By Rebecca Bucher
Like many readers my age, I first read The Princess Diaries in elementary school after seeing the movie and was traumatized. A certain bookstore chain marketed the book as: “Loved the movie? Read the books!” despite the fact that the movie is for kids and the book is decidedly YA. Set in Greenwich Village, and rife with pop culture references and fifteen-year-olds’ musings on sex, The Princess Diaries seems to consider itself a very different sort of book than Twilight. Princess Diaries is conscious of the ways in which Mia’s love life is important and validates her feelings even while it is conscious that she is somewhat immature and still learning and figuring things out. While not entirely condescending to Mia, the book makes it clear she’s not quite “finished” yet whereas in Twilight, Bella is a fully-formed adult in a teen’s body, in a world populated by incompetent adults. Twilight affirms Bella’s romance and her. Both characters however have to struggle between fostering their newfound identities – Mia as princess of a small European nation and Bella as forevergirlfriend of a vampire – and maintaining a normal teenagehood. How does consciousness of wealth and class work in Princess Diaries and Twilight as part of the characters’ synthesis of their identities and in what ways does this operate as wish fulfillment for the reader?
Both Mia and Bella identify as middle class only children of scatterbrained single mothers, children who are responsible for keeping track of the household and its finances (a fantasy for the children of helicopter parents?). As they encounter their true identities, they come into close contact with wealth. Both conscious of how much money people have, Mia and Bella view their social standing in terms of their money. For Mia, this is seemingly fixed status. Even after she discovers she is a princess, she cannot fit in with the “rich kids”. Their richness is a part of their identity separate from their actual net worth. Both Mia and Bella harbor almost an animosity towards money and wealthy. Bella considers the wealth of the Cullens with derision – it’s an exasperating quality of theirs (the famous “stupid shiny Volvo owner”) even as she clearly is compelled by the clothes “that subtly hinted at designer origins” (Meyer 32). Mia, daughter of an artist, equates money with selling out or with phonies like her heart break crush Josh Richter (who dates her only so he can brag he dated someone with a net worth of $300 million dollars). She also is inured to wealth – it’s a commonplace thing annoying relatives have whereas Bella dislikes the Cullen’s opulence (when she can’t have it) because it seems excessive compared to her life.
The reader is supposed to be impatient with Bella and Mia’s reaction to this wealth. The reader is supposed to say, “omfg he paid for a bowl of pasta with a one hundred dollar bill? marry the man!” Mia talks about how annoying it is that her dad thinks she still likes tea the Plaza. Lame! Is not the reaction the reader has. Of course you want tea at the Plaza. Of course you want to be a princess and rule a country and go to balls and have a stylist and be given fancy clothes. The reader does not say, “oh you’re right, Edward and his family are perfect and I really want to be a part of their life, but if only they weren’t rich and didn’t have a beautiful house and didn’t buy me whatever I could possibly want.”
John Berger in The Ways of Seeing says of women under the male gaze: “Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another” (46). In Mia’s case, she has to reconcile her sense of herself with the difference in how she is being appreciated by others after the change to her identity. Bella has to do the same, but she clings to her distaste of wealth in a way Mia does not, suggesting a reluctance to do this. While both are conscious of how they are seen in regards to their class status, the introduction to their new aspects of their identity forces them to confront changes to that.
In both novels, wealth ostracizes. The students ostracize Tina Hakim Baba, the daughter of a sheikh because she is a “freak” for having a bodyguard. Both Tina and the Cullens sit alone at their own table in the cafeteria. When Mia’s princesshood begins to become visible in her hair, nails, etc she is exiled to the freak table. Bella likewise sits alone at a table with Edward when he takes interest in her. The gaze of everyone in the cafeteria functions to make characters conscious of status, of which wealth is a significant part. As they start coming into their identity and realizing the role of wealth in it (Bella riding to school in Edward’s car, Lars the bodyguard trailing Mia), their consciousness of this gaze, as well as the magnitude of the gaze itself, increases. Hello, paparazzi. And Jessica, the Forks equivalent of paparazzi.
This self-consciousness confirms for the reader that the wish fulfillment aspects of the stories (discovering you are a princess and fabulously wealthy, falling in sexy magic unconsummatable love with a perfectly beautiful magical creature) are indeed worth having. By being frustrated with Mia or Bella for not liking something that is super awesome great, or at least not worthy of the amount of mental anguish the wealth causes them, the reader affirms that the thing (the money) is worth having and not meriting the reaction the characters have to it. In addition, the negative reaction of the characters to the wealth prevents the characters or reader from seeming like a sellout. There’s an ambivalence towards money. It’s great to have, but only if you resist having it as much as possible, otherwise you’re an obnoxious juicebox.
In Mia’s case, an awareness of the male gaze and the class gaze allows her to accept her identity, and moments when she exhibits a lack of awareness of the gaze are dangerous, such as when she is flattered by Josh’s attentions despite the fact that he is a media whore using her status. Once she recognizes and confronts that, she is able to have a “normal” life the school dance with her friends in a custom made designer dress.
In Bella’s case, at the end of the novel at her school dance her discomfort over Edward’s wealth and her class awareness becomes a way for her to express her identity as distinct from Edward and her peers and the ostracization she still feels. She’s not one of the normal Forks people – they aren’t in fancy dresses like her, but she’s also not one of the Cullens and doesn’t share their values over money. However, while Mia eventually embraces the affluent aspects of her identity, Bella continues to reject it. Attitudes towards wealth and class awareness are markers for characters’ acceptance of their identities and how they are viewed by others.