When I was a little girl, my image of what a Princess should be came from Cinderella and Princess Diana. It would be easy to think that Disney's representation of Cinderella is the definitive image, but as I grew up and became more familiar with world royalty I realized that this is not the reality. Times have changed and now we see Princess Tiana, the first black Disney princess, in the upcoming film The Princess and the Frog.
There are many examples of how royalty has changed: Princess Maxima of the Netherlands is from Buenos Aires, Grand Duchess Maria Theresa of Luxembourg is from Cuba, When Lady Rose Windsor, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, married Gary Lewis, he became the first person of Māori descent to marry into the British royal family. Peter Phillips' bride, Autumn Kelly became the first Canadian to do so. Alexandra Manley, born in Hong Kong, became a significant addition to Denmark's ruling family when she married Prince Joachim in 1995. She was the first person of Asian heritage to marry into a sitting European ruling house. They have since divorced and Alexandra is now titled Alexandra, Countess of Frederiksborg. Another example, though lesser known, is Princess Angela of Liechtenstein, currently the only black princess in a reigning European house.
Royalty has come a long way from the times where they could only marry royalty. It was not considered proper for them to marry outside of their class. If they did so, it was usually without permission of the sovereign. Usually they were stripped of title, rank or the like and their marriages were known as morganatic. As the years went by, and many royal houses fell by the wayside, available royal spouses grew scarce. Therefore spouses were chosen from the aristocracy. Despite her pedigree, in 1923 Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon became the first commoner to marry into the royal family in several centuries. In 2001 Prince Haakon of Norway married Mette-Marit Tjessem Høiby, a single mother and former waitress. In 2004, Prince Felipe of Spain married Letizia Ortiz, who had been previously married in a civil ceremony. In 2005, Camilla Parker Bowles married Prince Charles. What once would never have been allowed, let alone considered, now seems to be commonplace. And even a reflection of reality.
The inspiration for this article came from an email I received about Princess Angela of Liechtenstein. That as the first black princess in a European dynasty, she received little media recognition. Indeed, prior to that email I wasn't even aware of her. Unfortunately I couldn't find enough unique information to do a royal profile but I had to wonder, what makes her so special? People may be proud to have their heritage represented in public figures, but marrying into royalty isn't necessarily an accomplishment. It's something few people can aspire to. Some might consider it a step backward. Or even an unrealistic goal better left to the imagination of Holllywood film-makers. The person who emailed wondered whether race was a factor in the lack of media coverage of her. I think this is less about race and more about the low profile of the royal family she married into. In fact, she isn't even mentioned on the official site. Read what you will into that.
I don't necessarily think that any of these women have changed the way people look at royalty. Meaning they haven't made royalty more accessible or promoted any greater understanding of civil marriages, single parenthood, divorce, race, or even their respective nationalites. It was inevitable for royalty to marry commoners but that doesn't make it remarkable. Autumn Kelly, as the first Canadian to marry into the British royal family, doesn't change anything for me. It doesn't fill me with any sense of national pride. Nor should it.
Cinderella and Princess Tiana are characters from a Disney film. Neither reflects reality. Royal women of today are accomplished, poised and multicultural. Regardless of their background, they have become assets to their respective royal dynasties.
Let's hope that never changes.
© Marilyn Braun 2008
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