People really don’t like to be called “privileged.” We’ve had a small number of readers who’ve felt compelled to leave comments rejecting the term. Most of these fit into one of three categories:
- “I am really offended that you would assume I’m a racist, because I’m not.”
- “I am really offended that you would assume that I am rich, because I’m not.”
- “I am really offended that you would assume that my life has always been easy, because it hasn’t.”
These comments speak to three of the most common misconceptions/misinterpretations of the meaning of the concept of privilege. Namely:
- Having privilege implies bad moral character.
- Having privilege implies some degree of monetary wealth.
- Having privilege implies that you have never known struggle, and that nothing bad or unfair has ever happened to you.
These three things are categorically untrue. But it’s hard for some people to see a more nuanced vision of the word’s meaning. It conjures up visions of sneering 1980s rich-jock villains with cashmere sweaters tied around their necks. The kind of people named ~ C h e t ~ or ~ T i n s l e y ~. That is an idea with which, very understandably, no one wishes to align themselves!
Both history and fiction are filled with privileged people of strong moral character who undergo extreme setbacks and losses. And privileged characters can make amazing heroes. There’s nothing at all about their privileges that excludes them from being admirably brave, loyal, clever, compassionate, fearsome, ambitious, or generally fascinating.
Now, this is Bitches Get Riches. If we need an example of an awesome intersectional-yet-privileged hero, we’ll obviously go straight to a G-rated 90s film that no one remembers.
Yes, you actually should watch this movie!
If you haven’t seen 1995’s A Little Princess, I highly suggest you watch it! You can find a way to stream it very easily with a Google search. <shifty eyes>
Unlike many of the films we obsess over (cough cough) this one is legitimately great. It was directed by beloved Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Gravity) with his long-time collaborator and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant, Birdman), and produced by Mark Johnson (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam). They’re all Oscar-winning heavyweights, and A Little Princess is imbued with a quality and depth rarely seen in children’s films.
“That’s the one I love. As I said, I never see my films after they are finished, but the one I love, my memories of it and everything, is A Little Princess. If I would rescue one of my movies, it would be A Little Princess.” – Alfonso Curaón
As Roger Ebert said in his 3.5/4 star review: “Unlike the insipid devices of most family films, [A Little Princess understands] that children take stories very seriously indeed, and that all stories are really about the uncertain place of the child in the mysterious world of adults.”
Everything past this point contains spoilers, but IMO none of them will diminish your enjoyment of the film.
Meet Sara Crewe
Our protagonist, Sara Crewe, is the ten-year-old daughter of a wealthy British widower (Ser Davos the Onion Knight!) living in India. When World War I breaks out, her father sends her to a New York boarding school for safekeeping. The boarding school sucks, its headmistress is a nasty skank, her dad dies, and Sara loses everything. But thanks to high melodrama and the power of friendship, everything is eventually set right again.
The first scene of the film makes it clear that Sara is imaginative and adventurous. What’s interesting is that she is also egalitarian. This is the only scene set in India, where Sara is truly at home. Granted, it’s an idyllic, spectacular, saturated movie set version of India, which deserved its Oscar nod for production design. But it establishes that Sara’s default world does not relegate others to secondary status based on their class, gender, or skin color.
We as adult viewers can draw conclusions about this glimpse. Sara’s father is clearly involved in some kind of colonial activity. The ramifications of this can’t be overstated. Imperial meddling left a bloody legacy of political instability, racial inequality, violence, disease, diaspora, slavery, and oppression that continues to this day. There is probably a vast economic chasm between Sara and the other children in the scene. Captain Crewe likely has the authority to demand subservience from Maya (who seems to be some kind of employee), and insist on segregating her children away from his. Yet he doesn’t. On the contrary, the few lines they share are respectful and affectionate.
A Naive Heroine
Crucially, Sara has no reason to suspect that this is an unusual arrangement.
Cuarón and his writers were careful to imbue Sara’s world with credible insularity. Her naiveté on issues of race and class would’ve been utterly unbelievable if she’d grown up exposed to the broader culture. But her father has the means to shelter her in a pocket dimension.
This makes it possible for us to accept Sara as a very pure character. Although we know that she indirectly benefits from society’s cruelties, Sara herself is totally unaware. She is almost like an alien visiting earth for the first time. Or more aptly, like a princess from a fairy tale stepping into the real world. And Sara’s organic reactions to the hypocrisies and injustices she witnesses in New York fuel much of the conflict throughout the story.
How does Sara react to a black servant?
The first time Sara sees Becky, a tiny and supremely adorable Vanessa Chester, she is visibly disturbed and confused. All the other girls at the school are dressed nicely (I love me a foot-long hair bow) and learning in the classroom. Why is this one dressed in rags and mopping the floor?
If you accept that this is Sara’s first exposure to Western culture, her confusion is super understandable. But the audience watching the film definitely doesn’t share her naiveté. We know what’s up. Watching Sara piece it together is pretty fucked up and heartbreaking, because it’s a shameful part of our culture. We don’t want her perfect kid innocence to be spoiled with our shitty post-colonial baggage.
But the most heartbreaking part is watching poor Becky. In the first act of the film, we only see her do two things: toil and panic. The camera is highly attuned to Sara’s perspective. It seeks to find Becky and focus on her; but Becky scurries out of frame like the mouse she’s symbolically tied to.
Becky isn’t truly captured by the camera until the scene where Sara finds her icing her feet. They are blistered and dirty, a testament to the brutality of her life. When Becky realizes that Sara is watching, Becky’s reaction makes it clear to Sara that she has seen something that she isn’t meant to see. Uncharacteristic to the Becky of previous scenes, she is firm almost to the point of being rude. Sara’s gawking impugns on Becky’s dignity, privacy, and safety—and Becky shows that her mousiness is not her true personality, but a learned adaptation to survive in Miss Minchin’s School.
If this situation actually happened in real life, I think that most ten-year-olds would exit the situation immediately and give Becky a wide berth in the future. Sara transgressed, and was rewarded with the sight of someone else’s suffering and a firm reprimand. That’s not a fun reward!
But Sara is a hero, and heroes don’t back away—they double down. She leaves a note for Becky with a sincere apology, expressing that she still wishes to become friends.
Oh, and a pair of fur-lined shoes.
Now, Sara is wealthy. Surely this doesn’t constitute a real sacrifice. If anything, it could be read as insulting, though Becky is def down to party with these shoes. But there is no scene where Sara writes to Zaddy asking for another pair, no shot of her vast closet lined with many shoes. On the contrary, later in the film, we see Sara exhibit the same generosity when she has far, far fewer resources.
This makes me inclined to think that Sara gave Becky her shoes because she saw that Becky was suffering, and her natural inclination was to do whatever was within her power to alleviate that suffering. Comfy-ass shoes were within her power. But I actually think the shoes are almost a red herring here. What really matters is the note. What Becky needed more desperately than shoes was respect, dignity, and a lil’ fucking help. Sara’s offer of those things is her first big step towards becoming an awesome example of a privileged hero.
How does Sara react to a fat woman?
An undercurrent of the unnatural pervades Miss Minchin’s School. From the least powerful character (Becky) to the most powerful character (Miss Minchin herself), everyone seems to be on edge. Every character is performing a social role with which they’re uncomfortable. It fits in with the nature of a finishing school itself: learn how to conform, women! You can learn to self-medicate with laudanum later!
Sara seems to be able to see through these social artifices, and her response is always grounded in a deep respect for the humanity of others.
The impeccable Rusty Schwimmer plays Miss Minchin’s sister, Amelia. Amelia is coded as a fat, frumpy, dependent, incompetent old spinster (#goals). She not-so-secretly yearns for the milkman, but doesn’t allow herself to consider him as a real possibility.
Amelia and Sara have a conversation that I’ll paraphrase thusly:
AMELIA: I’m the bumbling, funny, fat one. I don’t get the guy at the end of the movie.
SARA: Naw, girl, get it.
AMELIA: Oh, okay!
Although Amelia is relatively powerful within the world of the film, she feels powerless because society has taught her that only one kind of woman is worth loving, and she ain’t that kind. But Sara rejects this idea with her patented “all women are princesses” shtick, and succeeds in pushing Amelia into her own happy ending.
The power dynamic between this adult woman and young girl is pretty nuanced. Amelia has autonomy, but she doesn’t lord that autonomy over the children at the school. Sara has youth, beauty, and slenderness, but doesn’t lord those privileges over Amelia. This creates a basis of mutual respect in their relationship. Sara never makes fun of Amelia’s body or implies that she has to change it somehow to be worthy of love. Amelia’s size is played for a big laugh exactly once, and it’s my least favorite moment in the film.
How does Sara react to poor people?
Sara goes from formlessly rich to destitute in two scenes flat. This is hard on her. It shakes her hopeful, cheerful character, and she has her “dark night of the soul” moment. But when Sara’s at her lowest, we get a scene that reaffirms her compassionate and heroic character.
So Sara’s in the market, and a lady drops a small amount of money. Sara attempts to give it back, but the lady assumes she’s trying to get her attention to beg from her, and steadfastly ignores her. So Sara shrugs, and converts the coin into a huge and delicious-looking cinnamon roll. She’s been mopping floors and scrubbing pots—she’s earned this.
Sara’s just started to tuck in when she sees a small family of women peddling flowers in the street. These bitches look rough. They’re huddled, they’re dirty, one of them looks ill, another is holding a baby. Their flowers look—sorry—a little busted. Sara watches person after person walk by, brushing them off, refusing to even look at them, much less buying their flowers.
Sara grimaces. She knows the right thing to do, and it hurts. But she does it anyway. She walks up to them and gives them her cinnamon roll.
When she gave Becky her shoes, Sara was a wealthy character giving away something she probably wouldn’t miss. Her generosity was instinctual and reflexive. Now that generosity comes at great personal cost. She reaffirms her values by making the exact same choice.
Even when she is at her most wretched, Sara recognizes there are people who have it worse than her. “At least I have a place to live. At least I’m not working outside all winter. At least I’m not sick. At least I don’t have a baby. At least I have a friend.”
This is the nuance of privilege. Having privilege does not mean you’re a jerk with a full wallet and a perfect life. It means you’re aware that your situation isn’t as bad as others’. Sara is rocking dirt, blisters, an empty stomach, and the stares of her former peers—but she’s still healthy, still young, still white, still housed, still employed.
Again, like a true hero, she doubles down and continues to do what she can to ease the suffering of others.
The grateful flower-sellers insist on giving her a yellow-orange rose in return. Saffron and green are strongly featured throughout the film. They’re the colors of India, the place that birthed Sara’s strong imagination and egalitarian ethos. This, too, she gives away, this time to the wealthy man next-door whose son is missing in action on the front lines.
The “right way” to respond to one’s privilege isn’t to compulsively push your belongings into the hands of poorer people. That’s Fox News’s definition of socialism (cue terrified B-movie screaming)! The spirit of intersectionality is recognizing the many dimensions through which a person can experience privilege. The man next-door has all the money in the world, but his only son is dead. Sara recognizes that this too is a deep suffering worthy of compassion.
How does Sara react to injustice?
Okay, okay, so there is a problem with characters who behave perfectly and purely at all times. They’re fucking unrealistic and boring.
The world is filled with injustices, and Sara starts out being oblivious to almost all of them. Obviously she doesn’t stay that way! Once she learns about them, how does she handle them?
There are three bullies in the film: a powerful bully, a petty bully, and a budding bully. They all hold different levels of power and represent different dimensions of shiftiness. Accordingly, Sara handles each of them differently.
Miss Minchin: The powerful bully
Miss Minchin is the film’s main villain. Pros: she is very good at descending stairs. Cons: she’s a cold, nasty authoritarian who’s jealous of children and mostly dead inside. Great.
Minchin represents a possible outcome for Sara—an adult who sees all of the world’s injustices, and accepts them all without fighting them. In fact, she runs a whole school designed to stamp out the spirit of rebellion and individuality. She gets angriest when Sara imagines, because the act of imagining is the opposite of accepting reality. It’s the beginning of rejecting it. And Minchin gave up on that long ago.
Eleanor Bron’s memorable and nuanced performance makes it clear that Minchin wasn’t always this way. When Sara confronts her over her stank-ass attitude, she hits a little below the belt by insisting “all women are princesses, didn’t your father ever tell you that?” After angrily storming out, Minchin squeezes out of few bitter tears alone on the stairwell. Ouch. That one really hurt.
What is the context of these tears? Did her father die too young? Did he abandon her? Was he a cruel authoritarian? Or has she stirred memories of a loving and present father who nevertheless turned out of be a jerk? We’re never told.
I think this is Sara’s worst and most privileged moment in the film. She, who grew up without a mother, should surely be capable of understanding that not everyone grew up with a father. Boo, Sara, boo!
Still, Minchin really sucks. Her punishments are overly punitive. She knows that poor people and people of color are especially vulnerable, and regularly threatens them with a double whammy of unemployment and homelessness to keep them in line. She humiliates her own students. She jumps to life-damaging conclusions about others and doesn’t care about the consequences of her recklessness. And she has the nerve to describe herself as generous! Man, fuck that bitch!
Sara’s relationship with Minchin reflects her relationship with the ugliest parts of the status quo. She’s initially respectful, but feels mounting disquiet when she witnesses its hypocrisies and cruelties. She rebels twice: first quietly, then tenaciously. Sara’s greatest strength is her ability to imagine a different outcome. By the end of the film, her imagination overthrows Minchin’s status quo and inverts her status. Minchin is now the menial worker she once denigrated.
Because she insisted on maintaining a broken status quo, her punishment is to be trapped inside of it. It’s the meanest possible way to impart empathy—a fitting end.
Lavinia: the petty bully
Lavinia is a garden variety brat, strictly Draco Malfoy in Sorcerer’s Stone material. She’s jealous of Sara’s easy popularity, and tries to strong-arm her way into it. It doesn’t work. Her friends abandon her.
Early in the film, Sara leans into Lavinia. She calls her a snotty, two-faced bully (true), eliciting delight from most of the other students. When Lavinia cruelly plays the role of Cinderella’s stepsister, making post-fall Sara do extra chores, Sara invents an “Indian curse” to make Lavinia paranoid that her hair might fall out.
Kids are shitty, and this is exactly the kind of bratty thing they do to each other. But these actions have consequences. Eventually Lavinia’s lieutenants abandon her. And crucially, at this point, Sara leaves Lavinia alone. Like a Montessori parent, Sara leaves Lavinia to experience the natural and logical consequences of her shittiness. She doesn’t kick her while she’s down.
One of the last shots in the film is a contrite Lavinia hugging Sara goodbye. Although almost no dialogue is devoted to this resolution, I believe both girls recognize that their friction was the result of Miss Minchin’s oppressively unnatural dystopia. No girl ever did real and lasting harm to the other, though each was given ample opportunity.
Lavinia was strictly a leather-pants Draco. She’s the equivalent of the irritating rando who jumps into the comments section of this blog to tell us how WRONG we are about the article they didn’t read. (I wish y’all could see some of the shit we moderate out of existence. Girl, bye.) She’s satisfying to push back against, but ultimately it’s a waste of energy. Sara focuses on challenging the powerful instead of the petty. And the petty come along anyway as a bonus.
Lottie: the budding bully
Hope you’re ready for my controversial HOT TAKE on this minor character from a G-rated film that came out twenty years ago!
Lottie is the smallest girl and a fucking brat. Her brattiness is coded as cute, but I ain’t buying it. She uses anything she has at her disposal to manipulate people into doing what she wants. A tiny child has very few resources, so she mostly just cries and screams. But oh what a horror she will be when she has more options.
Her worst moment in the film is when she’s pressed to explain Becky’s secondary status to a newly arrived Sara. “That’s Becky. She’s not allowed to talk to us.”
“Why not?” Sara asks.
“She’s a servant girl, and she has dark skin.”
Lottie falters, and shrugs. “Well…” she says, “doesn’t that mean something?”
Unlike Sara, Lottie has grown up in American culture. She knows that people with dark skin are segregated, and has absorbed that this means they are mysteriously, generically bad. Sara is baffled by Lottie, and forces her to articulate her views. Lottie immediately caves, and acknowledges that she doesn’t really know the implications of what she just said. Incredibly, it’s the only time in the film Becky’s race is mentioned explicitly.
One of my favorite pieces of Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s wisdom on Slate’s Dear Prudence is the weaponization of the question “what do you mean?”
When someone says something that isn’t outright racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, etc., but has extremely strong implications in that regard, Ortberg’s suggestion is to meet this with the question, “But what do you mean?” You repeat the question until the jerk you’re talking to either makes their jerky comment explicit, or backs down because they realize what they just said is wholly unacceptable.
I love this tactic, and Sara basically uses it here.
Because this is the only moment where race is explicitly voiced, I wish the moment were stronger. But if Sara’s response had been “now now, little lady, that’s what we call RACIST,” it would’ve seemed hokey and unnatural, like a Very Special Episode. Kids are pretty savvy about that kind of insincerity.
The reality is that many self-proclaimed “woke” adults still struggle with calling out the casual racism of their friends, coworkers, and family members. I don’t expect a fresh-off-the-boat ten-year-old to do it perfectly. But questioning implicitly hateful statements is a good place to start. It doesn’t allow the comment to stand unchallenged, and forces the speaker to reexamine their words. It works best with people who are shitty because they’re ignorant, or lazy, or habituated to discriminatory attitudes.
Sara’s happily ever after
Through a pretty crazy set of fantastical coincidences, Sara reunites with her father. Her wealth and status is restored, and Sara has been tested. But rather than the world changing her, Sara has changed the world.
Her father buys the school and institutes a change of management. The stuffy, prescriptive, authoritarian vibe is gone. The girls are much happier; the whole street is brighter. Sara’s father adopts Becky, and the two become sisters, riding off together in white gloves and dresses.
I suppose you could interpret this ending as colonialism solving colonialism. The white imperialist gentleman rides in on a fucking horse and solves everyone’s problems by throwing his blood money at it. But I think you should shut up because that’s fucking joyless. This is a G-rated children’s film, with elements of fantasy and magical realism. It’s not going to dig deeply enough into the themes of war, poverty, class, race, and imperialism to satisfy adult tastes.
That said, I think Sara is a fantastic example of how inspiring and intersectional a privileged character can be. Throughout the film she moves from passively powerful, to downtrodden, to actively powerful. At each stage, she makes the most generous and ethical choices she has the ability to make. As far as ten-year-old girls in gigantic bows go, Sara Crewe is a certified bad-ass.
Y’all, I’m exhausted
IF NOBODY REMEMBERS THIS MOVIE I WILL SCREAM.
SHUT UP, DANY. YOUR SOCIAL JUSTICE INITIATIVES ARE MISGUIDED AND YOU SHOULD’VE BEEN PLAYED BY TAMZIN MERCHANT.