The Princess Diaries and Ghost World (review)

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Girl Stories

This is what’s wrong with the world:

Slipping girls a bubble-gummy, cinematic adaptation of YM magazine is okay — and gets you a G rating as long as no one uses any naughty words — because the fact that a girl’s worth is based strictly on her appearance is undeniable fact, and it’s the kind of thing our daughters need to learn if they’ve any hope of snagging a date-raping football-player boyfriend in high school. Fine fare for the whole family.

Telling girls that being different is its own reward is bad — and gets you an R rating for a little under-the-covers nookie and language no worse than kids hear in school — because everyone knows that only losers don’t worship at the altar of our mass-marketed, homogenized culture. Where would the cosmetics industry be if girls and women were not obsessed with their pores? It’d be anarchy, or economic collapse at the very least, and we can’t have that.
Shut up!
The Princess Diaries is directed by Garry Marshall, which should make any thinking gal run screaming from the multiplex — this is the man who perpetrated Runaway Bride and Pretty Woman, after all, and if that doesn’t demonstrate contempt for the female of the species, I don’t know what does. (Also: “Produced by Whitney Houston.” It could have been worse: it could have been “Produced by Oprah Winfrey.” Still, you have been warned.)

What makes The Princess Diaries a greater crime than, say, Pretty Woman (Whoring = Strong, Modern Woman) is that it takes the inane female “empowerment” fantasy served up by the likes of Runaway Bride (Throwing Juvenile Tantrums and Treating Men Like Cattle = Strong, Modern Woman) and repurposes it for the junior high school set (Getting a Makeover and Quitting Slouching = Strong, Modern Girl). So just as girls are starting to hit that age when their bodies are changing and everything’s awkward and they are sure no boy will ever like them, here comes this odious flick to reassure them that yes, just as they suspected, all their problems are their own fault. If only they’d pluck their eyebrows, for Christ’s sake, everything would be fine and the popular kids would tolerate their mere presence.

San Francisco 10th grader Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway, who has one expression, and it’s already trademarked by Freddie Prinze Jr.: slack-jawed, deer-caught-in-headlights dumbfoundment, 24/7) is not popular. Marshall makes sure we understand this through her frizzy hair, her bushy eyebrows, her bumbling clumsiness, and her Doc Martens, the official shoe of loserdom (or so we’re meant to think). Fortunately, Mia turns out to be the crown princess of Genovia, a tiny European nation, and her grandmother, Queen Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews: The Sound of Music), arrives on the scene like a fairy godmother, prepared to transform Mia into a proper princess. Most ordinary little-girl dorks won’t have this royal advantage, but if they pay attention, they’ll pick up some tips nevertheless. Moms, take notes.

  • Tip 1: Moms: Allow a mealy, mincing hairdresser played by Larry Miller to evaluate your vulnerable daughter like she’s a horse on the block, and then do what he wishes to her. Me, if Larry Miller put his disgusting paws anywhere near my daughter, I’d slug him one. But I’m weird that way.
  • Tip 2: Girls: Be a real bitch to your best friend after your unlikely transformation into Miss Pretty and Popular. Particularly if she’s played by everyone’s favorite “ugly” girl, Heather Matarazzo. Everyone knows the popular kids do not hang out with dorks.
  • Tip 3: Garry Marshall wannabes: Pretend that a simple haircut will suddenly cure your heroine of her tendency to trip over things. And when in doubt, you can’t go wrong with a couple of “funny” nuns in habits no nun has worn since the 15th century.

Being royal and being popular have pretty much the same requirements, don’t they? (Royalty is like automatic national popularity, isn’t it? Didn’t we have a war to get rid of people like this, and could we do the same for the cheerleader and football types?) Look good and wear high heels and show a little leg — what’s actually in that head of yours has little bearing on the important things in life, like getting the cute asshole senior boy to like you. Whatever you do, just don’t be the you that people can’t stand — be the someone else they like instead.

The Princess Diaries is based on a novel by Meg Cabot. Why isn’t someone adapting Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing or Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? Oh right, because they deal with issues actually of concern to kids. Silly me.

Embrace your inner dork
And then there’s Enid. She comes at us by way of director Terry Zwigoff, who made Crumb, and via Daniel Clowes’s comic book, so it’s safe to assume that her tale was never going to be as idiotically asinine as Mia’s. Ghost World may be the most genuine film I’ve ever seen about the misery of being a disaffected teenager — hell, a disaffected soul of any age — one that recognizes that a comb and some eyeliner do not turn a dork into a beauty queen… and if they do, then you can’t have been a dork in the first place. Dorkiness comes from within, it can’t be prettied up, and it’s not something a gal has any choice about.

The summer’s off to a rough start for Enid (Thora Birch: American Beauty) and her best friend, Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson: The Horse Whisperer). They’ve just graduated from high school, and Rebecca, the slightly more conventional of the two, lands a job and begins the search for the apartment they’ve been promising they were going to share for years. But Enid is stuck in a summer-school art class and can’t manage to stick with any job for more than a day. And who can blame her? Who wants to upsell fat slobs jumbo popcorns at the multiplex? Enid has nothing but scorn for the bullshit of the world, be it Hollywood movies that drive you to drink ( The Princess Diaries must have been playing at the ‘plex where she worked), fake 50s nostalgia diners, or the self-indulgent art of her touchy-feely summer-school teacher (Illeana Douglas: Happy, Texas).

Enid’s is the horrible, ugly real world, of divey restaurants and depressing convenience stores and incomprehensible weirdness from ordinary people… but also of the surprising, happy weirdness of finding a maybe-soul mate in someone you set out to tease — like old-record collector Seymour (Steve Buscemi: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) — or just in the oddity of a pair of jeans lying undisturbed on the sidewalk for days.

The real points of difference between dreck like The Princess Diaries and a film like Ghost World is not that Enid doesn’t pluck her eyebrows and that’s what makes her my hero here. (Enid’s artfully arched brows clearly indicate that she is intimate with the tweezers.) Looks do matter, to a degree, but Enid’s carefully maintained appearance is a function of her unique personality — it is not thrust upon her by someone else or dictated by external circumstance, the way Mia’s is (and Mia, disturbingly, willingly discards her personality in favor of what she’s “supposed” to be).

But an even wiser lesson for young girls feeling out of place is what Enid finally figures out: feeling like you don’t fit in with the rest of the world doesn’t mean you need to change or even that the world needs to change. Knowing you want something different out of life is not the same as knowing what you want, and sometimes life really is just the journey — the figuring about what you want and where you want to be — and not the destination.

Enid’s way is the harder one, to be sure — once a misfit, always a misfit. But surely the road to happiness is in being yourself and maybe not fitting in, and not in fitting in and not being yourself.

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The Princess Diaries
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated G
official site | IMDB

Ghost World
viewed at a public multiplex screening
rated R for strong language and some sexual content
official site | IMDB

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