By Rebecca Rosén | March 2, 2021
Throughout film history, there have been various iconic couples whose fame transcends the films they appear in. Yet some of them, even though they’re loved, are actually questionable in hindsight. Several teen films, for example, romanticise problematic behaviour and unhealthy relationships as something to swoon over, or they imply that you have to change yourself to be worthy of love.
While growing up, few films portrayed love stories in a way I could get on board with. I guess a big part of it was that the only films within easy access to me were fairy tales where passive princesses waited around for active princes who they often didn’t even know before their “happily ever after” was about to begin. However, the first time I saw The Princess Diaries (2001), I knew I had found something special. The film is a sweet depiction of the trembling first steps you take as you try to navigate your first feelings of love — while simultaneously conveying a message of how important it is to embrace yourself, and find people who accept and love you as you are.
Based on Meg Cabot’s young adult novel of the same name, The Princess Diaries tells the story of fifteen-year-old Mia (Anne Hathaway) who, during a surprise visit from her estranged grandmother, Clarisse (Julie Andrews), discovers that she’s the sole heir to the throne of a European kingdom called Genovia. Mia must decide whether to claim the throne or renounce her title permanently, but, because she already considers herself to be a “freak,” Mia believes that adding a tiara would only make things worse. She’s like any other teenager; she dreams of surviving high school, as well as experiencing her first kiss (which will preferably be foot-popping good). She’s clumsy, she talks too much, and she can’t seem to find the right words when she needs to. However, there’s one person that secretly thinks nothing but the best of her, and that’s her best friend’s older brother Michael (Robert Schwartzman).
Michael is presented as a little dorky, but charming, endearingly shy and a bit mysterious, but never comes across as pushy or intrusive. Throughout the film, it becomes clear that Michael has been in love with Mia for several years. At the beginning of the film, we see Michael practising with his band at the local auto repair shop where he works (playing ‘Blueside’ by Schwartzman’s band, Rooney). Suddenly, Mia rides in on her scooter to check up on her car, and it doesn’t take long until Michael tilts his head slightly to catch a glimpse of her. Like anyone with a crush, he immediately notices when Mia is nearby, way before both the makeover and the princess reveal.
While it feels like Michael’s affection mostly goes unnoticed, it still feels obvious that there’s something between them. Evidence of this can be found in the way he looks at her, in a lovingly and adoring way, and, without thinking twice about it, offering to pick up extra shifts just to help pay off the bill for the repairs on her 1966 Mustang Convertible. When he finally dares to ask her to hang out — right before it’s revealed that Mia is a princess — they both seem nervous, as they’re too scared to have eye contact with each other for too long. Their body language is equally nervous and playful, and they can’t help but bump lightly into each other as they walk side by side. Mia asks if it’s a date and Michael, like a majority of other characters before and after him, smiles and says no even though it seems obvious that that’s what they both want.
As a part of her princess lessons, Mia is required to go through a makeover, to appear more like what people expect a princess to look like. The makeover is a common trope in teen films and they usually exist as a way for characters to either get popular or attract the attention of someone special. While the basis of Mia’s physical change has nothing to do with either of those reasons, the makeover itself still implies a questionable message. As she goes from bushy brows, glasses and curly hair to straight hair, contacts and more visible makeup, it’s important to mention that these changes have less to do with Mia’s actual capability to eventually rule a country and more to do with outdated beauty standards.
Michael is the first one to see Mia after her transformation, and even though he always found her attractive, he’s speechless. Michael’s reaction is one that makes Mia smile, in both a confident and blushing way. However, Mia’s excitement is quickly put on pause as her best friend Lilly (Heather Matarazzo) disapproves, secretly fearing that Mia is about to abandon her in favour of the popular crowd. As Lilly keeps going with her unsolicited comments, Michael disagrees with her and when Lilly calls Mia’s change weird, Michael emphasises that it’s an “attractive weird.”
Everyone should be allowed to find what makes them feel confident, and even though the makeover wasn’t Mia’s choice, she finds something she likes without ever making the makeover change all of her. While Mia at first seems unsure about her change (Lilly’s initial comments and some teasing from the popular kids throws her off a little), it feels like she gets more confident as she starts adapting the changes to fit with what she feels comfortable in (for instance, she continues to wear her Dr. Martens and doesn’t always wear a lot of visible makeup).
While most people have opinions about Mia’s change, the real shift in how people treat her comes after it’s revealed that she’s a princess. Suddenly popular girl Lana (Mandy Moore) lies to the press about being Mia’s best friend, and Mia’s longtime crush Josh (Erik von Detten) starts noticing her. However, neither of them care about Mia’s appearance. Instead, they care about her fame and what they can gain from it. Josh, who has a lifetime supply of hair gel in his locker along with a copy of a magazine called ‘Yachting’ (yeah, he’s that guy), tells newly popular Mia that he hates “phoney publicity-seekers” while inviting her to the upcoming beach party. In the end, it’s clear that the version of Josh Mia had in her imagination was better than the real deal as their date ends terribly: Instead of helping a distressed Mia when the paparazzi show up, Josh decides to kiss her to get his fifteen minutes of fame.
When Mia cancels her plans with Michael to hang out with Josh at the aforementioned beach party, he’s disappointed. When you’re a teenager you often feel very strongly, like everything is a matter of life or death, no matter how trivial it might be. Therefore, from Michael’s point of view, it doesn’t matter that Mia didn’t do anything wrong when she cancelled: Michael still feels rejected because the cancellation implies that she would rather spend time with Josh instead of with him. When Mia later invites Michael to the Genovian Independence Day Ball, he declines the invitation, as he doesn’t seem to think that it’s sincere. “I really want you to be the one I share it with,” Mia says in vain. It isn’t until Mia sends him an apology pizza with colourful M&M’s spelling out “SORRY” that he decides to reevaluate his decision. While I’m sceptical (at best) when it comes to M&M’s as an acceptable topping, the gesture feels much more meaningful than so many others before it. There’s no pressure, just an apology to hopefully mend things. Additionally, it’s their special thing and, you know, M(ia)&M(ichael).
In the end, everything comes together beautifully, as Michael surprises Mia at the ball. When they share a private moment, he asks her why she chose him, to which she responds, “Because you saw me when I was invisible.” To have someone who sees you for everything you are is maybe above all affirmation that you’re alive and exist. At the beginning of the film, Mia repetitively felt like she didn’t exist, as people either couldn’t remember her, or weren’t even aware of her presence (“Somebody sat on me again”). Then, after her transformation, people like Josh and Lana only saw her for her status. However, with Michael, makeovers or tiaras are irrelevant; he always liked Mia, even when she didn’t herself.
In The Princess Diaries, the romance between Mia and Michael isn’t the most important part of the film or Mia’s life, but it’s still always there bubbling underneath the surface. It’s present in revealing body language, facial expressions and longing gazes as a fitting reminder to everyone who ever spent their teenage years pining after someone from a distance. While Mia chooses Michael, she also chooses herself. Despite the royal shenanigans, Mia was still a relatable teenager as she was searching for an identity and purpose. In the end, she’s much more comfortable in her own skin and recognises that she’s capable of doing so much more than she initially thought she was. As Mia and Michael dance together at the ball in a way that’s far from formal, Mia brings her goofy moves into the proper dance halls despite what her previous lessons taught her. It’s a celebratory moment, a reminder of how important it’s to never neglect yourself for someone else’s comfort.
While Michael never appeared in the sequel — he was written off as being busy on tour with his band, which actually was what Schwartzman was doing at the time — we’ll always have the first film. Even though Mia and Michael’s romance is much more innocent in comparison with other teen-oriented films, I enjoy the variety. Besides, isn’t everything leading up to the kiss sometimes just as exciting as the kiss itself? Just remember, in a world filled with Joshes who only notice you when they have something to gain, find a Michael that likes you just as you are with no ulterior motives. Your equivalent of Michael might potentially give you a foot-popping kiss after all.