One of the pages I follow on Facebook is Pigtail Pals, Ballcap Buddies, partly because Melissa Wardy is good at rooting out information I'm able to use in various communication classes. (Yeah, I'm lazy, too lazy to find these things on my own.) Lately, she's been on a tear about Disney princesses and how media messages aimed at girls emphasize that a woman's greatest ambition should be to grow up to marry the handsome prince. She is a big fan of the movie Brave (which I haven't seen yet) because it shows a girl in an active, heroic role, and she argues we need more of those kinds of role models for girls so they have something to aspire to.
I wouldn't argue with her point. The world of women I see on the screen is much more limited and limiting than the world I live in every day, which is limited and limiting in its own way. However, I still love a "happily ever after" love story, and that makes me feel a bit like I'm in collusion with the "enemy."
Let's take Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days as a case study. Basically, the book is the diary of a lower-class girl (Dashti, a "mucker") who is the handmaid to Lady Saren, a princess (or whatever the equivalent term would be for a princess in medieval Mongolia) whose father has imprisoned her in a tower for refusing to marry the ruler of a neighboring province, Lord Khasar. When young Khan Tegas of a different province (whom the princess has promised to marry in their exchange of letters for the past several years) comes to check on them, Lady Saren orders Dashti to impersonate her and talk to him. Dashti does, and they develop a friendship and connection, despite being on opposite sides of a thick stone wall.
(Rats, I have to use spoilers again....)
Eventually, Dashti finds a way for the two girls to escape the tower and starvation, and she gets them to the safety of Khan Tegas' province. By this time, though, Lady Saren is so tower-addled that Dashti knows she can't take the princess to her betrothed just yet. Meanwhile, Dashti is called in to sing the healing songs when the khan and one of his top generals are wounded, and although it is impossible, given their differing social status, they begin to fall in love (though she doesn't admit that).
While Lady Saren is recovering, the province is threatened by Lord Kashar, who has annihilated at least two other provinces and has come to claim his bride. Dashti saves the day by telling everyone SHE is Lady Saren and going to face Lord Kashar alone. Everyone then thinks she's really Lady Saren, and the khan plans to marry her--until her true identity is discovered. Then she's sentenced to death--until the khan pulls some pretty slick legal maneuvers and saves her life, as well as clearing the way for the two of them to marry. So we have our happily ever after ending.
I liked this story. It has some important digressions from the standard romance story. For one thing, Dashti has a red birthmark on her face and arm, so she's not the typical "beautiful" heroine. For another, she and the khan clearly fall in love through talking to each other, not through superficial, physical attraction. And probably most importantly, Dashti is the one who saves the whole province by taking down Lord Khasar.
Yet...there are many of the same conventions of the regular fairy tale. Dashti defeats Lord Khasar by using her sexual appeal (I'm not going to say how - at least, I can save one surprise for you!) In the end, it is the khan who rescues Dashti from the death sentence. And the happily-ever-after ending is that Dashti and the khan get married--totally traditional.
I suppose hard-core feminists would trash the book for those conventional elements. They might argue that even though Dashti rescues the province, she does it for the love of the khan and that her ultimate goal, even if she thinks it can never happen, is to be with him. And once again, we have a story for girls that emphasizes the most important and satisfying thing that can happen to a woman is getting the handsome prince.
Why can't we have it both ways? Can't we have heroines who are brave and strong but who also fall in love? Does hoping she'll find a true love to marry automatically disqualify a heroine from being an acceptable role model?
I'd like to think instead that Dashti is the kind of role model we DO want for girls. Unlike the Disney princesses, who are passive and beautiful and only living for the prince, Dashti is developed as a real person (she wanted to smack Lady Saren a few times, but controlled herself), and falling in love is just one part of that. Sometimes she is the one who is doing the saving, sometimes she's the one who needs the help. I don't see that as a bad thing.