The Paper Bag Princess is generally considered a classic feminist fairy tale inspired story. It’s by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko. The story is pretty explicitly trying to turn the “pretty princess captured by a dragon who needs rescuing” trope on it’s head. (Side note – can you think of any classic stories that follow that plotline besides maybe the St. George legend? As much as we hold it up as a fairy tale cliche, it isn’t actually a common story at all.)
I’ve read this story before, but I was thinking about it recently because I keep hearing people talking about trying to rewrite fairy tales to change the anti-feminist messages of them. I have a lot of thoughts on that, but it’s a different post. This one is about The Paper Bag Princess.
The story starts with the standard picture – handsome prince and beautiful princess with pretty clothes who are going to get married. And then the dragon shows up and destroys or steals everything Princess Elizabeth has and for some reason, all she can find to wear is a paper bag. So, she follows the dragon and rescues the prince by outsmarting the dragon, only to have the prince tell her she’s not enough because of the paper bag dress and how dirty she is. She says he’s a bum and literally dances off into the sunset.
So… I like the idea behind this story, but somehow it doesn’t quite work for me. It’s very simplistic and the best part is her outsmarting the dragon. But instead of it being celebrated that she outsmarted the dragon (um… nevermind that he’s fine, just too tired to stop her from rescuing the annoying prince…), the “happy ending” is her realizing that the prince is a jerk. Somehow, even this supposedly feminist fairy tale ends up all about the relationship with a man. Really?
I really want to like this book more than I do. It actually has a great, interesting story behind it, but somehow the story sort of gets lost behind the heavy-handed attempt to turn the rescue-the-princess concept on it’s head. I feel like there’s a lot of potential here, but somehow it just sort of doesn’t work. Maybe there’s a writing opportunity here?
Anyway, this is a classic and definitely worth reading and thinking about. But like any story, it’s also worth considering critically and looking for the potential.