News of Hollywood franchise reboots are so frequent as to be usually unremarkable, even tiresome. But Disney’s announcement last week that it was developing a Princess Diaries 3 film felt different. “The Princess Diaries 3 movie,” in the words of a popular tweet, “will heal our broken nation.”
That may sound over-dramatic – after all, cultural objects beloved by teenage girls invite suspicion at worst and polite tolerance at best; things that also fall under the banner of “chick-lit” doubly so. And yet the films, and the Meg Cabot books that provided their source material, arguably taught my teenaged self more about life – and even politics – than textbooks did. They were certainly more fun.
Looking for a relaxing read this summer to restore my broken, overstimulated brain, I turned to Cabot’s 11-book series, which follows the awkward New York teenager Mia Thermopolis as she discovers that she is the royal heir to a small European principality called Genovia. They were a staple of my childhood, and I wondered how they would come across now. Perhaps I would get bored reading youth fiction as an adult. Perhaps, as with many beloved artefacts of the millennium, I would be perturbed by the series’ awkward politics, and feel ashamed that I ever enjoyed it.
Instead, I was delighted all over again. The books weren’t perfect, but I marvelled at how funny they were, how acerbic and quietly cynical. This must be what it’s like for parents who bring their children to a screening of Frozen and smirk as they watch a character announcing that “[foot] size doesn’t matter”.
Mia’s best friend, Lilly Moscovitz, the leftwing muckraker and daughter of two Jungian psychoanalysts, could “belong to Mensa – or at least she could if she didn’t think it hopelessly bourgeois”. Mia’s mother Helen, a bohemian artist with a loft in New York’s Greenwich Village, is recovering from a bout of depression because she discovered her last boyfriend, now ex, was a Republican. When Mia arrives at (private) school one day to find journalists gathering outside, she thinks: “I suppose somebody’s dad has been accused of money-laundering again.”
I didn’t understand all of this as a 10-year-old, but it didn’t matter. Those preteen years, when the glow of childhood has faded and you’re gawking, awkward and groping towards any sort of understanding of the world, can be agonising. Following Mia’s life through high school and its discontents was a reminder that while this cocktail of self-loathing and humiliation would not go away, at least I was not alone.
I looked on, wide-eyed and a little afraid, as Mia contemplated sex (disgusting!). I made mental notes on her first experience drinking beer at a party in case I was ever similarly exposed to the decadent hard-partying lifestyle of the western high schooler (I never was, but one must always be prepared). When a 16-year-old Mia struggles to leave her bed one day, and also the day after that, her parents take her to see a therapist who helps her through her depression. Cabot’s description of what it was like to finally feel a flicker of hope after a long period of sadness – of having someone reach out to you and pull you out of a deep hole – came to my mind years later, at university, during a difficult time.
In the later books, Mia, inspired by the liberalism of none other than John Locke, works to make Genovia a representative democracy. Years later, when I began my graduate studies in political thought, I was walking a path cleared by Cabot, who had Mia scrawl down notes on Marx’s theory of a commodity in her princess training lessons. Sandwiched between observations on what to do with a napkin in restaurants and when to apply lipstick, is the sentence: “In denying the value of what they [the workers] have produced, the capitalists are undermining their own economic system.”
The film adaptations, directed by the late Garry Marshall and starring Anne Hathaway as Mia, have a softer edge, and are still a sleepover staple. They are sites of adolescent fantasy for thousands of girls – and not only girls – who dream of one day (in one of the film’s most famous scenes) being made beautiful by a group of generically European beauticians; of getting the keys to their own royal palace and bedchambers; and maybe, if they’re very lucky, even getting a boyfriend.
Julie Andrews, who plays Mia’s beneficent grandmother and Genovia’s queen, is not the chain-smoking, young-people-hating terror of the books; Lily’s advocacy for labour rights and invectives against the patriarchy and the monarchy are softened in the film to calls to save endangered species. Yet they keep, and enrich, the books’ lightness and joy, and have their own delicious sense of humour. After Andrews’s queen commissions a family member to fix a bathroom, she discovers that “nepotism belongs in the arts, not in plumbing”.
The relative conservatism of the films makes me wonder about the success of a Princess Diaries 3 (after a long break, Cabot is also publishing a 12th novel, exploring life in the pandemic). The promise of a glittering royal palace will surely land differently among socialism-curious millennials and Gen Z-ers. Though fantasy, done well, always has its place. Andrews and Hathaway have not yet signed on for the third film. Their reunion, if it comes, may not heal a country; but it will at least, in the chaotic, endless scream of the present, provide a much-needed balm.
Rebecca Liu is a Guardian commissioning editor