When I think of the word princess, my mind is quick to attach adjectives such as compassionate, beautiful, and delicate. In the realm of fiction, princesses are archetypal to a fault. The most famous examples might differ in flavor—some are sweet (Princess Peach), some have a pinch of spice (Princess Jasmine), some may taste faintly of iron (Princess Leia)—but they are ultimately crafted from the same mold.
Even when their parents are entirely absent from the narrative, fictional princesses are rarely shown governing nor are they depicted as shrewd political figures. They are often isolated and have little in the way of company. They are almost always in need of assistance or rescuing, typically from a young man who serves as the true protagonist of the story.
When I first encountered Princess Bubblegum from Adventure Time, I noted that her story began in much the same way.
The seemingly villainous Ice King kidnaps the princess from her castle and Finn, the hero of the tale, is tasked with rescuing her. However, her narrative (as well as that of almost every prominent character in Adventure Time) soon warps into something else entirely.
Princess Bubblegum is first and foremost the ruler of her kingdom. She prioritizes her responsibilities over her personal relationships, often to a fault. She’s a bit too into science. She’s pragmatic to the point of callousness and routinely places the safety of her kingdom’s inhabitants above all else, even above individual freedom and privacy. She can be cold, and yes, more than a little authoritarian.
But you also see glimpses of kindness, albeit warped to fit the often twisted ethos of the show. One of the defining moments of her character, at least within the earlier seasons, is in the solution Princess Bubblegum proposes to the problem of an unwanted suitor. She says she loves him, but in the way that she loves all her citizens. Then she gives him a cloned version of herself, so that he won’t be so alone.
It’s an act that conveys compassion and pity, but also a casual irreverence for moral boundaries. In other words, Princess Bubblegum is not very princess-like at all. She teeters at the edges of conventional morality: not wholly good, not wholly bad, and probably not at the dead center either.
Which is why I was surprised to find that, at one point, many fans believed her to be evil.
In discussions of Adventure Time’s middle seasons, words commonly used to describe Princess Bubblegum included: heartless, suspicious, scary, bad, villainous. Many viewed her as a predominantly malevolent figure whose actions carried malicious intent. Even critics began to describe her escapades with a sort of wariness, as if anticipating that at any moment her character arc might plummet into a downwards spiral of powerhungry depravity.
In these discussions, I found myself quickly adopting a prickly sort of defensiveness. “How can they think she’s evil?” I wondered. “Don’t they see her constant concern for the general wellbeing of other people? Her lack of greed or selfish ambition? Her complete disinterest in bringing harm upon others?”
I thought back to Princess Bubblegum’s unwanted suitor and her utter absence of villainy in that moment. If Princess Bubblegum were truly and wholly evil, she would have never concerned herself with the happiness of her unwanted suitor; she would have only thought of herself.
To be clear: I am not so passionate a “PB apologist” as to claim that she is without fault or that her behavior is beyond reproach. I fully understand and agree with the sentiment that many of her actions are questionable at best, morally compromised at worst. She harbors a deeply ingrained mistrust concerning the competence of others, and it’s an attitude that bleeds into many of her decisions. But it’s this complexity that makes her so interesting—and so different—from the vast majority of fictional princesses I’ve seen.
For once, a princess is allowed the freedom to be a little unlikeable. A little problematic. And maybe even a little evil.
Perhaps the princess archetype is at least partially to blame for how strongly people reacted to Princess Bubblegum. Perhaps she is so alien to us that we are unequipped to fully and immediately understand her. After all, when one is primed to see the same thing over and over, it is only natural to view aberrations with some degree of suspicion.
Eventually, Adventure Time rewarded my faith in Princess Bubblegum: in later seasons, she learns the error of her ways (sort of) and softens her dictatorial demeanor. She learns to place her trust in other people a little more than in the past. She reconnects with lost friends. She becomes less cold.
For the most part, fans of the show seemed to stop calling her evil and began to see her as the essentially benevolent person that I always knew she was. Still, it’s a bit disappointing that she had to become more princess-like in order for fans to admit that she is, in fact, good.