The Princess Diaries, released 2001, and its follow up sequel The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, released 2004, were based upon the popular book series of the same name written by Meg Cabot. The films depict the struggles of American teenager Mia Thermopolis, portrayed by Anne Hathaway, as she grapples with her newfound identity as a princess. Her grandmother, previously queen consort and now queen regent Clarisse Renaldi, played by Julie Andrews, rules the fictional kingdom of Genovia until Mia reaches her age of majority. Clarisse plays an important role in Mia’s navigation of the complex and often turbulent realm of queenship.
The first film focuses on Mia’s decision to accept her position as heir of Genovia and the second portrays the time preceding her coronation as queen regnant. These light-hearted coming of age tales on the surface appeal to the whimsical tropes of a teen movie from the early 2000s – first love, family ties, discovery of self and friendships – to present a princess fantasy.
However, when delving deeper into the films’ story lines, it is possible to see the inclusion of key themes from within queenship and gender studies, as well as reflections of modern monarchy in Europe, although this review will focus mainly on examples from England. The monarchical structure portrayed in The Princess Diaries franchiseshows a queen who exists in a constitutional function in that the primary law-making body is that of an elected parliament led by a prime minister, whilst the monarch exists as a figurehead whose principal role is cemented in diplomacy and philanthropy. Since its emergence in the 1980s, queenship studies has highlighted multiple theoretical lenses through which consort, regent, regnant, and lieutenant queens across the world can be examined. When watching The Princess Diaries series, this reviewer could not help but draw comparisons between the characters of Mia and Clarisse and other historical queens. Topics such as education, marriage, and succession, all of which are prevalent within queenship studies, appear in the film as plot lines accompanied by humour and heart-warming interactions.
Throughout both Princess Diaries instalments, Mia’s training as a princess and queen regnant feature heavily, with her grandmother claiming she can “give [Mia] books, [and she] will study languages, history, art political science. I can teach you to walk, talk, sit, stand, eat, dress, like a princess”. This is arguably reflective of the education expected to be received by royal and noble women across historical periods. For some, the presence of tutors in the lives of young royal women was to equip them with the skills they would need to successfully navigate a life at court, whether in their own realm as a queen regnant or abroad as a queen consort. There was no standard level of education across the medieval and early modern period for young royal women, but there were examples of prominent tutors who guided them during their formative years such as Bruno, Archbishop of Trier, for the Empress Matilda in the Holy Roman Empire, Juan Luis Vives for Mary I, and John Cheke and Roger Ascham for Mary’s younger half-sister, Elizabeth I. For each of these royal women, their journey to becoming a regnant queen was fraught with political intrigue, with only Mary and Elizabeth being formally recognised as sovereign monarchs, but these historical queens’ educations, and in the case of both Mary and Elizabeth the support of their tutors, ultimately aided them in their leadership and rulership.
The issue of succession is also a main plot line in both films and a widely explored theme within queenship studies and monarchical history. Throughout history, royal succession could change for many reasons including childlessness, the premature death of the heir, and abdication. After the death of her son, the heir to the Genovian throne, Clarisse has effectively taken on the role which would be associated with that of a regent as she is ruling the country until the new heir, Mia, comes of age to take the throne. Regency was a common role for queen consorts to hold in England on behalf of absent husbands or infant children, most often when they were away on military campaigns, with well-known examples including Matilda of Scotland on behalf of her husband Henry I and Kathrine of Aragon whilst Henry VIII was campaigning in France.
In terms of Mia’s succession as queen regnant, the main story of line of the second film, a member of parliament reminds Clarisse of an old law which states that an unmarried woman cannot rule. This arguably reflects the stereotype that it was not possible for a woman to rule successfully without a husband and that her marriage was required to qualify her to rule, although Elizabeth I’s lack of a spouse contradicts this notion. The character of Sir Nicholas Deveraux is introduced as an alternative heir and, as a male, he was not required to marry to ascend the throne. Whilst the marriage of a queen regnant was of great importance to her rule, it was not seen as the determining factor of female succession in England. Inheriting the throne as a woman in England, however, was not without its complications or criticisms from misogynistic commentators.
The condition of marriage and its arranged manner which underpinned Mia’s ability to ascend to the throne of Genovia may be a fictitious plot line, but as a theme of queenship the marital relationships between kings and queens is one of the most prominent angles of analysis. Marriage for a regnant queen was equally as important as that of a consort, as shown in the example of Clarisse, since she still needed to provide an heir. Unlike Mia, though, their husbands were often of their own choice. Of the six regnant queens who have ruled England, five were married, with Elizabeth I famously abstaining from a spouse. Arranged marriages were common amongst the nobility, with both Queen Mary II and Queen Anne’s matches to their husbands, William II of Orange and George of Hanover respectively, being organised by their families. Their relationships have been deemed largely successful as both couples ruled effectively together. However, Mary I chose to wed Philip II, King of Spain, much to the disdain of many of her contemporaries, Queen Victoria proposed to her husband Prince Albert, and Queen Elizabeth II married Prince Philip, despite his perceived lower status. Therefore, the assumption that all marriages were arranged for regnant queens and that their relationships were not allowed to develop organically is a misconception. As a cinematic trope, however, Mia’s refusal to give into an outdated law and her impassioned speech to parliament members to disregard the rule brings an element of ‘girl power’ to the film.
Whilst The Princess Diaries was not written to be a critical commentary of queenship theory nor an analysis of the role of a regnant queen, it does explore key aspects of queenship which explain the establishment and evolution of monarchy and a queen’s role within this. As a gender and queenship scholar, it is possible to watch these films and identify how certain themes are used to ultimately create the character of a strong regnant queen. For many young women watching these films, the character of Mia Thermopolis is a leading example of the power women could hold not just as a princess or queen but as an individual. She became a role model to encourage female empowerment, much in the same way that many of England’s ruling women have come to be perceived in academic and popular circles.
Marjorie Chibnall, The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English, London 1991.
Aysha Pollnitz, “Christian Women or Sovereign Queens? The Schooling of Mary and Elizabeth”, in Tudor Queenship: The Reigns of Mary and Elizabeth, ed. Alice Hunt and Anne Whitelock, New York 2010, 127-142.
Sarah Duncan, Mary I: Gender, Power, and Ceremony in the Reign of England’s First Queen, New York 2012.
G. Gibbs, “The Queen’s Easter Pardons, 1554: Ancient Customs and the Gift of Thucydides”, in The Birth of a Queen: Essays on the Quincentenary of Mary I, ed. Sarah Duncan and Valerie Schutte, New York 2016, 113-134.
Lois Huneycutt, Matilda of Scotland: A Study in Medieval Queenship, Woodbridge 2003.
Amy Licence, Catherine of Aragon: An Intimate life of Henry VIII’s True Wife, Stroud 2016.
Michelle L. Beer, “Between Kings and Emperors: Catherine of Aragon as Counsellor and Mediator”, in Queenship and Counsel in Early Modern Europe, ed. Catherine Fletcher, Helen Matheson-Pollock, and Joanne Paul, New York 2018, 35-58.
Julie Farguson, Visualising Protestant Monarchy: Ceremony, Art and Politics After the Glorious Revolution (1689-1714), Woodbridge 2021.
“A royal love story”, Royal Museum Greenwich, https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/queen-victoria-prince-albert.