Despite A Killer Concept, Princesses Behaving Badly Struggles With Execution

Princesses Behaving Badly hits stores March 6.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings is a brief introduction to royal women who’ve balked at princessly behavior through the centuries. Take that with a grain of salt — what we think of as “princessly behavior” is largely framed by popular media, which likes to romanticize things to the nth degree.

At first glance, McRobbie’s take on this romanticization is new and fresh and important for how we view women in history. Princesses Behaving Badly, which Quirk Books release in paperback on March 6, seems like an absolute gem.

Beyond the cover — which features a badass, ambiguously medieval princess with flowing, golden hair and a sword over her shoulder, foot propped on a crown that tops a pile of treasure — Princesses Behaving Badly is, unfortunately, not a stellar read.

In the same vein as Oxford’s Very Short Introduction book series, McRobbie’s book purportedly dedicates a few pages to dozens of princesses who didn’t fit the Disney mold. She spends some time degrading Disney princesses in the book’s introduction, framing her critique as feminist.

However, it’s clear from the get-go that McRobbie has no patience for anything “girly”, which undercuts her supposedly feminist framework.

In the same vein as Oxford's #VeryShortIntroduction book series, #PrincessesBehaving Badly purportedly dedicates a few pages to dozens of princesses who didn't fit the Disney mold. Click To Tweet

From referring to Mulan as a “sassy” costume option for children who want to dress as Disney princesses and find their options limited, to openly slut-shaming several of the women she writes about, McRobbie’s gossipy tone and snide remarks make Princesses Behaving Badly really… well, awkward. It can be difficult to read, especially with how the book’s sections are separated and labeled.

Some figures are deemed “warriors”, “schemers”, or “survivors”, which is fine. Some of the stories in these sections are based mostly on myths or heresay, which is a little dubious, but others are clearly well-documented. McRobbie’s tone is informative and conversational, though sometimes bordering on catty (like with Lucrezia Borgia, whose life has been fictionalized time and time again, including on the Showtime series The Borgias wherein the writers actualized the rumors of incest between her and her brother Cesare).

Then, McRobbie decides to group together the women who — while still not fitting the “princess mold” — clearly don’t fit her definition of women we should admire or care about either.

In the final sections of the book, McRobbie groups princesses — several of them recent, and many of them still alive — by their sex lives and their mental health. She labels them “floozies” and “madwomen”, and it’s obvious from the unfettered glee with which she writes about their falls from grace that she is genuinely (if morbidly) amused by their struggles.

It’s hardly inspiring to read the words of a woman degrading other women she’s supposedly featuring for their lack of conformity to the Disney princess model she so hates. In fact, it’s incredibly uncomfortable.

As the book goes on, McRobbie’s problematic language worsens. She uses ableist terms to mock the mental health of women she writes about, and seems incapable of acknowledging the possibility that any of these figures may have been trans or gender-nonconforming, despite repeatedly discussing how they “chose to dress and live like men” (like Christina, the Swedish “cross-dressing princess”).

It's hardly inspiring to read the words of a woman degrading other women she's supposedly featuring for their lack of conformity to the Disney princess model she so hates. In fact, it's incredibly uncomfortable. #PrincessesBehavingBadly Click To Tweet

Although the concept of Princesses Behaving Badly is absolutely killer — who doesn’t want to know more about Malinchin, or the infamous Elizabeth Bathory, or Boudicca? — the execution lacks.

That being said, it has driven me to want to read more about some of the figures mentioned within its pages, which is why I read it in its entirety, rather than giving it up halfway through.

Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings Rating: ★★½


Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings hits stores in paperback on March 6, 2018. You can pre-order it now. In Full Bleed received an advanced copy from Quirk Books for review purposes. For the hardback edition, released in 2013, click here.