Today’s guest is Joanna from Strange Charm! This is a wonderful site dedicated to showcasing speculative fiction written by women, and I particularly appreciate that many of the books reviewed are ones that are not currently being discussed all over the Internet. Joanna and her co-blogger Rachel post new reviews and interviews every Monday and Thursday, and they also cover books fitting into a fun unifying theme such as the spring series Joanna just finished: Musical Magic, ending with Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks.
Like many girls who spent their teenage years reading fantasy books, I wasn’t one of the popular girls; I didn’t understand how to wear makeup, how to wear clothes, or how to flirt with boys. Little wonder, then, that I retreated into stories where girls who were just like me got to have adventures, save the day and live happily ever after, usually with a love interest who liked them for who they truly were. Looking back, I realise now that this common factor was a trope called the tomboy princess.
I still feel huge affection for these tomboy princess books, which comforted me in my awkwardness and assured me everything was going to be ok. As an adult, though, I can also look back at them and see the more problematic aspects of the messages I was learning. Do these problematic factors ruin the enjoyability of the book? Or can we still take something away from the tomboy princess story as feminist adults? I’ve scoured my shelves for examples to take a more critical look.
The Horse and His Boy (C.S. Lewis) was always my favourite of the Narnia books. Rereading it as an adult, I realise it must have been because of Aravis, because there’s very little else I like about it now. We first meet her fleeing in the middle of the night, to escape an arranged marriage with a much older man. We learn that she isn’t keen on typical ‘girly’ things, preferring outdoor pursuits like riding, hunting and swimming. Unusually for a tomboy princess, Aravis isn’t the heroine of this story; I think this must have something to do with her being written by a male author. And she definitely drew the short straw for a love interest! But I include her because she was my first introduction to the trope, and in many ways she is the archetypal tomboy princess.
In Deerskin (Robin McKinley), Lissar must also escape marriage to a much older man by escaping into the wilderness, in this case, her deranged father (in a retelling of the fairytale Donkeyskin). An unwanted marriage is the most common catalyst for a tomboy princess story, and although arranged marriage was an occupational hazard of being a princess throughout history, you might think that it’s not really a relatable issue for modern girls. However, most girls (even the shy ones) can relate to being stared at by older men as young teenagers, and a story where a heroine is uncomfortable with this situation and actively rebels helps us to express our own discomfort.
Romilly in Hawkmistress (Marion Zimmer Bradley) dresses as a boy, runs away from her life of privilege, and becomes a wandering outcast in order to escape her arranged marriage. For both Lissar and Romilly, their defining relationship in the book is with an animal: Lissar with her dog, Ash, and Romilly with her hawk, Preciosa. Their respective love interests are present, but not at all crucial to the story. It’s odd that liking animals is considered a tomboyish trait—but I think it’s less that they simply like animals, and more that they get emotional fulfillment from these relationships, and so do not need or want a love interest. I think this is a nice message to take away.
Romilly also suffers by being compared to her ‘more perfect’ sister, another trope that crops up for the typical tomboy princess (although this role might be filled by either a friend (such as for Aravis) or even a mother (for Lissar)). This sister is more beautiful than our heroine, and knows how to do traditional homemaking tasks such as sewing; she never messes up her clothes, or gets dirty, and she knows how to behave in formal functions. This is the aspect of these stories that I find most problematic, because our heroine is deliberately framed as ‘not like all those other, silly, girly girls’, because she likes ‘boy stuff, like riding horses and swordfighting’, and boy stuff is better. Placing our heroine in opposition to these other women might feel cathartic, because we want to be on her side, but we’re still making value judgements about the best kind of woman to be.
In Wildwood Dancing (Juliet Marillier), Jena is one of five sisters, and the most tomboyish of them, although this isn’t framed as a bad thing as it is for Romilly. Happily, the sisters mostly band together despite their differences, and their love for each other is the emotional heart of the book. Jena struggles with asserting her authority despite her sex—she wants to run the family business in the absence of any brothers, and despite being obviously capable, she must fight for this against her overbearing cousin (whilst also avoiding his unwelcome advances).
Ani in The Goose Girl (Shannon Hale) is the least naturally tomboyish of all the tomboy princesses on my shelf, so is something of a counterpoint to the others, but she shares their resourcefulness. As she travels to a neighbouring kingdom to fulfill her arranged marriage with a young prince, a jealous lady-in-waiting stages a coup and takes her place. Despite living a life of luxury until now, Ani must quickly learn to fit in with the common people, and takes a job as a gooseherd while she works out how to reclaim her rightful position. Eventually, this gives her the insight needed to be a wiser ruler, unlike the established ruling class who are out of touch and unaware of the problems the ordinary people face. And, like Lissar and Romilly, this subterfuge rewards her with a love interest who loves her for who she really is.
Also learning what it means to be a ruler, Tamar in The Girl King (Meg Clothier) is a princess who must fight to be Queen after the death of her father. She has the requisite perfect sister, the love of horse-riding and fighting and an unwanted arranged marriage. Like Lissar, Aravis, Ani and Romilly, she is forced to fend for herself in the wilderness despite being utterly unprepared. What makes Tamar different is that she really existed: she was a real 12th century princess of Georgia who successfully defended her reign to become one of the country’s most popular queens, and as far as I can tell, The Girl King sticks very closely to the actual history. The tomboy princess may seem like a modern trope, but actually history is full of wonderful women who defied their society’s expectations, if we know where to look.
Rereading these books as an adult, I’ve enjoyed every single one. Yes, there are problematic aspects, such as the tendency for our heroine to be presented as a favourable contrast to most women, or the fact that we are so focused on women with economic privilege. However, I think the idea of the tomboy princess story comes from a good place. We get a self-sufficient female character with agency in her own story, and she is relatable because she is deprived of her privilege and must live like an ordinary person. In the end, we can’t help cheering her on as she defies the conventions of her society to earn her happy ending. I’d now love to find some new examples—so what are your favourite tomboy princess books?
||Joanna has been reading science fiction and fantasy for as long she could read. Her favourite genres are feminist science fiction, magical realism, and historical fantasy, and she particularly enjoys finding science fiction and fantasy stories in unexpected parts of a bookshop. She is also half of the feminist SFF book blog Strange Charm. She lives in the Cotswolds, where if she isn’t reading, she’s probably singing. You can find her on twitter, as @joanna_m, or on the TV quiz show Only Connect, as a Nørdiphile.