This post is unashamedly inspired by YouTube reviewer Phelous, whose videos are always worth a watch. He’s recently reviewed The Secret of Anastasia, a particularly awful cartoon knock-off of the 1997 Don Bluth animated film Anastasia. Both are, of course, about the teenage Russian grand duchess of that name who, in real life, died in 1918 with her Romanov parents and siblings in a hail of gunfire from their Bolshevik guards. It was a messy death at the hands of a horribly inefficient group of murderers who seem to have struggled to shoot dead a small group of people in a cellar.
Given that neither of them address this rather important fact, you could call both films “a bit historically inaccurate,” in the same way as you could call the sky “a bit up.” So are all the various previous films, books and articles claiming that somehow this didn’t happen, and usually also suggesting that the crazy old Polish-American lady who spent 60 years claiming to be Anastasia might not be the crazy old Polish-American lady that DNA evidence has now proved she was.
Historically inaccurate movies, of course, are nothing new. Nor are people claiming to be dead royals; in early seventeenth century Russia, there were at least three men who falsely claimed to be the (murdered) Tsarevich Dmitri, and two of them were persuasive enough to mount serious efforts to conquer the country. False Dmitri I actually did conquer it, briefly. England had Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, who each claimed to be one or other of the two (also murdered; it’s a theme here) Princes in the Tower in the fifteenth century. Basically, pick a monarchy, any monarchy ,and at some point you’ll probably find there was someone who claimed to be a dead king, prince or princess, with varying degrees of success. There were several other False Anastasias.
What’s unusual about the Anastasia films is that:-
(a) They’re quite as made-up as they are (I mean, how many historical films start by ignoring the generally accepted death of their central character, and get more inaccurate from there?);
(b) They’re about fairly recent history. Generally, the further back you go, the more slack you’ll get cut on matters of historical accuracy. King Arthur and Robin Hood probably didn’t really exist, but who cares for movie purposes?
(c) They’re aimed at kids. Do you have nostalgic memories about all those cartoons you watched as a kid about the Holocaust, the Vietnam War and the JFK assassination? Well, of course not. They don’t exist, because Hollywood studios wouldn’t touch such controversial subject matter in films for children. But somehow a Russian princess who got shot by firing squad after a Communist revolution is just fine, as long as you flat out lie about the firing squad and the Communist revolution.
I think a lot of this is down to that magic word “princess.” As far as the people who make cartoons are concerned, all princesses live in fairy-tale worlds, with all the tropes of fairy tales, and absolutely no connection with nasty adult realities. Little girls love princesses and aspire to princess-dom (and if they don’t, they jolly well should). Animation studios certainly love princesses. Disney calls all the heroines of its better-known animated films “Disney Princesses” whether or not they actually are royal. With that mind-set, you can see why having a main character who’s a princess can overcome any queasiness about the story.
The fact that most feature-length cartoons that become internationally successful come from the US probably has something to do with this mind set. Americans love their royalty, especially if British, but they love them because they see them as a sort of group of uber-celebrities with guaranteed classiness. This is partly true, especially nowadays, but even today, and in constitutional monarchies, royal families still have a political function that this leaves out. That gets truer the further back in history you go.
Go back far enough, and real princesses might be serious political players, big-deal patrons of culture and at the very least could bring the wrath of God down on you if you didn’t treat them with due respect. They might also end up dead themselves (or at least stuck in a convent) if they made a mess of things. Their lives were anything but suitable for children’s fiction. They mostly weren’t quite as messed-up as the average George R.R. Martin princess either, but then not many people’s lives are as messed-up as everyone’s in A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones.
Of course, Disney has made an industry out of bowdlerising fairy-tales and the fictional princesses in them, let alone the real life ones, so all this isn’t much of a problem for them. Still, there are plenty of reasons beyond the usual feminist gripes why it might not be an entirely good idea to let your daughter run around wanting to be a princess. Apart from anything else, you’ll guarantee that if she gets married, the effort to be Princess for a Day will make the wedding even more financially painful than they usually are.
EDIT: This was in fact written months ago now and I actually thought I had lost it, because I am bad at internet. However, you aren’t getting away so lightly.