leave. The family gives a woman the physical, financial and emotional security of the home—for all her life,” Schlafly promised us in 1972. “The real liberation of women from the backbreaking drudgery of centuries is the American free enterprise system which stimulated inventive geniuses to pursue their talents—and we all reap the profits.”
Fifty years later, this ideology remains chillingly accurate. Other nations have chosen to put their communal resources towards state-sponsored healthcare, childcare, parental leave, education, public transit and the safety of communities without firearms; they have rejected monarchies in government, from top to bottom, by making the individual citizen a prized and inviolable unit of political life.
Here in the United States, we may have renounced hereditary governance in name, but our civil religion, that treasured free enterprise, has kept us vulnerable to its compromises. Gambling away state support on the possibility that any one of us could be Jeff Bezos is to ensure, in the long term, that women’s safest choices remain monarchial; that our security comes only when we make ourselves valuable to a person of value. It places all conceivable social programs and opportunities under reservation for those who have privately “earned” the right to have a family; “earned” the right for healthy, educated, cared-for children whose mere existence does not erase one’s own adult life.
This summer, as we sit stunned by the elimination of our constitutional right to abortion, we are sandwiched between spectacles of monarchy—the Queen’s Jubilee, a celebration of her 70 years of regency, and the upcoming 25th anniversary of the death of Diana Spencer, the daughter-in-law who sought independence from the crown but was ultimately unable to survive without the protections of its armed services.
Let these two limited lives of forced utility and public spectacle be a prescient reminder of what we continue to seek: liberation. For until we fully, and finally, release ourselves from the premise of the monarchy—that timeless protectorate of breadwinner, caretaker and dependent—we will never be free. Princess stories are narratives of state control over women’s bodies. It’s time we all stopped seeing them any differently.
Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.