I was nine years old when Garry Marshall’s The Princess Diaries came out. My grandma and aunt took me and my little cousin to see it at Disney’s El Capitan Theater in Hollywood. We had afternoon tea, played dress-up (I was the tomboy, so I chose to be a knight), and it quickly became one of my favorite memories from childhood. Following this rather larger-than-life day, I saw this movie countless more times, quoted it constantly with my friends, and idolized Mia Thermopolis (and, to an extent, Anne Hathaway).
In the news of Marshall’s passing at 81 last night, this was the movie my thoughts immediately went to. He was a prolific director and creator — Pretty Woman is an undisputed classic and whether or not you watched it, you can sing (or at least hum) the theme song to Happy Days — but it’s the movie about a young nobody who becomes a princess that has become like a warm, familiar blanket to me. The beauty of Marshall’s career is that several of his projects have touched people in similar ways, especially women.
It’s been in growing up that I’ve realized how lucky I was to be able to experience this film at such an influential age. In Mia, I saw myself, as so many other young girls did. I did not necessarily have a lonely or awkward childhood, but I felt different (a common theme for anyone) and dreamt of being so much more. My own aspirations were slightly different from Mia’s — as I mentioned, I wanted to be the knight, not the princess (this came later, as I developed my relationship with my own femininity into adulthood) — but the core of the film still struck a chord with me. Hathaway’s Mia is normal and relatable, and she has an effortless likability about her (which I argue she still does, but that is an essay for another day). It was difficult to figure out if I wanted to be her, or if I wanted her to babysit me (remember: I’m nine in 2001). All I knew was that having a character to look up to that looked like me and represented me was important and powerful.
Mia comes out on top at the end of the film. She has officially assumed her role as princess and heir to the throne of Genovia, but more importantly, she remained true to who she was. This is the story of so many movies like this one and I know you’ve heard it all before, so why is this particular movie any different? Yes, of course, it means something to me and the larger Millennial generation because of our age when it was released, but that’s the easy way out and doesn’t explain the fact that in another director’s hands, it might not have become the beloved hit that it did.
Marshall is a sweet director, sometimes bordering on saccharine, but he cares, and that makes all the difference. In the film, Mia doesn’t only get her happy ending because she’s supposed to, but also, and more importantly, because Marshall believes in her deserving one. There is a genuine love for the character of Mia, which can be seen in the fond and sympathetic way she’s shot throughout the film. Marshall’s films can leave syrup-y aftertastes, especially his later work, but his earnestness meant everything to a nine year-old who, in turn, also felt inspired and supported.
Like nearly everyone else, I had insecurities growing up. I still do, in fact, but I was lucky to have not only the people and figures around me, but stories like this. If Mia Thermopolis, awkward, unpopular, passionate, graceless, funny, endearing Mia Thermopolis, could become a princess, why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t I do or be anything? I’m not attributing my confidence as a woman, or my devotion to feminism and the plights of women around the world, to a 2001 Disney film, but it’s a piece of the larger puzzle that has created me, and every piece matters. Women and our stories matter, and I’m grateful to Marshall for recognizing and believing in this throughout his career.
His entire body of work reveals this support of female characters, writing and directing films for and about the throngs of women who went to see these movies. From Pretty Woman to Laverne & Shirley and even to his less-inspired later works, the prevalence of femininity and wonderful, human female characters shaped thousands if not hundreds of thousand and millions of women growing up. In an industry where this continues to be a struggle, Marshall was a shining light and his legacy helped teach me that miracles really do happen.
Anya Crittenton | Associate Editor