“Galavant” gives us a bisexual princess

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Bi princess! Bi princess! You are reading that right; I am here to talk to you about a bisexual princess from the show Galavant

Galavant is notoriously low in the ratings, so you may not be familiar with it. It’s a lot of things at once: a send-up of typical fantasy, medieval, and fairy-tale tropes; a musical; an inveterate breaker of the fourth wall. I’m writing this because of a specific moment in the fifth episode of Season 2, so I’m not sure how much of a rundown on the plot so far I should give, but let me give you the broad strokes:

Galavant (Joshua Sasse) is a professional hero always off questing after true love, who has been repeatedly screwed over by the comically evil King Richard (Timothy Omundson). In Season 1 we met him in the absolute doldrums, having abandoned heroing after his supposed True Love, Madalena (Mallory Jansen), left him for Richard. (Madalena is a deliciously over-the-top villain, for the record.)

aflawedfashion2via aflawedfashion

He is recruited by the Princess Isabella (Karen David) to help her regain her kingdom. Galavant’s in really poor shape—one of the running gags of the first few episodes is a skewering of the traditional fantasy hero, constantly showing him to be selfish, vain, and at this point at least quite rusty in the fighting department—so Isabella, an impressive warrior in her own right, whips him into shape. A lot of twists and turns ensue, but long story short they ended the season in love but separated.

Season 2 picked up with Isabella being held hostage by her family, who were forcing her to marry her cousin, the child-king of another kingdom. After she had her heart broken by good ol’ Gal through a miscommunication (he wasn’t actually being terrible; he’s improved mightily since she found him at the bottom of a beer barrel), she acquiesced unhappily to the wedding. Enter Mr. Wormwood (Robert Lindsay), the wedding planner who intends to use an enchanted tiara to control Isabella’s thoughts and thus rule the kingdom through her after her marriage. The moment in which Isabella’s Evil Tiara is fortuitously removed, returning her sense and agency to her, is the reason we’re here!

isabellaThis is Isabella. *casually leans on something* Hey. Hi. How you doin’? (photos via ABC)

Before I go any further, a note: I know this sounds incredibly bonkers and possibly very cliché. It’s the kind of show Galavant is. It leans on and lampshades every one of the ridiculous premises it introduces. It’s a sort of cross between Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Patricia C. Wrede’s The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, The Princess Bride (indeed, a recent episode called back to that movie very explicitly), Into the Woods, and all things Disney. (The songs are all from Alan Menken, who wrote a staggering number of the Disney songs you know and love—Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Newsies, Hercules, Enchanted, and Tangled all heavily feature his compositions). This is a show that will have a jester sing a truly catchy, fun theme song about the hero’s heroism, and then rhyme “adventure” with “a real butt-clencher.” Anachronism is one of its primary humor modes, alongside camp and a startling juxtaposition between the saccharine emotionality Disney has trained us to associate with this sort of story and fairly crude humor.

The show is basically an exercise in inflating tropes you know all too well to the point of ridiculousness, then puncturing them immediately. It’s also deeply self-aware about everything it’s doing, at one point having a peasant with democratic aspirations make a comment transparently criticizing the Iraq War straight to camera—then having Galavant look around to try to figure out who the guy is talking to.

Oh, and finally, its musical numbers frequently make clear reference to other sources and genres: to name a few, West Side Story, Les Miserables, Beauty and the Beast, disco, and in one case something that sounds an awful lot like The Spice Girls. Galavant is an odd duck, in other words, but it’s my odd duck, dammit.

The madcap pastiche mode it operates in frequently works out positively. This is the rare Vaguely Medieval Fantasy that actually puts people of color on-screen: not only does one usually find at least one or two non-white people in crowd scenes, but two major characters are respectively Afro-Jewish (Sid, Galavant’s squire, played by Luke Youngblood) and mixed-race (Isabella! Karen David has called herself “Chinese, Indian, and a sliver of Jewish”). Gender roles are frequently questioned, if not always actually revolutionized after the questioning. Queer people exist! (The disco number I referred to in passing above was performed by Kylie Minogue in a gay bar called The Enchanted Forest. I said the show was bonkers.)

Galavant is hardly perfect; I frequently find myself dissatisfied with how it handles these acts of diversification. But it combines so many things I love that I never had a chance to resist it. Musical comedy! Fantasy tropes! Messing with the fourth wall! Meta-commentary! And, in Isabella, a warrior princess.

This brings me back to the reason for this post. (Ladies love my smooth segues.) The bi princess in question is not Isabella, but a distant relation of hers named Princess Jubilee (Sheridan Smith).

jubilee

Under the control of the Evil Tiara, Isabella goes off to investigate why Jubilee hasn’t RSVPed to her SUPER AMAZING WEDDING!!! This is not as sickening as it sounds since Isabella made it very clear she’s not interested in any of the wedding stuff she’s supposed to care about. Her enthusiasm is entirely the result of brainwashing by the slightly crazed Wormwood (who, for all his evil schemes, seems to sincerely love planning weddings—one of his funnier aspects) in the context of the pressure her family has put her under. Jubilee has no time for this, however: upon hearing Isabella’s question, she laughs and embarks on a musical number explaining why she hasn’t responded to the invitation.

The song is all about how she’s not a traditional princess. She wears black; she sings rock music (or musical theater’s version of it, anyway); she likes to drink and get tattoos and generally defy all the standards for ladylike or princess-y behavior. Ad she likes to “swap spit with both girls and boys.” 

swap-spit-with-girls-and-boysHEY COOL ME TOO

Toward the end of the song, Jubilee belches hugely in Isabella’s face, knocking her back so hard that the Evil Tiara comes off and she returns to her senses.

So here’s what’s really great about this. It’s always pleasant to see traditional princess archetypes subverted (seriously, if you haven’t read The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, just get on that), but in the context of Isabella’s storyline the fact that it’s Jubilee who snaps her out of the wedding planner’s enchantment has really cool implications. Jubilee is clearly meant to be not only a bit of a rebel but a feminist. (One of her first lines makes reference to her “unshaven armpits”—though it must be noted that the actual armpits on display in the scene are most definitely shaved. This is a pretty ridiculous inconsistency, I have to say.)

jubilee-isabella

Isabella enters the scene literally brainwashed by the patriarchy and leaves it with a drawn sword, declaiming: “Where’s Wormwood? Make no mistake: his ass belongs to me.” It’s not lost on me that the instrument of Isabella’s brainwashing is one of the most basic signifiers of princessdom: the tiara.

someone-like-robstenYou can have my ass too if you want (via someone-like-robsten)

While the “not your average princess” idea has been done a few times by now, having the nonconformist princess liberate another from an arranged marriage is not only a logical extension of the concept but also just really fun to see. Plus at one point Jubilee booped Isabella’s nose, and whoops! Look at thatI ship it.

Unfortunately, there are problems also. Jubilee’s song is called “Different Kind of Princess” and it’s a pretty straightforward exercise in “not like other girls.” She says she likes to eat meat (because princesses don’t eat meat?), and she adds a sort of sneering ~sissy accent to the line “Don’t lift my pinky when I’m sippin’ tea.” Also, she hates pink. What A Shocking Development.

Of course it’s not that women can’t reject traditional femininity; I’m a lot like Jubilee, as she describes herself. It’s just that the song contains a certain disdain toward traditional femininity (i.e., the usual kind of princess). I don’t think this is a particularly badly-intentioned bit of subtext; it’s pretty typical of Galavant to some degree, in that the show’s broad vaudeville camp approach doesn’t tend to intersect often with subtlety or nuance.

And yet, the show is capable of that. We saw it in Queen Madalena’s song “What Am I Feeling?”, for example. The implications here aren’t really any insult to Isabella, who has been a non-traditional princess from the start. (Brainwashed Isabella: “Princess, that’s not very ladylike!” Jubilee: “Well, from what I heard, you didn’t used to be either.”) They’re just, in my eyes, a bit of a letdown. I mean, she straight-up says she “Ain’t got time for that girly-girl stuff.” Yes, I know, because you’re Not Like Other Girls. Congratulations?

galavant-2x05-2x06-princess-jubilee2

I don’t want to overstate the problems. While this approach to femininity makes me tired, I do really like the show, which remains a frothy, campy delight. Did the bear jokes in the gay bar scene make me equally tired? Yeah. Did I really enjoy watching King Richard serenade a lizard, or Vinnie Jones’ character being disappointed about not being able to find a bar fight on his birthday? Yeah! Did the show stage a musical critique of voting restrictions? It sure did. 

For the most part, I’ve enjoyed the range of female characters (there are more than the ones I named in my very bare summary) and the roles they play in their own lives; I’m certainly happy to welcome Princess Jubilee, Bi Rock ‘N Roll Princess, to the fold. I just could have wished for a slightly more nuanced take on how the role of “Bi Rock ‘N Roll Princess” relates to the general category of “Princess,” is all.

Some notes:

  • This show honestly deserves more attention. Guess what! The seasons are really short! Catch up, give it some love, and get us a third season!
  • I should mention by way of convincing you to do so that “Different Kind of Princess” appeared in an episode that featured a war between giants and dwarves who are all exactly the same height. WELCOME TO GALAVANT.
  • I feel it is my duty to the community to mention that someone referred to Galavant himself in a recent episode as his “gal pal.”

Galavant airs Sunday nights on ABC.

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