When my nephew was a toddler, he liked to play princesses with his mother and me. Usually, we were all beautiful princesses. Once, to show his displeasure, his mother was a “Bad Princess,” which actually was kind of fun. And with the sense of taste and style that very young children have, princesses were the most beautiful beings in the world, wearing the sparkliest pink and purple shininess imaginable. I was generally bemused. I had been a kid who played Herculoids or Thundarr The Barbarian at recess with my friends and I never wanted to play the girl. I would much rather be Ookla the Mok than Princess Ariel.
So I played princess with my nephew until one day he came home from day care crying. He told me that a girls had told him he couldn’t be a princess because princesses are girls and he is a boy. I hugged him and told him he could be anything he wanted. After that, though, we mostly played Spider-Man and Iron Man. He was confused that a girl could be Iron Man until I told him that it was pretend.
I think Pendleton Ward and the other creators of Adventure Time played those games when they were kids, too. Adventure Time is a cartoon set on the world of Ooo, likely a future earth thousands of years after an apocalyptic war.* Finn the human and Jake the talking, shape-changing dog are heroes attached to the Candy Kingdom, which is populated by living sweets ruled by Princess Bubblegum. (There are a lot of princesses in Ooo). The show is joyfully absurd and serious and disturbing and cute all at the same time.
There’s so much I like—the language; Ice Ninja skills; party bears; the Ancient Psychic Tandem War Elephant; a demon blood sword; Marcelline the Vampire Queen and her magical bass ax; demon cat with approximate knowledge of many things; Dr. Princess, whose surname is “Princess”; Why-Wolves; science at its most amoral; Lumpy Space Princess. I like how the show deals with stalking, obsession and dementia through the Ice King. I like how Jake offers pretty good relationship advice and how the show parodies pick-up artists with J. T. Dawgzone’s book, Mind Games. And most of all I like how Finn has vowed to help anyone, no matter how small the problem.
In a lot of ways, Finn is who I would’ve wanted to be when I was a kid—if I couldn’t have Jake’s rad shapechanging abilities. (Shapechanging abilities are mathematical). I’m sure there are still boys upset at the thought of a girl pretending to be Finn, but it’s pretty clear that Finn, Jake and Adventure Time don’t mind girls being adventurers and boys being princesses and not just in the two episodes with Fionna and Cake, the gender and species-swapped versions of Finn and Jake. (Also, featuring the excellent Prince Gumball, voiced by Neil Patrick Harris). But while I love Fionna and Cake, somehow Princess Cookie got me in my heart zone.
The “Princess Cookie” episode is a reprise of Dog Day Afternoon in the Candy Kingdom, complete with helicopters. In Dog Day Afternoon, a man robs a bank to pay for his partner’s gender confirmation surgery. The heist goes wrong and he takes hostages hoping to escape somehow. “Princess Cookie” opens with a hostage situation at a grocery store. A chocolate chip cookie demands Princess Bubblegum’s crown in exchange for the hostages. Bubblegum responds, “Well, obviously, that’s going to be a problem. I’m the princess and I need my crown.”
Then she prepares to order her banana guards to storm the store. Finn and Jake say they have a better plan to take down Cookie. Jake transforms into a mailman, something that he’d always wanted to be. Finn pulls on ninja clothes and disguises himself as Jake’s shadow. Princess Bubblegum puts the kibosh on Jake’s disguise, telling him he makes a more believable milkman. Finn and Jake successfully infiltrate the store. While Finn sneaks into the back to neutralize Cookie’s chips, Jake offers milk to the hostages, then bonds with Cookie after slipping up and calling his milkman disguise a “costume.” “I just mean it feels like a costume because I wanted to be a mailman so bad, you see, but the Princess made me be a milkman anyway.”
Cookie responds with his story of a cookie driven too far. “I was just a kid, man, just a little kids when I got doodied on.”
Cookie grew up in an orphanage where the kids were all too depressed to play. One day, Princess Bubblegum visited and read them stories. “And something changed inside me that day, too. And later, she told me I could be anything I wanted. And I told her I wanted to be a princess like her so I could make all the children happy. And she laughed in my face, man. It really messed me up.”
Jake suggests, “Maybe she didn’t realize how much it meant to you.”
But Cookie says, “No, she just wants to hog all the princessing for herself.”
Jake tells Cookie, “It doesn’t have to be like this. You don’t need that crown. You could start over. You can start your own kingdom, a new kingdom where everyone can be whatever they want to be. I can be the mailman and you can be the princess.”
Jake ultimately helps Princess Cookie escape. And when Finn tries to stop them, Jake says, “No, man, Princess Cookie’s a good guy. He just got dealt a bad hand. He’s only trying to be what following his dreams make you want to be. You’re either with us or against us.”
The episode doesn’t just resonate with me because of my nephew’s frustrated desire to be a princess or my childhood identification with characters like Finn. Not that long ago something like Adventure Time just wouldn’t fly on tv—especially directed at children. Bodies and gender both are pretty malleable on the show. In fact, things can get pretty queer and that’s especially appealing in a cartoon that could come across as very gendered. On the surface, Adventure Time‘s about a boy and his dog who save princesses and who both have lady-type girlfriends.** But there is a lot more going on. So much so that even the tragic ending in which Cookie falls off a cliff and ends up in a Candy Kingdom mental health facility seems like a parody of those required in so many films where only a troubled and doomed guy would want to be a princess.***
The tragedy of “Princess Cookie” is not an impossible desire to be a princess, but a failure of communication. If Cookie had told Princess Bubblegum that she had hurt his feelings and that he was serious about wanting to be a princess, Jake’s solution could’ve been implemented without a hostage situation and the threat of “dungeon for life.” But he was too angry about her perceived princessing hogging. It’s nice that the threatened punishment is about taking hostages and not any gender infractions or usurped princesshood. After all, taking hostages is not cool princess behavior.
And while I don’t want to live in Princess Cookie’s current domain, I believe in Jake’s proposed kingdom, where everyone can be whatever they want to be and tries to be what following how their dreams makes them want to be. Cookie can be the princess, Jake can be the mailman and my nephew and you and I can be whoever we like.
*Hmm… I hadn’t thought about the parallels between Thundarr The Barbarian and Adventure Time before now.
**Though Jake’s girlfriend Lady Rainicorn says some things.
Carol Borden has approximate knowledge of many things.