It's one of the oldest stories: A beautiful young woman of noble blood is abducted, incapacitated, or otherwise inconvenienced by some form of evil, and a handsome young man must embark on a quest to rescue her. It's a story that has been with us since the earliest fairy tales, and which we continue to hear told and retold through films, books, and games. A story filled with its own serene magic and a comforting sense of familiarity. Familiarity that has recently bred contempt, prompting an exasperated sigh whenever a princess walks onto the scene.
That's the trouble with old stories: you've probably heard them before. The moment the princess steps in - before her dainty glass slippers even touch the palace carpet - you already know the rest of the plot. You've guessed the conflict (the inevitable kidnapping), the climax (a duel with the kidnapper), and the resolution (cake). This alone is almost reason enough to put down the book, controller, or DVD remote and storm off to bake your own cake.
Aside from being intrinsically linked to predictable plots, princesses tend to make unappealing characters in their own right. Princesses are unbelievably passive. They sit around waiting to get kidnapped and, once kidnapped, they sit around waiting to get rescued. They never make an attempt to fight their oppressors or to escape from their prisons. Look at Cinderella, for instance. Cinderella begins as a mindless slave to her abusive relatives and, while any sensible girl would have hoofed it years ago, nothing short of a mystical intervention and a particularly persistent prince will entice Cinderella to seek a better future.
Princesses are also embarrassingly weak. In an age when we are accustomed to seeing sassy and resilient heroines with actual depth, the image of a timid young woman desperately yearning for a knight to whisk her away is so pathetic it's uncomfortable. There's a tendency to think this weakness stems from an outdated gender stereotype - that because these stories were written so long ago, they cast women in roles both passive and powerless. You only have to look at the wicked witches and the domineering stepmothers, however, to realize that this is not the case at all. These characters hold plenty of power, and they wield it with a calculating intellect. So princesses aren't weak because they're women; they're weak because they're princesses.
Why keep them around, then? Well, basically, a princess is an object, a goal, something to be collected and returned in exchange for money and experience points. She's a plot-driving mechanic; the perfect excuse to send some schmuck out on a journey up Mount Peril. The best example of the perfunctory princess is Sleeping Beauty. Sleeping Beauty is unlikely to be the first thing to spring to mind when you think of princesses, because she's so dull. You could replace her with a rock and not alter the story. She illustrates everything we can't stand about princesses by simply doing nothing until the prince turns up to save her.