The Twelve Dancing Princesses is perhaps lesser known than some other princess-oriented fairy tales, but it has existed for just as long as its Disneyfied counterparts. The details tend to vary from retelling to retelling but no matter how you spin it, basic elements remain constant. It always involves a group of princesses who steal away at night to dance until their shoes are worn through. Their father, the king, is at a loss—he locks their door before they sleep, yet each morning, the princesses’ shoes bear evidence of vigorous partying. The king, desperate to stop this, declares that anyone who can solve the mystery will marry one of his daughters and become the new heir. Should the suitor fail, however, he will be killed. Confident that all will soon be well, the king sits back in his kingly chair to watch the show.
The princesses, however, are ahead of the game, and each time a man tries to thwart them, they spike his drink so he will sleep through the night. Several failures later, a retired soldier decides he has nothing better to do and comes along to try his hand. That night, the princesses try to drug him as they have the others, but he cleverly throws away the drink and pretends to sleep. With the help of an invisibility cloak, he follows the princesses through a trapdoor in their room, discovering their secret: night after night, they go out dancing in a castle underground. The king, once again satisfied that he can control his daughters, declares the old soldier his new heir. The soldier and his new wife promptly live happily ever after.
Most importantly, though, the tale teaches a valuable lesson about strength: Even a weak man can be a hero if he is wise. The old solder is about as physically useful as a paperweight, but he prevails because he possesses virtues besides battle strength. His cleverness is what truly wins him the game. This story teaches men that should misfortune befall you, there is hope! You, too, can keep papers from blowing around my desk when the window is open.
Then again, it could just as easily be implying nothing about the men. After all, it’s just a crazy story about some frustrated young girls. Seen through this lens, the twelve dancing princesses can be taken to express historical misogyny, trivializing the wants and needs of young women. Interpreted this way, the princesses’ actions can be considered justifiable—really, all they were doing was dancing. Things only got shady when they started thwarting the suitors’ efforts, knowing the men would be put to death come morning. That the princesses are portrayed as malicious, even murderous, is an important narrative decision. Characterizing them in this way justifies the king’s frustration, and the girls’ punishments. In this light, it’s no wonder that the princesses were scrambling to escape, only if for a night. The story actually demonstrates the strength and resiliency of women, though I don’t believe it was intended to be taken this way—I just prefer it.
If you’d like to read a version of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, visit etf.usf.edu