Although their male counterparts get the majority of the attention, princesses are important staples in fantasy fiction. Whether helpless victims of nefarious antagonists or badass, sword-wielding heroines, princesses have captured audiences’ fascination since Grimm’s fairy tales. And this polarity—that is, the helpless on one end and the aggressive on the other—ensures that the character of the princess is not a stock character, but a mutable, polymorphous one. Just as we think we know the princess in all her manifestations, one comes along that undermines all our pre-conceptions.
The character of the princess, among other things, often reflects the culture from which she comes. This phenomenon is probably truer for the princess than the prince, who seems relatively immutable by comparison. Courage, strength, and honour are the familiar traits of most of the princes we see across various mediums. But over time the princess has signaled her culture’s attitudes towards women in power. Princesses in Grimm’s fairy tales, for instance, are often cast in situations where they are helpless victims of some monstrous male villain or some ugly (of course) witch. They have very little agency, that is, and this lack of agency is a product of the culture and society from which they emanate. The late-twentieth century’s Xena, the Princess Warrior, by comparison, has a good deal of agency, as she hacks and slashes her way to eminence. Audiences in the 90s, of course, were not put off by an aggressive female warrior, since gender equality had come a long way by then. Princesses, indeed, are windows looking into far greater phenomena than the film or text in which they reside.
And so, this list looks at ten princesses who have gained a good deal of notoriety for transcending the “damsel in distress” stereotype. The list has tried to look across the various mediums in which princesses appear—namely, onscreen, in text, and in video games—and it gives more attention to contemporary ones, but readers should note that many of these princesses are centuries old; their narratives have been retold, refurbished, and slightly altered as the years have gone by. Also, this list operates with a rather loose definition of “princess,” which it construes as a female character of royalty or eminence who in most cases is heir to a throne or some kind of significant inheritance. Let us know your favourite badass princesses in the “comments” section.
10. Princess Peach
As a result of the massive popularity of the Super Mario franchise, one that has spanned 4 decades now, Princess Peach is an indelible princess. Unfortunately, Princess Peach is probably the most vapid and least interesting princess on this list, as she rarely plays any role besides that of the helpless, futile princess. Mainly appearing in the Super Mario video games, though there has been a film, Princess Peach plays a very specific role. At the start of every game, she ambles around before Bowser, Mario’s arch nemesis, captures her, which prompts Mario to undertake a massive quest to get her back. One would think that a princess would step her security up after being kidnapped so many times. All that being said, Peach has been featured in many a video game as a playable character, showing an aptitude for racing, tennis, and all-out brawling. Love her or hate her, Princess Peach is going nowhere any time soon, as “Mario” seems to be one of those video-game franchises that will not perish, and neither will Peach.
9. Princess Zelda
The titular character of Nintendo’s other massively popular video-game franchise, Princess Zelda is another princess that has won her way into every gamer’s heart. Unlike Princess Peach, who tends to be somewhat vacuous, Princess Zelda has several admirable qualities. As the representative of royalty in the land of Hyrule, she is benevolent, sagacious, and, at times, lugubrious. And yet, gamers rarely get to play as this picture of perfection, as Link is generally the main protagonist in Legend of Zelda games. However, though she often gets captured by Ganon or Ganondorf, Zelda plays a key role in many of Link’s adventures. Those not in the know should go pick up copy of Ocarina of Time and play it—immediately.
8. Princess Jasmine
Princess Jasmine is the princess from the Aladdin series of animated films, and she raises several implications that make her unforgettable. On the one hand, Jasmine flouts convention. Though she loves her father, she does not want to be confined to the life of a princess, which abounds in tedious ceremony, so she runs away from her castle and in time cavorts and adventures with the guttersnipe Aladdin. Jasmine is a princess with agency, and it is refreshing to see a Disney film in which the princess eschews tradition and transgresses her narrow social circle to find true love. On the other hand, and this phenomenon is endemic to most Disney films with similar narratives, Jasmine falls in love with a somewhat dishonest, athletic, and smooth-talking thief. These kinds of narratives seem to program little girls into thinking that mischievous guys are somehow sexier than their well-behaved, rule-abiding counterparts. C’mon, Disney!
Pochahontas was a real-life person, who was the daughter of her tribe’s chief and famously saved the life of an Englishman, John Smith. However, most of us know her from the 1995 Disney movie, Pochahontas, in which she, like Princess Jasmine, dreads the prospect of an arranged marriage. An athletic, strong-willed character, Pochahontas saves the life of the fictional John Smith, but decides to stay with her tribe, declining Smith’s request that she come with him. Her decision to stay with her tribe is a nice touch for a Disney film in that tribal loyalty trumps romance.
In Shakespeare’s classic play, King Lear, Cordelia is Lear’s youngest daughter. Unlike her lying, greedy sisters, Goneril and Regan, Cordelia does not dissemble when professing her love for her father; she speaks honestly and brusquely about her love for him. Lear’s metaphorical blindness precludes him from seeing through his eldest daugther’s prevarication, and he banishes Cordelia from his kingdom for her lack of saccharine affection. In the end, though, Goneril and Regan precipitate his demise, and he realizes Cordelia’s true virtue too late. This play should not be missed by anyone remotely interested in Shakespeare.
Eowyn comes from the J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic series of books, The Lord of the Rings, a series that Peter Jackson famously adapted for screen. The niece of King Theoden, the king of Rohan, who adopted her after her father’s death, Eowyn is a noblewoman who is dutiful and fights fearlessly against the forces of evil. Inspired by the Valkryies from Norse Mythology, among other sources, Tolkien created many strong female characters, and Eowyn corroborates this point. As the Riders of Rohan set out to battle Saruman and Sauron’s forces of evil, she respectfully accepts her task of staying behind to rule and look out for her people. However, Eowyn etches her name into Middle Earth’s history books when she slays the Witch-King of Angmar, a villain who boasts that he cannot be slain by a man. For whatever reason, Peter Jackson’s trilogy cleanses Eowyn of much of her fierceness, turning her instead into a lovesick princess who dotes on Aragorn. Fans of the film trilogy should read the books to fully understand Eowyn.
4. Princess Leia
This list could not possibly be complete without Princess Leia from the classic Star Wars trilogy. Played by Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia is unforgettable, as she is at the heart of all the action throughout the last three episodes of the six-episode-long series. Episode IV starts with her being captured by Darth Vader, but she is anything but sorry, as she does everything she can to protect her rebel alliance. When Luke and Han Solo come to save her in the Death Star, she is not passive, and engages in thoroughly enjoyable repartee with the fast-talking Han. Despite her incestuous kiss with Luke—they didn’t know!—Princess Leia looks great in her slave outfit at the beginning of Episode VI, an outfit that has endeared her to more than a few Star Wars nerds.
In Frozen, the 2013 hit from Disney, Elsa is a princess with superpowers who, early on in the narrative, becomes the Queen of Arendelle. After a falling out with her sister, Anna, Elsa unleashes her superpowers, setting off an eternal winter and creating an ice castle to protect her from the outside world. This tale about the near-impossible rapprochement between sisters is entertaining and heartfelt, and Elsa certainly displays a good deal of badassery. In the end, the sisters reunite, and Elsa learns to control her powers, a fitting, if cliché, ending.
Played by Lucy Lawless, Xena, the Princess Warrior is one Princess whom you do not want to see in a dark alley at night—at least not if she’s mad at you. She initially begins as Hercules’ rival, and her fearlessness at standing up to Hercules says a good deal about her character. After her redemption and disavowal of her former nefarious ways, Xena becomes one of fiercest warriors for her people. From 1995-2001, Xena captivated television audiences with her unique blend of martial skill and physically prepossessing beauty. The character has even been appropriated by Lesbian communities who see her as a gay icon, given Xena’s unclear sexuality in the show.
1. Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman exemplifies a strong female character, one who won’t stand for gender stratification at all. As the story goes, Wonder Woman is a warrior princess of the Amazons, a powerful nationa of all-female warriors from Greek Mythology. Since Early Modern England, when Queen Elizabeth reigned, the Amazons have been a potent symbol of female power and martial prowess. In contemporary society, feminists, who see a good deal of positive and progressive dynamism in the myth of the Amazons, have appropriated it for their own purposes. As such, given her unique origins, Wonder Woman, equipped with her indestructible bracelets and Lass of Truth, has become a beloved symbol for female strength and self-sufficiency.