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The Princess Archetype in the Movies

The Princess Archetype in the Movies

What kind of “princess” is better off in the woods than at home? A princess who is more like the archetype of Artemis than of Aphrodite.  In three recent films, we’ve seen a shift in the “princess” archetype in popular culture. In the past, the princess, a key character in fairy tales and myths, was depicted in films as a love interest, or even as a prize to be won, such as in Tangled, Enchanted, Shrek, and The Princess Bride, to name a few. The main focus of the princess’ sphere and her agency was in regards to love, relationships and marriage. But in The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Brave, the heroine-protagonists are not interested in courtship; they have much more pressing problems to solve, and they all involve an exile or escape through a “enchanted” wilderness.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), in The Hunger Games, sacrifices her own safe position to replace her sister Primrose (Willow Shields) in The Hunger Games televised competition, and in doing so, she must represent District 12–and fight to save her own life. Although not technically a “princess,” Katniss does represent her region and is “crowned” in a formal ceremony by the end of the film. Her prowess in the woods, especially as an archer, is quickly established in Act One. Her skills in the forest are featured throughout the film, and she owes her eventual success in the Panem contest in large part to her athletic talents which serve her well in the woods.

In Snow White and the Huntsman, Princess Snow White (Kristen Stewart) suffers the death of her mother. Her father, the king, finds a second wife: the malevolent, beauty-seeking succubus Ravenna. After being detained for years in a tower by Ravenna’s brother, the princess escapes into the Dark Forest, followed by the eventual mentorship of the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth). While in the woods, the Huntsman teaches her a crucial defensive move to use in hand-to-hand combat. Snow White soon realizes that she must avenge her father’s death, and become Queen in order to save the land from Ravenna’s destruction. In Act Three, armored on horseback and leading an attack, we see that Snow White did indeed learn lessons in the forest, especially in her final climactic battle with Ravenna.

In Brave, Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald), loves to ride, hike and scale sheer, tall cliffs by herself in tenth century Scotland. Her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) wants her teenaged-daughter to wed, as is traditional. In the Highland Games, Merida bests all of her suitors as an archer; in effect, she wins her own hand in wedlock. When this feat does not end the competition for marriage, Merida revolts; she runs away into the nearby shadowy timberland. She comes across a witch in the woods, and acquires a spell from her to be used on her mother; all Merida knows is that the spell will change her mother somehow. When the Queen is transformed into a bear, Merida must undo this grave error, and spends the rest of the movie trying to do so.

Much as been written already about these three protagonists as “action” or “warrior” princesses. But these “princesses” share something much deeper than that: all three share a tie to the archetype of the goddess Artemis. 

In Greek mythology, Artemis is known as the “nature girl” archetype; her name is Diana in the Roman pantheon. Artemis/Diana loves to roam the woods, mountains, or meadows—anywhere in the outdoors. The bear is one of her sacred symbols. She’s a killer archer as well; one of the most famous classical statues of this goddess shows her with her full quiver on her back. Artemis is a renowned huntress; she excels at it.

Katniss is introduced to us as an Artemisian presence early in The Hunger Games, when we see her hunting for food among trees before the tributes are even picked. For most of the film, the focus is on Katniss’ strengths as a fit survivalist, and she’s forced to face some technological woodland “trickery,” manipulated by the contest officials—thus making her woods “enchanted.” Snow White, in the Dark Forest sequences with the Huntsman and in the Act Three battle, becomes more Artemisian as the film progresses. Her mentor is a huntsman; she is training for the Hunt. Merida exhibits characteristics of Artemis from the start; her story also becomes about a mothering bear. The competition for Merida’s hand in the Highland Games is reminiscent of the story of Atalanta, thought by many scholars to be linked to the worship of Artemis. As an infant, Atalanta was raised as a bear in the woods. As an adult princess, Atalanta competed with any suitor in a race, and killed those who failed to best her. Since she was the fastest runner in the land, all the men who tried to marry her died—except for one.

Looking at this further from a mythic perspective, these film princesses are a move away from an “Aphrodite” love goddess archetype, previously valued in a royal maiden who is beautiful and winsome: a love trophy. These new protagonists embrace Artemis, the athletic huntress, instead.

The role of the princess in myth and fairy tales, traditionally, is related to her ability to heal and “reproduce” for the kingdom, either through marriage or action. Through their adventurous arcs, Katniss, Snow White, and Merida do “heal” their respective lands/regions. But they do so thanks to the time they spend in the wilderness, learning lessons to be found in the mysterious shadows there. They emerge from the “Dark Forest” victorious, as only Artemis can.

In mythology, we see stories about patterns of behavior that help us to understand what it means to be human. That all three of these hit films were released within a three-month period could be seen as an indication that Artemis, as an archetype, has emerged from the collective unconscious, poised for a fight with a sword or bow, held by a female hand. These films seem to signal a “call to action” for women to fight for identity issues, status, and rights. It is an interesting to note that at a time when we discuss the “War on Women” in the socio-political arena, iterations of Artemis are on the rise in films—and making money.  


Laura Shamas, Ph.D., is a writer and mythologist, who works in theater, film, and pop culture analysis. Her new book, POP MYTHOLOGY, will be released in July 2012.

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Catherine Campbell

Men decide the content of the vast number of films that get made, and they are committed to sex and violence because it translates well male audiences in to all nations. They have obviously run out of original stories by the way they keep regurgitating the the same old, same old. They're trying to change it up and attract absentee female audiences to blockbusters and still maintain their high levels of gratuitous violence and male-fantasy (nearing ever closer to porno) sex. Woman or man…action heros are still comic-book BORING! Women, as Meryll Streep pointed out at the 2012 WIF Cristal Awards, go in droves to narrative drama and comedy films where women characters are recognizable and interesting …not surgery augmented or airbrushed simplistic sex objects. Women's films are climbing the charts in big box office and we need more of them ( so sad to lose Nora Ephrem). The studios do not have to resort to violence leads to gain the female audience – as proven by Netflix's huge growth of indie and character driven film views. Women want real-life heroism and humanity of the lead character. Look at UK's Foyle's War a 60 year old lead male with a gentle integrity that has won over 60 million audience share in UK alone. So women need to write, produce , edit and distribute film as it's on the rise. Would like your opinions.

Suzanne Stroh

Thanks for this, Laura. I wonder how long the run will be on the reign of Artemisian princesses. Have any studies been done on the window of opportunity for screenwriters and producers, when new mythological paradigms emerge?


Enjoyed your analysis, especially as Artemis seems to have hold of our girl Zeitgeist right now.

These warrior-princesses also remind me of the Celtic goddesses of war (there were three, all women).

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Paula C

What a fascinating observation! For women to be viewed as warriors and protectors in multiple films–and at a time when there is so clearly a War on Women–is a huge irony. Perhaps popular culture knows a lot more about what's going on in the American psyche than politicians? Or perhaps popular culture is simply responding to the incredibly contentious, polarized atmosphere present in our country and can no longer stomach the Aphrodite-type princess and had to turn to Artemis instead? Either way, this has gotten me thinking!

Marianne McDonald

Brava to Laura Shamas, standing up herself for women's identity and rights and seeing them expressed in new role models, just when yet again we seem to have no woman running for president (I wonder why). Nice to identify with Artemis, who was known also as the virgin goddess of the moon: when the hunter Actaeon saw her naked while bathing, Artemis had him killed by his own hunting dogs…so much for protecting the huntsman. Artemis also herself discovered a pregnant woman, Callisto, in her group (also while bathing….water is a bit dangerous when it leads to nudity) and that was a big no no, so Artemis turned her into a bear (she became the constellation Callisto, which means the most fair, and fair she certainly was because she had been seduced by Zeus, the king of the gods). Artemis as the virgin goddess was the opposite to the love goddess Aphrodite (who was no fighter, and was wounded badly in the Iliad…she made love, not war, not the worst choice). Now wouldn't it be nice to have a woman choose her own sexuality, be as virginal or sexual as she wishes, and also be a good fighter if she chose to be. We need a new goddess…combining both in one seemed a bit much to the Greeks. And giving women power in America, and most places in the world. still seems a bit much to many. Thank the goddess we can dream….and so we have movies! And Laura! Brava Laura!
And a word to say thank you to Nora Ephron, who did so much for so many women. She will be truly missed.

Velina Hasu Houston

It is so helpful for Dr. Shamas to illuminate the spirit of Artemis in cinematic princesses. Truly her spirit resonates, although one wonders if this resonance was something crafted by the filmmakers or just a happy accident? Aphrodite's spirit has been misunderstood and mid-applied by Hollywood cinema for some time so I will go with the latter premise. But it takes Dr. Shamas' intellect and perspective to find the Artemis in the cinema. Thank you.


Yes – sending the message to girls and young women that there are pressing problems to solve, and they're just the ones to take a stab at 'em. I like it.

Robert L. Freedman

Fascinating article. It's taken a long time for the movies to catch up with real life instead of relying on comfortable old stereotypes.

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