Money Buys Color: #PFMessages in A Little Princess

This post is part of a larger series of Personal Finance Messages in popular culture. Follow along on Twitter: #PFMessages.

A common story line in many well-known tales, especially those targeted to children, is the rags to riches story. At the beginning, there is a poor (usually a) girl that is kind and has hope despite her horrid circumstances. She then overcomes great odds to end up wealthy and happy at the end of the story (by circumstance, not by work), all the while remembering to be kind. These stories provide the message that hope and kindness are rewarded with wealth.

  • In the musical Annie, the poor orphan girl sings “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” despite having nothing and being under the thumb of the evil and greedy Mrs. Hannigan. But luckily, she ends up softening the heart of Daddy Warbucks (he’s even got money in his name!) and being adopted by him at the end of the musical when she trades her ragged clothes for her signature red dress and white collar.
  • In Cinderella, her wise father’s demise leaves her at the mercy of her evil step-mother and two vain step-sisters. Despite being demoted to the scullery maid, Cinderella remembers to be kind and have hope and is rewarded with the fairy Godmother giving her a glimpse at fame and fortune with her evening at the royal ball. Things get worse before they get better and even though she is locked away, the Prince finds her and she ends up as a princess in the palace after all.

A Little Princess

In Alfonso Cuarón’s film adaptation* of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book A Little Princess, these messages are demonstrated visually with wealth represented by exotic colors. Sara is raised in colonial India as the daughter of a white English colonizer.** When she arrives in New York, she is the light. She is the only one wearing white in a sea of green and black. She begins the film with wealth. She is light and colorful. Her room in the boarding school is decorated in beautiful silks and she carries around her orange doll. When news is received that Sara’s father has been killed in battle, she loses that wealth, and the color is stripped from her life by the mean and selfish house mother, Miss Minchin. Sara is moved into the servant’s quarters with Becky, the servant, and Miss Minchin declares “you are not a princess any longer.”  Although the tagline for the film states: “Every girl everywhere is a princess,” these royal powers and the colors with which they are associated are linked to wealth and Sara must begin her “rags to riches” journey to gain back her wealth and color through hope and kindness.

This film complicates the message: “kindness leads to wealth,” however, because Sara is only required to be kind to those who are also servants. She is not kind to people that are not inherently kind. Levinia is a snobby white girl at the boarding school that bosses everyone else about. Rather than trying to interact with Levinia and show her kindness as the message of the film would suggest, Sara tries to scare Levinia into changing.  She dances around Levinia’s room chanting in what we assume is Hindi pretending to curse Levinia into losing all of her hair. 

Color is also only present in Sara’s life when she remembers to be kind to servants or beggars.  When Sara gives her own bread to someone that needs it more, she is presented a yellow rose–“for the princess,” the lady says. At the climax of the film, Sara is able to tell Miss Minchin that despite everything being taken away from her, she knows she’s still a princess. That night, she and Becky wake up to see their destitute room decorated with lavish and colorful silks and pillows and what looks like a royal feast waiting for them. In the end, Becky and Sara are reunited with Sara’s father (who was NOT dead***), and the colorful flowers are shown blooming all over New York. Wealth and color returned to Sara’s world because she was kind to those that were poorer than she was. 

While it is a great message to teach children that all things will turn out in their favor if they are simply kind and have hope, the world is a bit more complicated than that. In the above examples, we have to add “if you are white and extremely lucky.” Hope and kindness are important. But they do not lead to wealth. Circumstance is definitely a factor in wealth, but so is work. And that is not as often demonstrated in the traditional stories. We can agree that money can color an otherwise dark world (with silks and pillows!), but money does not solve everything. Interestingly, Cuarón’s film reunites Sara with her father and her previous wealth and color. In the book, however, her father remains dead. Money can’t solve everything. It’s not actually capable of giving us our lost loved ones again. The reward for hope and kindness is happiness in all of these stories. But it would be better if that happiness wasn’t depicted with money. It’s perfectly possible to be happy without ending up rich.


*This is a beautiful, well-crafted film and I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it. 

**Despite it being a beautiful and amazing film, it definitely raises difficult questions when examined through the lens of post-colonialism and Sara’s interaction with “the Other.” However, that is an essay for another time and another place. 🙂

***“Muppet Christmas Carol” reference.

little princess

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14 Comments

  1. Hahahaha, love the Muppet Christmas Carol reference — I totally got it! 🙂

    Ok, this is awesome. I have seen this film probably, oh, at least eight times, and cried every time, because it truly is a beautiful film (with beautiful music, which is playing in my head right now). I have to say, though, that I never thought much about these messages before. I do remember thinking that they were going out of their way to bring the black maid, Becky, in as a full character — I’m pretty sure the maid in the book is white, so this was probably a conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers to *try* to make the story less white-centric.

    But have to say that I never thought much about the personal finance messages here before. I love your points about color in this film, and I think you’re so right about color as a symbol. There was also a lot of color in the few scenes shot in India (as well as the scenes about the Indian story with the circle in the sand, and any scenes involving her neighbor)…do you think India represents wealth (at least, colonial wealth) in this film? And yes, the conflation of happiness and color and wealth…definitely.

    Oh, and that’s such a good point too about how she’s not actually kind to everyone, just to people who “deserve” it…

    Anyway, this is awesome, love it!!

    • MaggieBanks

      Absolutely India represents the heightened exoticism that wealth allows the colonizers to “acquire.” Sara and her father “own” India. And yes, Becky is white in the book – he literally “colors” her in the film so that Sara has to interact with “the Other” and come to terms with that before she experiences that “ownership” again… like I said, it gets iffy there in the colonial framing. But I do still LOVE the film. It’s absolutely one of my favorites. So magical!

  2. Love this! It so irritates me when I come across people (typically adult females) who believe they “deserve” to be taken care of and given the world just for being alive/pretty/smart/young…you get the idea. Interestingly, my older sister has an entitlement attitude. She’s gotten better, but when she was younger she was upset that she had to work. She felt her husband failed her, or that she chose poorly. I’m 10 years younger than my sister, and in 10 years my mother’s parenting style changed drastically. She always taught me to have my own career and money and to never depend on anyone else. I’m glad she changed her style 🙂

    Mrs. Mad Money Monster

    • MaggieBanks

      I agree with you. And I think that the point should be that life WILL get you down. Sometimes life IS colorless. And having hope and being kind ARE the most important things to remember. But those won’t necessarily translate into money. We need to find contentment and happiness IN our situation and not wait to hit some bigger number and THEN be satisfied. We need to add color to our own world regardless of our financial situations.

  3. Your post made me think about the Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy travelling from the black-and-white farm to colorful Oz, where she ends up getting a makeover in the Emerald City. She could have stayed in Oz and been royalty, but chose to go home. Not quite the same message, but still an interesting juxtaposition of different “worlds.”

    I’m on year two of a ban on buying new clothes. One of my newest projects has been to upcycle or refashion outdated items in my wardrobe. I recently remembered that Cinderella did something similar with her mother’s old dress – kudos to her for using what was available.

    One of my favorite hobbies is to read books and then watch the movies. I will have to add “A Little Princess” to my reading list.

    • MaggieBanks

      It’s a great book… and great film. Upcycling clothing is pretty fun. Though I prefer to turn them into other things (hats! Aprons!) though that doesn’t help my clothing situation… I’ve wanted to figure out how to do cool crocheting upcycling with clothing… but I’m afraid it will just end up looking dumb. 🙂

  4. I agree it is perfectly acceptable to be happy without being rich. I’d never thought about those stories from this standpoint, but it makes sense describing it how you did.

    Good job on getting to use the Muppet Christmas Carol reference. I laughed when I read that! 🙂

  5. Beautifully put. I’m assuming the source material is also what the Shirley Temple movie of the same name was based on? Sounds like this one was FAR better. Certainly more lavish and colorful.

    I’m ashamed to say that the who’s NOT dead reference rang a bell but I couldn’t place it. This is just more motivation to finally download the digital version of the movie and watch it already!

    • MaggieBanks

      This film is beautiful, and I highly recommend it. – And you DEFINITELY NEED to watch Muppet Christmas Carol this season!

  6. No way….A Little Princess was one of my favorite movies as a child (also along with every Disney movie & The Secret Garden)! This is fantastic, and now I feel I must watch the film to see the development of color & wealth. What insightful points (I ended up writing my #pfmessages post on 10 Things I Hate About You which is not as deep as your points lol!). One movie that comes to mind with this depiction as well is Moulin Rouge – when Satine (the courtesan star) & Christian (the penniless writer) spend time with one another the film is vibrant, full of life, song. When Satine passes, and Christian is back to his life as a poor writer the film becomes dark, sorrowful. Now I’m curious if films like Pleasantville, The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (vivid colors & imagery) have some of the same underlying messages of wealth? Thanks for sharing your insights, Maggie! 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      The Secret Garden is way up there too! My friend and I hid an old fashioned key under a brick for years! (PS – I also love 10 things I hate about you.) Yes, Moulin Rouge is very similar! – And you just listed a whole bunch of awesome movies! 🙂

  7. I am completely loving that Sarah is helping turn a little part of the PF blogosphere into a literature discussion (I’ve missed English class!). 🙂 And I’m SO glad that YOU took part in the #pfmessages challenge! What great examples… and aren’t they always white? What’s actually crazy to me is that paternalistic Disney is actually a leader in showing main characters of color… of course they’re still usually princesses and are never actually real people. (And don’t get me started on the claim that Frozen was “feminist.” Ha!) 🙂

    What’s interesting about these tales is that boys and men are never given the message that they’ll get ahead by being kind and meek. They get VERY different messages!

    • MaggieBanks

      Ugh. Seriously. My professors used to talk about how they got ratings that said they weren’t “nurturing enough” – no male professor ever got that rating. Kindness doesn’t have to come with timidity and meekness doesn’t mean pushover! I do like that Sara doesn’t have a lot of that going for her… she puts an evil curse on the mean girl! She’s pretty bold. (and I HATE Frozen… as someone who taught the class “narrative structures” in graduate school, I hate it’s terrible example of a “story” – Also, when my girls pretend to be Elsa, they just get mean. I do love Tangled, however.)

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