Robert Munsch’s classic children’s book “The Paper Bag Princess” provides a twist on the classic “damsel in distress” tale. In this story, a dragon burns down the Princess’ castle and steals away her Prince, who was also her fiancée. Instead of the typical Prince Charming saving the day, it was the Princess that had to come to the Prince’s rescue wearing nothing but a paper bag. This portrays a subverted oppositional reading that goes against the dominant view of females in fairy tales as wearing sparkling jewelry, long gowns, and dependent on their prince . The target audience (preschool children) are taught that girls do not have to look pretty and wait for their prince charming to save the day; they can just as easily take charge and solve their own dilemmas. This message is delivered through Princess Elizabeth’s perseverance in fighting the giant intimidating dragon, her unorthodox “unladylike” attire and her decision to not marry the prince in the end.
In the beginning, Princess Elizabeth is introduced as a “beautiful princess” that had “expensive princess cloths”. She is pictured wearing a long pink dress and blond hair. However, when the dragon burns down her castle, she is left covered in ashes with messy hair and no clothes or shoes. This is not the typical princess look. She looks dirty and sloppy which would not be desirable to most people. Despite this, Princess Elizabeth still decided to search for her true love. Instead of taking the predictable route of fighting the dragon (as you would expect a male to do in her case), she decided to try and outwit and manipulate him to get her prince back, showing that women can be intellectually capable and employ the power of persuasion. While most fairy tales would probably have shown a princess being terrified to fight a giant fire breathing dragon, the Princess did not hesitate at all in taking on the dragon. This teaches young girls the value of fighting their own battles. In the end, when the she finally saved the Prince, he responded by saying, “Come back when you are dressed like a real princess” (Munsch, 16)
Readers see her appearance as an inappropriate female characteristic. The Prince’s comment about her not being a “real” princess heavily supports the dominant hegemony that women should be dressed in clean girly clothes. Despite the suggestion that the Princess should be seen as an “anti-model”, she maintained her headstrong attitude and refused to conform to that stereotype. Her response was quite witty and unsuspecting for a princess: “Your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum” (Munsch, 17). They then decided not to get married, and she is shown frolicking in the sunlight, paper bag and all. This goes against the typical “happily ever after” ending in fairy tales. She was not left heartbroken and helpless; rather, she seemed to look free and liberated now that she was no longer bounded by the constraints of the typical “princess life”.
The messages depicted in The Paper Bag Princess go against the masculine hegemony that supports the oppression of females. While typical children’s’ fairytales feature a longing princess waiting for her chivalrous knight in shining armor to come galavanting on a horse, Princess Elizabeth takes things into her own hands in order to save the day. Although the Prince’s character tries to promote the stereotypical feminine princess image and outright rejects Elizabeth when she shows up in a paper bag, it is her attitude and reluctance to give in to that stereotype that provides the overall basis of the subverted oppositional reading. She has no problem putting the prince in his place and leave him, showing young readers that women are independent and are not under a man’s control.
Munsch, Robert N. The Paper Bag Princess. Toronto: Annick Press, 1980. Print.