Hi, everyone! I hope your week is off to a fantastic start! I know. I know. No one likes Mondays because the week's off to a new start. But you know what Mondays also mean? It's time for Monday Musings! Wherein I ramble about various and sundry depending on my whim or Patreon requests/suggestions. Posts are somewhere below 2,500 words at most and consist of short personal essays and discussions.
Some brief musings on American Ruritanian Christmas romances
Back in, gosh, December, I watched The Princess Switch along with a set of other Christmas-flavoured films on Netflix because they are fluffy candy and comforting to watch.
As a European, though, it can also be somewhat frustrating. These films are almost exclusively Ruritanian romance. Ruritanian romances are stories set in fictional European countries (usually in Central or Eastern Europe) that focus, largely, on the ruling class (usually aristocracy) in that fictional country. There is nothing particularly new about these stories. They’ve existed since the 1800s at least and, in fact, gained their name from Anthony Hope’s setting in The Prisoner of Zenda (1894). For a modern example that is exceptionally well-researched, I would recommend checking out Heather Rose Jones’s Alpennia series.
The fact that these films are Ruritanian in and of themselves is not particularly frustrating, to be fair. It’s the way authors choose to handle the setting and it would require someone with a far firmer grounding in the history of Ruritanian fiction to explore what I’m about to discuss in the depth it deserves, but I wanted to talk about something that I’ve seen these Christmas films do specifically.
I recall, when The Princess Switch came out, several people discussing the similarities between it and 2017’s A Christmas Prince and it’s not difficult to see why. Both films feature a down-to-earth American who travels to a fictional European country, impersonates someone closely involved with the kingdom’s prince, falls in love with him around Christmas and has a happily ever after. That is, after all, the general plot these Christmas films have, but the similarities don’t end there and it may be more difficult for people, especially Americans, to spot the way these films use Ruritania to comment on American/European relationships and ideals.
Please note: while I am not an expert in Ruritania, I fully expect European writers of the genre to have done the exact same thing I’m about to describe. It’s just I noticed it in these two films and I’ve been wanting to talk about this for a while. It felt like a great time to do so.
So… Other ways in which A Christmas Prince, The Princess Switch and other Hallmark-flavoured Ruritanian Christmas films are similar.
Firstly: the royal family of this tiny, fictional country will speak in perfectly crisp RP English, creating the illusion that the British empire did a really large number on this tiny country because this is… not how accents work. And, yes, fine. I realise that I’m overanalysing and putting more thought into how the Ruritanian country fits into Europe than the writers of these stories do because it’s… Honestly, it’s basically a way for American film writers to set a story in Britain without the hassle of having to deal with the fact that the UK actually has a monarchy and you can’t just make up a British prince to be a love interest. But, also, it allows the US to comment on European traditions and ideals and present their own ideals as better and more enlightened without stepping on any European toes.
Because another thing that these films often have in common? They rely on the American outsider teaching the stuffy royals something about morals and values. It’s especially blatant in The Princess Switch where Stacy actively teaches the prince and his entire family to engage with the orphanage they’re sponsoring as she’s appalled that they’re only barely covering the costs and the children get no presents at all. A Christmas Prince is, at the very least, more subtle than that, leaving the hint largely in the way Queen Helena responds to discovering Amber, the prince and his sister having spent the day outdoors having fun.
Watching them as a European is an interesting experience because so much of it centres around “The USA is better than anything you old-fashioned Europeans could come up with” all wrapped up with a bow that tries to say “We greatly admire this thing you have done and want to be a part of it”. Does that make it subversive? Honestly, no. With the sheer amount of clout the US and, perhaps more importantly, American entertainment has in the (Western) world, there is very little subversive about these types of Ruritanian narratives.
But then they aren’t intended to be subversive. They’re intended to showcase that the culture the writer is basing it on is better and more enlightened than another and, in this particular case, to make sure that American sensibilities and American values triumph above all.
It’s a topic that certainly deserves a closer look, but it was something that, watching The Princess Switch and a few other Christmas films close together, was something that was still on my mind a quarter of a year and a whole season after Christmas later.