A Feminist Cinderella

“You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.”

Elizabeth, in Robert Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess

I love children’s author Robert Munsch for many reasons. He is Canadian. He lives close to my hometown. He used to work at the university I attended many moons ago. But mostly, I love him because he is funny. And as my husband will attest, if you can make me laugh, there’s a fair chance you’ll capture a piece of my heart. (And he should know — he has been making me laugh for more than 20 years now!)

As for Munsch, his humour combined with his warmth and child-like enthusiasm make him a gifted storyteller who mesmerizes audiences equally well in person and in print. Among the more than 60 picture books that Munsch has published are such diverse stories as David’s Father, 50 Below Zero, Love You Forever, From Far Away, and Moose which cover topics ranging from adoption, sleepwalking and the extent of a mother’s love, to the difficulties of being a new Canadian and the problems with wildlife in the backyard. There’s outrageous humour and mad fun in Munsch’s stories, yes, but there is usually a great deal more too.

 For that reason, I think my favourite Munsch book is The Paper Bag Princess, which has very much become a modern-day classic.

Confession time: I’ve always had difficulty with the Disney princesses because of the gender stereotyping. Yes, the most recent female Disney characters like Elsa, Anna, Rapunzel and Merida are stronger, more independent young women, but the cultural archetype of the damsel in distress underpins most of Disney’s body of work over the last century. And I’ve never been that kind of princess-type. So when our daughter was little, I steered her clear of as much of the movies and marketing as I could.

However, one day when she was three, we were in Yorkdale Mall in Toronto when the Disney Store was opening. She desperately wanted to go in, so I relented. I cannot lie; I was alarmed when an overly chipper store employee crouched down, gave her a high-five and asked, “Who’s your favourite princess, sweetheart?” I feared the start of princess madness, the slow but insidious descent into princess culture with it’s unhealthy emphasis on physical beauty, submissiveness, passivity and overall female helplessness. In that one moment, I feared it all.

But apparently the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Just like her mama, she loves comedians. My kiddo’s eyes lit up and without hesitation she replied, “Mike Wazowski!” You know, the funny, little, one-eyed green monster in Monster’s Inc.? She then proceeded to grab the clerk’s magic wand and forcefully thrust it at the magic mirror in the corner like a pint-sized ninja with a bo. Bippity-boppity-boo?!

So The Paper Bag Princess is definitely more to my liking, and more to my ninja princess’s liking too. A liberated fairy tale, it tells the story of Elizabeth, an empowered, dynamic female character who flips the roles, values and norms usually espoused in traditional fairy tales on their heads all the while making kids and adults laugh out loud. 

In the book, Munsch still uses the elements of fairy tales — magic and the supernatural, heroes and heroines, good vs. evil, moral lessons — but alters the characters and the plot to challenge the sexist nature inherent in most traditional tales. And in true feminist fashion, according to his website, it was actually his wife who encouraged him to do that when Munsch was first telling the story. Originally, he told a more typical prince-saves-the princess tale, but his wife bluntly asked, ““How come you always have the prince save the princess? Why can’t the princess save the prince?” 

And so The Paper Bag Princess was born. Thank you, Mrs. Munsch!

By challenging the damsel in distress fairy tale model in his book, Munsch ends up essentially reversing the Cinderella fairy tale almost in its entirety. In Cinderella, the protagonist goes from a young woman covered in dirt, dressed in rags and sweeping ashes, to a beautifully dressed princess who captivates a prince. The prince then proposes marriage, thus rescuing Cinderella from her previously abysmal life. And they live happily ever after. Allegedly.

In the Paper Bag Princess, on the other hand, the protagonist Elizabeth’s story starts off as Cinderella’s story ends, as a beautiful princess already engaged to a prince: “She lived in a castle and had expensive princess clothes. She was going to marry a prince named Ronald.” From the first page, Elizabeth already appears to have her happily ever after. 

After a dragon destroys everything and carries off Prince Ronald though, Elizabeth is literally, like Cinderella, left in ashes. The only thing that is not burnt is a paper bag. “So she put on the paper bag and followed the dragon.” She did not wait for Prince Ronald, or any other male, to help her.

And now the flip. Once Elizabeth tricks the dragon and saves Prince Ronald, her story ends as Cinderella’s began — alone and dirty. Prince Ronald scolds her, “Elizabeth, you are a mess! You smell like ashes, your hair is all tangled and you are wearing a dirty old paper bag.” Gee, grateful much, Ronald?

Elizabeth, undaunted by Ronald’s criticism, and unashamed of her rags and filth, snaps back, “You look like a real prince, but you are a bum”, and skips off cheerfully by herself into the sunset. Elizabeth finds her happily ever after on her own, free from the dragon AND the ungrateful and shallow Prince Ronald — a truly modern, feminist heroine.

By taking familiar elements from stories young children already know, and then adding a modern “twist” like a sassy female character who ultimately embraces her strength, intelligence and independence, Munsch is able to completely engage the young listener and reader while also reflecting more contemporary values. 

The potty language at the end when Elizabeth calls Prince Ronald a “bum” though? That is just sheer and utter childish fun for which Munsch is known. He understands his main audience, kids, and he knows a book or an adult using a word like “bum” will shock, thrill and deeply impress them. 

And once engaged, children will naturally start thinking about their own beliefs about men and women, which makes me, and apparently Mrs. Munsch, happy too.

It’s a brilliant book on many levels, one worth reading again and again at any age, but especially with all the ninja princesses in your life.

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