Stories about princesses used to exclusively be stories about romance. Today, they’re more likely to be stories about adventure. Disenchantment, the new Matt Groening princess cartoon on Netflix, wants to be about both. The hard-drinking, disobedient, buck-toothed princess Bean has a love interest and a narrative that pushes her into action and excitement. But the show doesn’t make her a fully realized character: the conflict between the romance and adventure plots leaves her uncommitted to either. And the way the show is handling it highlights a specific conflict between the traditional princess fantasy and the ongoing attempts to modernize it.
Like so many past princesses, Bean has status and a chance at a luxurious life, but they don’t satisfy her. Unlike most of her predecessors, she also has enough freedom that she’s able to keep running off on her own adventures. But that doesn’t help her determine what she really wants. In fact, the show is almost obsessive in robbing her of meaningful agency. In the first couple episodes, she’s offered two unsuitable husbands — a handsome, irritatingly doting prince and a handsome, irritatingly self-absorbed one. She rejects them both, which seems reasonable, but she never finds a replacement for romance in her life, even in the form of a hobby. She dabbles with a life as an executioner in one episode and as a diplomat in another. In a third episode, she pursues meaningless sex. She doesn’t know who she is, and the scriptwriters don’t seem to know either. Her actions are entirely reactive throughout the first season of the show. It’s an entire heroic fantasy narrative about a character who’s pushed here and there and never seizes the story of her own life for herself.
That problem isn’t unique to Bean and Disenchantment. Princess stories have been struggling with the problem of agency since they became a pop culture phenomenon. As numerous cultural critics have pointed out over the decades, early Disney princesses didn’t get to do much except sit around waiting for a man to rescue them. The studio began its domination of animated features in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which is about a passive princess whose greatest wish, expressed in song, is for a man to come find her. She eventually gets that wish, but she’s unconscious when it happens. Similarly, Aurora in 1959’s Disney feature Sleeping Beauty is, true to the title, asleep for a good portion of the action, waiting for a hero to awaken her with a kiss.
Cinderella in her famous 1950 animated feature is conscious for her whole story, but her main function in the narrative is to be beautiful and demure and wait for her physical and moral purity to inspire others to give her wealth and love. For these early Disney princesses, romance happens because they’re present and pretty, and they have nothing to contribute to the process.
Opportunities for women changed a great deal in the decades after the 1950s, and princesses changed as well. When Disney re-embraced animated princess films in the 1990s, it set about giving its protagonists more to do. Ariel in The Little Mermaid still needs to be saved by a prince in the end, but first, she choses danger, adventure, and sacrifice to pursue the romance she wants.
And in the 1991 blockbuster Beauty and the Beast, Belle was designed as even further from the princess mold. She doesn’t start out as a princess; she’s essentially a peasant who loves reading and wants to escape her dumpy little village. She still isn’t an action protagonist — the Beast has to save her from wolves and from the malevolent, egotistical Gaston — but Belle isn’t saved by love so much as she saves her prince through love. She gets excitement and adventure vicariously through her Beast, while he becomes a better man because she cares for him. Belle doesn’t break any gender role paradigms, but femininity in her story has more agency and more strength than it did for her passive predecessors.
The Beauty and the Beast narrative of a strong woman’s love saving a wounded man remains popular, from Disney’s Tangled to 50 Shades of Grey. But recently, many princess stories have bypassed romance altogether. 2013’s Frozen has one failed romance and one budding one, but it’s more concerned with the relationship between sisters, to the point where a promised “act of true love” turns out to be between the story’s siblings, not its romantic pairings. 2016’s Moana is about a princess who has to choose between staying home and ruling her people or sailing into the sunset to save them — and neither choice involves a prince. 2017’s Wonder Woman is about Diana, an Amazon princess who leaves her island to win World War I for the Allies. Her story ends when she defeats the evil Ares, god of war, not when she gets married.
It’s easy to see these new stories as a kind of feminist victory, reconceptualizing princesses as privileged but not passive and equal to men in ambition and skill. Still, something’s been lost as well. It’s notable that in Wonder Woman, Diana (Gal Gadot) does have a love interest in Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). The film purposefully disposes of him, leaving Diana to marinate in angst and grief for decades. Princess stories asserted the value of love, and the importance of female happiness in the teeth of a pop culture that tended to discount both. Turning princess stories into adventure narratives gives women agency, but in the process, they assert that the only narratives that matter are the traditionally male stories about battle, victory, and tragic sacrifice. And they recast women’s pleasure as subsidiary to power and domination — a problem that plagues male-centric stories as well.
Disenchantment tries to reconcile the different types of princess stories. Bean has both a romance plot and an action plot, each embodied in a specific character. For the romance plot, there’s Elfo, a diminutive, innocent, sweet little elf who sees only the good in life, who has a crush on Bean. And for the adventure plot, there’s Luci, an equally diminutive demon, who encourages Bean to drink, carouse, and get into trouble. The two characters literally sit on Bean’s shoulders, urging her alternately to embrace romance or adventure, domesticity or battle.
Faced with their competing demands, Bean falls into her bottle. The cartoon plays her alcoholism for laughs, but her addiction seems like an understandable, unsettling response to a narrative that demands she choose between irreconcilable, unpleasant alternatives.
Elfo offers her romance but with all the downsides and few of the advantages. Though he’s sweet, he’s not especially attractive, interesting, or even romantic. In one episode of the series, he’s actually mistaken for a baby and wrapped in a diaper, and he appears to enjoy being infantilized. He comes from a land where everything is made of candy and everyone is happy all the time; conflict is virtually unknown. Yet, despite his unsuitability, the series keeps insisting he’s a real option almost despite itself, providing the two characters with a kiss, a number of romantic rescues, and even another elf / human couple as a model. The show keeps staggering toward a romantic clinch, then realizing that loving Elfo would be like returning to the nursery. He’s cute and devoted, but as a lover, he’s a little nauseating: someone to be saved and cherished and dressed up like a doll in a fantasy of regressing.
Luci isn’t much more appealing, though. He tells Bean that as her personal devil, his job is to urge her to give in to all her worst inclinations. He pushes her to be rebellious and violent, to disobey her father, and to drink. Following Luci means throwing aside stereotypical princessness. Climbing mountains and sinking pirate ships certainly looks more exciting than waiting for a rescuing prince. But is following a stereotypical adventure narrative really more liberating than pursuing a stereotypical romance? Luci pushes Bean to defy convention, but rebelling in accordance with someone else’s orders isn’t much of a rebellion. Defying convention on command, rather than in pursuit of an actual personal goal, is just its own kind of convention.
Disenchantment isn’t particularly good. It struggles to distinguish itself from Groening’s Futurama in anything but setting, and it relies too much on easy medieval setting sight gags. But it’s useful in laying out so clearly the false dichotomy that has plagued princess stories — and not just princess stories. Bean can be an empty-headed, happy lover or a miserable rebel. The best modern princess stories turn those options over, looking for loopholes and alternatives: a Belle who’s rebellious and unconventional but still gets to be happy with her love, or a Moana who does as she pleases and doesn’t even have a potential prince floating around to cast a cloud. Elfo and Luci aren’t much to work with, but if Cinderella can get a carriage from a pumpkin, maybe even Bean can eventually get herself to a ball — or at least figure out where and who she wants to be.