The Paper Bag Princess
By Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko
The Paper Bag Princess tells the story of an unconventional princess named Elizabeth. She begins happily in her castle preparing to marry Prince Ronald. Unfortunately, in the second page of the book, a dragon swoops down, burns down the castle and everything with it, and kidnaps Prince Ronald. Elizabeth thus dons the glorious paper bag and sets off to save Ronald. When she encounters the dragon, Elizabeth outwits him by asking him to perform feats of strength until he passes out. Elizabeth then passes the dragon and goes to save Ronald. However, when Ronald sees Elizabeth in a paper bag, rather than beautiful princess clothes, he is aghast. Ronald yells at Elizabeth to come back when she looks like a “real princess”. Our heroic Paper Bag Princess swiftly replies by saying, “You look like a real Prince, but you are a bum.” She takes off her crown, and gleefully dances into the sunset.
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
Module by Alyk Kenlan and Maya Ben-Shahar
The Paper Bag Princess begins by taking a scene present in almost all fairytales and promptly shakes things up by having the prince kidnapped and the princess going to the rescue. This brings up valuable questions about gender roles and fairytale norms – why princes aren’t always kidnapped and princesses are. As we move more into gender roles the book poses a similar topic by having Ronald call out Elizabeth for not looking like a princess. This brings up questions about what it means to be in a role such as a princess, leading into the greater topic of one’s identity in general. On the final page we see Elizabeth joyfully heading into the sunset, still in her paper bag and leaving behind the prince. Here the book asks us to wonder about the nature of happiness. It serves as a jumping point for asking, “What makes us happy?” and, “What does it means to be happy?”
As a “Paper Bag Princess,” Elizabeth strays far from the standard image of a princess, and the little philosophers will have no trouble seeing this. Ronald tells her, “Come back when you are dressed like a real princess.” Discussion can begin by asking: “What are some common differences between princes and princesses?” and, “Why do we expect them to act and look differently?” The children will probably be familiar with the fairytale tropes of strong princes saving weak princesses, and it will be helpful to have them think of stories they know in which the prince saves the princess. Following this, it would be useful to ask for physical, and then behavioral, descriptions of differences between Elizabeth and other princesses. Elizabeth saves Ronald, instead of vice versa – why is this unusual? After some discussion from the kids it is easy to segue into questioning whether the roles of prince and princess are natural or something that exists because we say so. We create strong discussion here by asking about other gender roles that we define: “Can you name some roles that are meant for mostly men and mostly women?” If the students aren’t coming up with anything, provide some suggestions like nurses, firefighters, or police officers. Discussion could also center on more child-sized roles, which they may find in games like playing house, playing with dolls and action figures, and playing sports. After identifying gender roles, we can challenge the value of these roles by asking: “Is it okay for us to say that most nurses should be women? Or that most women should be take care of children? Why or why not?” Or, “Is it okay if we decide that some games are for girls and some games are for boys?” A good followup question to this would be “What if you were a boy and wanted to take care of children? Or a girl and wanted to be a firefighter?” This helps break down the complicated discussion of gender into very accessible scenarios with which the young philosophers will be familiar. Finally, we can close by asking the broader question: is being a boy or being a girl just a role that we create? If so, is it right to say that someone is a boy or a girl when they’re born? Or should they get to choose? This is a good question with which to close, as it takes the socially important concept of gender as a social construct from the storybook to daily life. It also allows for an easy segue into other roles and identities, a theme also present in the book.
Identity and Social Roles
Social roles are the expectations, responsibilities, and behaviors we adopt in certain situations, which are then reinforced by society. Do gender roles, and other social roles, determine our identity? What does it mean to fill a role? We can begin to work with these questions by looking at the ways Elizabeth’s and Ronald’s identities are determined in the story. Elizabeth tells Ronald that although he looks like a “real prince,” he is in fact a “bum.” What does she mean? To be a “real prince” do you need to look like a prince? Act like a prince? Feel like a prince? Here, we can talk about aesthetics, and how they fit into identity. We determine what things are by how we perceive them, and aesthetics make a large part of our perception, but it could be argued that the aesthetics constitute not only how something is perceived, but also what it is. This story, however, seems to lean in the other direction, towards the arbitrariness of aesthetics. If the students sympathize with Elizabeth, we might expect children to answer that how you act is more important than how you look – you have to act like a prince to be a prince, and Ronald is not a prince because he is neither brave or nice. We can push the conversation further by asking, “If Elizabeth still felt like a princess and thought of herself as a princess, would she be a princess?” Similarly, if we decide that Elizabeth acts in the way a princess should act, is this enough to make her a princess? What if the rest of the kingdom doesn’t agree? What if she doesn’t agree? Good discussion comes from the book by asking, “Is Elizabeth still a princess when she is outsmarting the dragon? Why? (If she doesn’t look like a princess, and she isn’t acting like a typical princess?) At the end, is she still a princess?” It is good to point out here that she has taken off her crown by the final page. Does this mean one can choose to be a princess or, indeed, any social identity? This would be a good time to ask the children to think of their own lives, and the roles they fill as students, siblings, friends, etc. In each of these roles, do you have to look, act, or feel a certain way? And finally, do these roles matter to you?
Elizabeth’s happiness plays a huge role in The Paper Bag Princess. Not only does her happiness work to justify her non-conformist act of leaving Ronald, the story is bookended by two illustrations of a happy Elizabeth. Working chronologically through the story creates an opportunity to discuss the meaning of this happiness. When asking about Elizabeth’s life before the dragon attack, it is important to show the picture on the first page as evidence for the argument that she is happy in the castle. Here, one should try to have the students answer the question: “What do you think her life was like before Ronald was taken? Was she happy? Why or why not?” This becomes a foundation for asking about Elizabeth’s happiness throughout the rest of the story. The question “Is Elizabeth happy after the castle is burned down?” pushes into a deeper question about what it means to be happy.
We create discussion by pointing out all of the illustrations where Elizabeth is smiling when tricking the dragon and also noting that there are no pictures of Elizabeth sad. Asking “Can someone be happy with just a paper bag? Or do they have to be comfortable to be happy?” brings out further questions about if happiness is entirely subjective in a manner that is easily accessible for growing philosophers. Now we look at the last illustration of Elizabeth dancing into the sunset. Clearly Elizabeth is happy, but why? And is this happiness different from, or more valuable than, the happiness of the first page? One philosophical theory that may suit the message of the story is Perfectionism, which characterizes human good in terms of the development of human nature. According to this view, one’s life goes well to the extent that one actively uses one’s mind and skills. From this perspective would Elizabeth still have been happy in the castle sitting around doing typical princess things? When asking this question, it is useful to point out the first and last illustrations in the book to guide a comparison of Elizabeth’s happiness. Finally, we might ask, “Why is Elizabeth happy leaving Ronald? Should Elizabeth be happy?” and “Is she happier now than at the beginning? Why or why not?” This leads us to closing by asking students to think of their own lives: what makes us happy, and why?
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
Identity and Social Roles