Unpopular Opinion: The Princess Diaries Isn’t As Good As You Remember

Photo: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.
I used to love The Princess Diaries. I was 11 when the movie came out. As a pre-pubescent girl with my own frizz-ball hair and awkward glasses, Anne Hathaway seemed like a goddess sent from the future to personally reassure me that it would not be this bad forever. And really, what's not to love?

The Princess Diaries
is a great rom-com. Anne Hathaway is funny and endearing, Heather Matazzaro is a gem, that guy from Rooney (Robert Schwartzman) is a hottie, and who can say no to Julie Andrews? It was a winning recipe for the early 2000s, complete with Mandy Moore as a mean girl and a blond surfer dude love interest (Erik von Detten) who — spoiler! — turns out to be an asshole. I was already a longtime fan of the book series by Meg Cabot when the first Princess Diaries film was released. For a long time, the two fandoms existed side-by-side in my heart, much like Genovia and France. It's only recently, after rereading the book in preparation for the film's 15th anniversary, that I began to have doubts. It suddenly dawned on me that the movie I had enjoyed so much isn't actually that great. In fact, the film erases a lot of what makes the book so compelling. Book Mia Thermopolis contains multitudes. We first meet her as a teenage girl living in New York City's Greenwich Village with an artist mother and a mostly absent father. She has a cat, Fat Louie, and attends the upscale Albert Einstein High School. She a vegetarian, wears combat boots, and supports Greenpeace. She spends algebra class debating the finer points of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and obsessing over the fact that her mom is dating her teacher. She spends her summers at Miragnac, her grandmother's chateau in France. Which leads us to the main plot point: She is, as it turns out, a princess. The movie mostly glosses over these quirks. By moving the action from New York to San Francisco, the film loses part of what makes Mia so interesting. No offense, but New York City-raised children are weird in a very specific and mostly wonderful way. San Francisco Mia is adorable, rather than complex. She isn't vegetarian (one of the most famous scenes in the movie involves corn dogs) and while she's awkward, it's apparently nothing some mousse and tweezers can't fix.
Here we come to another movie problem: the idea that a perfectly shaped eyebrow and a manicure can make an ugly duckling into a princess. In the books, Mia actively rejects her makeover and describes chewing on her fake nails and various attempts to muss her newly highlighted hair. Movie Mia, in contrast, half-heartedly hides her sleek new 'do with a Kangol hat. (Remember those?) We're supposed to understand that of course Mia looks better now. Her hair is sleek and shiny. She has a pedicure. Her glasses are a thing of a distant, ugly, past. The cultural impact of the glam makeover was hammered home during a scene in the most recent season of Orange Is The New Black, in which the one of the male guards, discussing the sole female guard's appearance, says: "Oh, she could totally be cute...if she got Princess Diary-d or something." This attitude is one that I've encountered repeatedly as someone with naturally curly hair. I realize now that seeing Anne Hathaway rise like a phoenix from the ashes of Paolo's straightening iron probably didn't help. And then, there are the missing (and altered) characters.

Hollywood has enough problems with diversity without making up new ones.

Book Mia's dad is very much alive. In fact, his total inability to parent provides some of the book's funniest scenes. Her grandmother, whom she is made to call grandmère because of her insistence that English is vulgar, is mean. And not Betty-White mean. Really mean. And it's glorious. But it also means that she's as far removed from Julie Andrews as humanly possible. Movie Mia's friend circle is limited to best friend Lilly Moscowitz and her brother, Michael. Book Mia is a little more popular. We read about Shameeka Taylor, Tina Hakim Baba, Boris Pelkowski, and Ling Su Wong, all of which take turns being tormented by Albert Einstein High School's resident popular cheerleader (read: terrorist), Lana Weinberger. (Fun fact: In the film, Mandy Moore's character is named Lana Thomas.) That brings us to the film's most glaring omission: diversity. Book Mia's friends are racially and ethnically — if not socio-economically (all of these kids attend private school and are explicitly upper-middle class) — diverse, representative of her New York City environment. Shameeka Taylor is Black. Ling Su is of Chinese descent. Tina Hakim Baba is the daughter of a Saudi Arabian oil sheik and a British supermodel. The movie is conspicuously white in comparison. Now, you could say that all this doesn't matter, that The Princess Diaries is just a movie, meant to be lighthearted and fun. That's true. But when a movie has vibrant and diverse source material to work with — and actually goes out of its way to erase these nuances — it shouldn't be overlooked. Hollywood has enough problems with diversity without making up new ones. So, while I'll always enjoy Anne Hathaway's inadvertent banquet brain freeze, I don't think I'll be rewatching The Princess Diaries anytime soon. If grandmère taught me anything, it's that royalty never settles. And we shouldn't, either.

More from Movies

R29 Original Series