Film & Television

Princesses Are Doing It For Themselves

If you grew up in the 1970s, you may remember Free to Be You and Me. At first, it was a large paperback book and a record album (yes, we all had turntables then). A couple of years later, it was broadcast as a television special. The collection of songs, poems, stories, and sketches was created and executive-produced by Marlo Thomas (That Girl) in partnership with the Ms. Foundation for Women, and showcased the talents of Cicely Tyson, Carole Channing, Diana Ross, and Shirley Jones, among others. It was, in many ways, ahead of its time with its messages of individualism and diversity. And, as I very happily learned about 16 years ago when I shared my much-loved (and dog-eared) copy with my then-fourth-grade daughter, it still holds up.

My favorite story from Free to Be You and Me was always the tale of Atalanta, narrated by Thomas and Alan Alda, written by Betty Miles, and based on a Greek myth. Atalanta, which translates to “of equal weight,” is a princess, clever and capable, who resists her father’s attempts to marry her off. He suggests holding a footrace and bestowing her hand upon the lad who wins. She counters, suggesting that she be allowed to race as well, and if she wins, she can stay single and see the world. Race day comes and the fleet-footed princess runs faster than any man until “Young John” from the village catches up to her and they cross the finish line together. Although they don’t marry, they become fast friends and set off separately to pursue their own ambitions. As Thomas tells us, they nevertheless, “Live happily ever after.”

(I should point out that the Greek myth ends a bit differently. One of Atalanta’s suitors, Hippomenes, aided by the goddess Aphrodite and three golden apples (the Greeks did love their golden apples), beats her and marries her. This is not so surprising given that, by-and-large, the much-trumpeted democracy of ancient Greece did not extend to women. Two thousand years later, Thomas and her colleagues at Ms. were a little more woke.)

Catherine, the hero of Lena Dunham’s new movie Catherine Called Birdy based on the young adult novel by Karen Cushman, would certainly relate to Atalanta’s situation. In thirteenth-century England, Catherine is the only daughter — and consequently, the potential “cash cow” — of Lord Rollo and Lady Aislinn, a noble couple who have fallen on hard times due to Rollo’s negligence and extravagance. If their 14-year-old can snare a wealthy husband, their financial woes will be over. The trouble is, Catherine (known, as you might have guessed, as Birdy) isn’t interested in marriage. In fact, she’s repelled by the idea and willfully sabotages any and all attempts at matchmaking. She faithfully chronicles her thwarted romantic life in a little diary provided by her kind older brother Edward the monk (“More fun than most monks,” she assures us).

“Here’s a list of things girls can’t do: be monks, go on crusades, cut their hair, be horse trainers, go to hangings, drink in public houses, or laugh very loud.” After much trial and error, and a narrow escape from a grotesque fiancé named Shaggy Beard, Catherine wins her freedom, realizing that even if it’s beyond her power to change that particular list of  “can’ts,” she’s able to create a list of things “Girls can do,” that’s all her own.

Dunham, who is considered an irreverent voice of her generation thanks to her HBO series Girls and autobiographical indie film Tiny Furniture, has been enthralled with Cushman’s Newbury Medal-winning book for many years (she first discovered it when she was just 10). Now, she’s written and directed a film that will appeal to girls and women of all ages. Like any young reader, Dunham originally related to Catherine. But, today as a married woman in her thirties, she’s also created compelling characterizations of Birdy’s mother, father, nurse, and other grownups.

The cast is marvelous, centered around a particularly engaging performance by Bella Ramsey, familiar to many as Lyanna Mormont in Season 6 of Game of Thrones. She’s at once naïve and intelligent, compassionate and mischievous. “I’m very cunning,” she explains. “Most girls are, but aren’t given due credit for it.” Her father (Andrew Scott, Fleabag’s “Sexy Priest”) finds her “disgusting” and “practically a leper.” Her mother (Billie Piper) is supportive (“I cheer for you, but I fear for you”), but being pregnant more often than not, isn’t always available. Her nurse (Lesley Sharp) plays the confidante and fills her in on the mysteries of her monthly “Lady Red.” And, her beloved uncle’s wealthy new bride (Sophie Okenedo) challenges her to imagine a world of freedom.

As feminist-focused, but less successful overall, is The Princess, which was released on-demand over the summer. Set up as Disney Princess meets Kill Bill in the style of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this fractured fairy tale follows a badass young royal who rejects her proposed husband at the altar, escapes from a tower, rescues her family, avenges her honor, reclaims her kingdom, and generally wreaks havoc. There are countless fight scenes, many in slow motion, punctuated by vast amounts of spurting blood, and dozens if not hundreds of casualties along the way.

In the titular role is Joey King, a capable and compelling young actor best known for Kissing Booth and her Emmy-nominated turn in The Act. She’s terrific here, in virtually every scene and never shies away from seemingly death-defying stunts. “I had no prior training in sword fighting, stunt fighting, hand-to-hand combat, so I worked with some people that were so patient, so supportive, so lovely, and they taught me everything I knew [in] a very short period of time,” King told Looper. “I was able to get to a point where I did 85-90% of what you see on camera.”

With far less screen time and a lot less fighting, the rest of the cast comes across as stock characters. Fun, but predictable. These include Dominic Cooper as bridegroom and usurper, Olga Kurylenko as his evil henchwoman, Ed Stoppard and Alex Reid as the beleaguered King and Queen, Veronica Ngô as the Princess’s Sensei, and Katelyn Rose Downey as her younger sister.

The fighting (which absorbs some nine-tenths or so of the movie and feels like a computer game come to life) is well-executed and exciting, even if it’s not usually my cup of tea. King is impressive throughout. However, and this may be typical of the genre, there’s not really a story to follow. While Catherine Called Birdy plays out in logical, linear scenes, The Princess simply fights everyone in her path until she’s finally face-to-face with her vile betrothed and then she fights him. She wins — trust me, I’m not spoiling anything — and the kingdom is saved, and her father agrees to make her a knight (something she’s long yearned for) and heir to the throne. The end.

The princess (we never do learn her name, which is dehumanizing) creates her own happy ending by being as ruthless and violent as a man. A step forward for women, maybe, but not for humankind. Birdy creates her happy ending by challenging assumptions and, after slowly winning the support of those around her, rewriting rules so they are better suited to everyone. As her story ends, she wishes she could “Help every girl in the world.” Dunham’s delightful movie is a step in the right direction.

Catherine Called Birdy is available in select theatres and on Amazon Prime.

The Princess is available on Hulu on-demand.

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