Sometimes, I really, really wish I had at least one daughter. Occasionally, this desire stems from seeing perfectly sublime little sundress in a store (and in these cases, my ovaries are obviously betraying me, because I’m pretty sure I haven’t worn a dress myself in at least a year). Often, this desire stems from an example of media that makes me glad to be a feminist raising children in this particular decade. “Doc McStuffins” is one example. (An aside: our oldest was watching this show, at the recommendation of our pediatrician to allay his fear of doctors, while I was pregnant with our youngest. I teared up on more than one occasion while watching it with him, because (a) Doc is a girl and also (b) African-American; she (c) wants to be/”is” a doctor, at least in part because (d) her mom is a doctor. Furthermore, “traditional” gender roles are meaningless to her because (e) her dad is her primary caregiver and also (f) cooks. Also, (g) I was pregnant and cried about everything. I could go on, but, seriously. This show is a huge hit, girls AND boys love it, and it’s basically thumbing its nose at EVERY SINGLE STEREOTYPE, EVER.) I love that our boys see Doc on television and it breaks down a little bit of the bullshit our oldest occasionally brings home from preschool, e.g., “girls can’t drive trucks.” But, still: imagine the impact the show is having on girls by telling them that they can be doctors – not to mention minority girls. I’d like a front-row seat to that sometimes.
Anyway, Princeless, a masterful graphic novel series by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin, is another example. Because I was reading these for the “non-superhero graphic novel published in the last three years” part of my reading challenge, I read the first two books in the series, which are respectively subtitled Save Yourself (Action Lab Entertainment, 11.99 USD) and Get Over Yourself (14.95 USD) and respectively released in 2012 and 2015. And, now, I intend to read all of them. In fact, after finishing the second one, I lamented the fact that I know very few girls in the 8-12-year-old age range, then ordered a copy for a friend’s daughter who likes comics (and then I watched her devour it in an hour). Don’t get me wrong; I intend to read these with my sons as well, but I don’t think the 5-year-old is ready yet. We’re just getting started on comics with him; Little Mouse Gets Ready by Jeff Smith (TOON books, 4.99 USD) is about where we’re at right now (and is a brilliant introduction to how to read comics and extremely appealing to young readers, by the way; it even features a tutorial at the front that suggests how to read speech bubbles to someone so they can follow along).
Adrienne is the sixth of seven daughters (and one theater-loving son, Devin) of the overbearing (to state it nicely) King Ashe. Locked in a tower against her will, Adrienne is guarded by a dragon trained to fight any prince who would dare try to rescue her. The theory is that a prince capable of killing the dragon is worthy of marrying the king’s daughter; the daughter herself has no say in the matter, of course.
After a prince tries (and fails) to rescue her, Adrienne finds a sword under her bed in the tower. She convinces the dragon, Sparky, that it’s in her own best interest to forget about her duty and help Adrienne rescue her six sisters – five of whom are already locked away in towers of their own and guarded by various mythical beast. Adrienne rummages through the remains of the failed princes to armor herself, teaches herself to fight with the sword, and sets off atop her fearsome steed, Sparky, to find Appalonia – the youngest and last sister to be locked away. Thus, Adrienne has effectively become a self-rescuing princess.
After attempting a rescue in disguise as a rogue knight, Adrienne is joined on her quest by a female blacksmith, Bedelia, whom she meets while finding some better-fitting armor. In Book Two, King Ashe has gathered the most capable knights in the land to hunt down the “rogue knight” and avenge his daughter. Meanwhile, Adrienne and Bedelia have moved on to rescuing Princess Angelica, and then Princess Angoisse. Along the way, however, they make a stop to rescue a different kind of princess – Raven Xingtao, daughter of the Pirate King, who seems like she will prove to be a powerful ally for future rescues.
I can’t say enough about how this series – in just the first two books – has turned the cultures of patriarchy and white privileges on their heads. I’ve already addressed the main plot line: Princess Adrienne is a self-rescuing princess who sets out to save other princesses from their towers. Here’s another reason I’m so excited about this series: Princess Adrienne is Black. On the first page, her mother the Queen reads a younger Adrienne a fairy tale from a story book that features the typical blond-haired, light-skinned princess. Adrienne mocks it ruthlessly, referring to the skinny, white princess’s arms as “pipe cleaners.” The first prince we see who shows up to “rescue” her (and happens to be white – this is the most racially-diverse comic series I’ve seen, aside from maybe Ms. Marvel) refers to her as a “fair maiden” – at which point she schools him on the actual meaning of “fair” – light. Light-skinned. Not a term one would use in reference to any member of the royal Ashe family, even though Adrienne’s sister, Angelica, is universally known to be the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. This is a quantitative fact, as far as the citizens are concerned.
Here’s another thing: Bedelia, the sidekick, is white. And a ginger (yay gingers!). There is a white character, and she’s not running the show. The black character is. At the end of book two, it sounds like the next book will feature a trio of princesses rescuing other princesses – and the third princess is Asian, and is also fed up with the patriarchy, and also a badass.
I mentioned above that Adrienne has a theater-loving brother, Devin. He’s been trained in swordplay, of course, as the prince, but his heart has never been in it. He doesn’t want to destroy with a sword; he wants to create, with his art. Look! Another stereotype down the drain! King Ashe doesn’t even want Devin to inherit the throne, even though he’s the only heir (since, obviously, women can’t rule) because he’s not a fighter. Thus, the need to imprison his daughters, guard them with mythical creatures, and invite the prince who destroys the beasts/”wins” one of his daughters to be the next king.
Where is the queen in all this, you might ask? Well, this is a total patriarchy, and she is queen in name only. She has no power, or at least she thinks she doesn’t. When she receives word that Adrienne is dead, she’s not sad. She’s angry. But she can’t think of a single thing to do about it, even after Devin tells her that Adrienne IS the knight that Ashe has sent all the best knights after and that she will likely be killed.
This all sounds very serious, but jokes abound in this series. When Adrienne meets Bedelia, the daughter of a blacksmith too drunk to actually make armor himself – so Bedelia makes it and her father passes it off as his work, because (naturally) no one would buy armor made by a woman – Bedelia shows Adrienne a few costumes for women that she’s been working on in secret. One is clearly a mockery of Wonder Woman’s tiny costume, another pokes fun at Xena, and the third is simply a chain mail bikini. The armor Bedelia eventually makes for Adrienne is functional AND gorgeous, but I love that the writers took the opportunity to mock the armor we usually see on female warriors.
Review as a parent: Obviously, as a feminist, I think this is one of the most important comic books to come out in the last decade. And, yes, there is fighting, and there are references to people dying, but there is no blood, no gore, and even most of the people who are assumed to be dead aren’t in reality. It’s really just a swashbuckling good time, and I would have no issue reading this to my five-year-old based on content concerns. The only reason I’m not right now is (a) the story is still a little too complex for him right now, with the various subplots and lots of foreshadowing and flashbacks, and (b) the layout of the speech bubbles seems a little amateurish at times. In some frames, it’s not immediately apparent which direction the conversation goes, and that can be annoying for someone who’s read a lot of comics – but downright confusing for someone who’s barely familiar with speech bubbles. Point (b) is really the only criticism I have for the series so far, and it’s the only reason I gave it four coffee cups instead of five. Aside from this, it’s utterly brilliant, and I highly recommend it for ages eight and up.