The Lost Princess Trope

Tangled wasn't the first movie to feature a mistreated girl who learned she was a princess, but it was the first to popularize the "lost princess" archetype. Why is this trope so appealing throughout so many recent books and films? Secretly being a princess is a fantasy that many little girls have when they're growing up, especially when they face difficult times. This popular story narrative gives a literal interpretation Sara Crewe's philosophy from A Little Princess that every girl is a princess even if they don't know it. One of the reasons this is such a common theme in princess stories is that it goes along with one of the seven basic plot archetypes, the "Rags to Riches" trope. In the past, that trope was used more often for stories based on "Cinderella," but the "lost princess" trope has become more common in modern media due to the lack of dependency on a man that the "Cinderella" trope requires.

Rapunzel tries on her tiara for the first time

The first "lost princess" movie that made an impact on me was Don Bluth's 1997 animated classic, Anastasia. To my 11-year-old self, it seemed like such a novel concept to watch an ordinary girl who was down on her luck become a princess without needing to marry a prince. The shift in power between Anya and Dimitri added a depth to their relationship that I believe Disney was attempting to recreate in Tangled. The trope also captures the classic princess ideology of freedom from a life that they don't feel they were meant for. In the case of princesses like Kaguya or Jasmine, who are raised with the pomp and circumstance of royalty, they often long for a simpler life where they are able to make their own decisions. The lost princess, on the other hand, has more in common with Cinderella. She works hard and struggles to get by in the hopes that one day, her situation will improve.

Though the lost princess trope doesn't require a love a interest for the heroine to find her happy ending, it still carries the classic theme of love that exists in every good princess story. At its core, every "Rags to Riches" story revolves around a character who is lacking in healthy familial relationships, whether it is due to their parents dying when they were very young or being stolen away by a greedy villain. In the case of Cinderella, she not only escapes her wicked stepfamily by marrying the prince, but also finds a new loving family to call her own. For lost princesses like Rapunzel or Anastasia, they discover families that they didn't realize they had after spending most of their lives feeling lost or alone. Even though this is a different type of love, it is not any less significant, which is why this trope is so prevalent.

The Barbie cinematic universe is no stranger to the lost princess. Three years before Tangled, they released Barbie as the Island Princess, in which Barbie grew up as a stranded child on a deserted island who was raised by the local wildlife. When she is eventually discovered by other humans, her identity is revealed as the lost princess who was presumed dead after her disappearance. Barbie: The Pearl Princess re-imagines this concept in a whimsical and creative mermaid universe. Another Barbie movie that explores this idea is Princess Charm School, in which a magical tiara reveals Barbie's identity as the lost princess with a Magical Girl transformation sequence. The concept of an ordinary girl becoming a princess is one that fits well with the Barbie universe due to her slogan that girls can "Be anything."

The "lost princess" trope is an update on the timeless "Cinderella" archetype. It gives heroines the freedom to find unprecedented success, wealth, and comfort without needing to marry into it. It also encourages girls to dream big with the promise that they might discover something special about themselves that they never knew about. It guarantees a happy ending after a lifetime of feeling alone in the world with no real purpose. I think that's why this trope has become so popular in recent years when romance has been heavily downplayed by the media, but princesses are just as popular as ever.


Lady Culturina said…
Must be one of my favorite trope as it does not require to be married. Plus the heroine was always a princess, including in the obscure days of her youth.
MiOr_Phoenix said…
Barbie as Rapunzel did the lost princess trope before Barbie and the Island Princess did.
MiOr_Phoenix said…
Barbie as Rapunzel did the lost princess trope before Barbie and the Island Princess did.

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