Ian Falconer's Olivia and the Fairy Princesses
Book review by Monica Friedman
Popular Piglet Subverts the Dominant Paradigm; Smashes Princess Stereotypes
Olivia, as fans of the franchise are well aware, is a piglet of particular preferences.
Guided by her own sense of self and an agency of porcine proportions, this beloved character engages in typical childhood behaviors (repeatedly begging her mother for another bedtime story) along with a few precocious lines of thought (“I think I’m having an identity crisis,” and “I’m trying to develop a more stark, modern style” are examples of the unusual statements that make her such an appealing heroine).
In this entertaining picture book, Olivia is so over the idea of fairy princesses clad in pink tutus.
“If everyone’s a princess,” she explains, “then princesses aren’t special anymore!” and in her observation, all of the girls (“including some of the boys”) wear the same outfit to birthday parties, dance recital tryouts, and Halloween. Olivia dons for these events, respectively, “a simple French sailor shirt, matador pants, black flats, a strand of pearls, sunglasses, a red bag, and my gardening hat;” a black-striped prisoner’s uniform, and a warthog costume (“It was very effective.”)
Wherever she goes, whatever she does, Olivia knows how to stand out.
The character also takes a moment to deconstruct some allied cultural assumptions. “Why is it always pink princesses?” she asks, before suggesting and modeling the costumes of various lands as alternatives.
The savvy reader must admit that Olivia’s Indian, Thai, African, and Chinese princess costumes are much more striking than the generic fairy princess outfits prancing through the story. She also takes a stab at the archetype of the damsel in distress princess who haunts her bedtime stories.
For some children, the ideal of the fairy princess in an empowering one, which seeks to assure them that good does exist in the world, that they themselves stand as paragons of beauty and magic.
The concept of fairy princesses itself is not any more flawed than any other image-based feminine ideal. Should a little girl declare herself a fairy princess and enjoy prancing around in sparkles and tulle, no force on earth, besides time, can change her preference.
But if a child finds the thought oppressive, as some do, books such as this stand to remind children that they’re not alone in this way of thinking, and to remind adults that “you’ll always be my little princess,” are not reassuring words to strong girls seeking their own identity. As she reminds her father, “There are alternatives.”
Review continues below.
While Olivia’s mother suggests Hans Christian Anderson’s horribly depressing Little Match Girl as an alternative to princess fairy tales, Olivia suggests, instead, Little Red Riding Hood as a more interesting path for the forward-thinking elementary girl.
She also considers other life options more realistic than fairy princess. “I could be a nurse and devote myself to the sick and the elderly…. Or maybe adopt orphans from all over the world. Or maybe I could be a reporter and expose corporate malfeasance.”
While these are all admirable goals for a precocious little girl, Olivia and the Fairy Princesses still acknowledges the power-oriented paradigm in which we live. When she was little, Olivia admits that she did want to be a fairy princess. Now mature enough to examine the underlying cultural assumptions about womanhood, she finishes the story by taking the next logical step toward complete empowerment, stating, “I know…I want to be queen.”
Read a review of the first Olivia book.
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