The Princess Switch: Switched Again and Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality
Netflix’s Christmas sequel is a masterclass on what drives human behavior.
As I collapsed onto our sofa with a mug of hot cocoa in my hand, I’d planned for a relaxing evening of Netflix and holiday cheer with the family. While I felt a smidge silly for engaging in such festive fair in mid-November, I didn’t expect the sequel to Vanessa Hudgens’s Christmas tale to be a scholarly discourse on Sigmund Freud’s structural theory of personality. However, as Siggie himself might say, Sometimes a Yuletide movie is just a psycho-sexual examination of conflict resolution.
If you’re new to the world of Ms. Hudgens’s princess switching, allow me to bring you up to speed. Hudgens plays dual roles in the first film, The Princess Switch, as both the down-to-earth American pâtissier Stacy de Novo and her doppelgänger the refined Lady Margaret Delacourt, Duchess of Montenaro and fiancée of Prince Edward of Belgravia. Stacy runs a bakery in Chicago with her partner Kevin. She’s your every person, relatable with ambitions for a happy, successful life. She is pragmatic but romantic, talented but harboring insecurities. Lady Margaret lives in an affluent world maintained through tradition and royal protocol. She is refined, mostly indicated by how she holds her hands and her British accent, and exudes confidence while meticulously navigating the diplomacy around her forthcoming marriage to Prince Edward.
When Stacy and Margaret first meet, we see the contrast in the more ebullient Stacy versus the restrained Margaret. We also see how the traditions and protocol of royal life bolstering Margaret’s confidence limit her degrees of freedom, whereas Stacy’s self-doubt originates from her greater access to free will. In a callback to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, the two women swap places, merry chaos ensues, and the story concludes with Stacy and Prince Edward falling in love and getting married as Lady Margaret begins a romance with Stacy’s business partner, Kevin.
In part two of the interchangeable women trilogy, the aptly named The Princess Switch: Switched Again, we find Stacy and Edward married but Lady Margaret alone, as her new royal duties caused a split with Kevin. Stacy notices the two ex-lovebirds still carry torches for one another and she schemes to reunite them at Lady Margaret’s coronation as queen of Montenaro. Merry chaos and romance ensue as Margaret weighs her royal obligations to Montenaro against the obligations to her heart. Chaos escalates as director Mike Rohl introduces a new character into the saga, Margaret’s look-alike cousin, the unscrupulous Lady Fiona Pembroke. And this is where we go from a playful take on mistaken identities to a character study based on Freud’s theory of the dynamic interactions of the id, ego, and superego.
Initially, the second chapter of The Princess Switch feels like a rehashing of the first film, contrasting Stacy’s winsome and guileless mannerisms to Margaret’s stoic exterior. Everything changes when Fiona waltzes into the royal Christmas gala wearing a tight black outfit and long blond locks topped with a feathered hat. Fiona’s dramatic sartorial selections clash with the stately dresses of Margaret and Stacy as she sexily saunters across the grand hall accompanied by her two minions.
To this point, Margaret’s poise has been a plausible parody of reserved nobility, but Fiona’s flamboyance is cartoonish, Rita Ora-esque with an influencer’s pout who whines every line of dialogue like a Millennial Cruella De Vil. We quickly realize we are no longer asked to engage mindlessly in the story spun before us, but in a Brechtian turn of dramatic flair are tasked with critically observing how humankind’s conscious and unconscious impulses play out within the psyche.
Rohl, who helmed both princess-swapping films, asks the viewer to stop accepting the absurd plotlines of abduction and triple switcheroos, and examine the internal motivations of these three women. Admittedly, I was taken aback when I realized I’d have to pay less attention to my cinnamon sugar popcorn and more attention to the subconscious drives of Fiona, Stacy, and Margaret.
Fiona is the easiest of the three characters to dissect, with Freud’s pleasure principle oozing out of her machinations and every flick of her overactive tongue. Upon first meeting Fiona, we learn she’s attending the coronation as a stopover on her way to Capri for a New Year’s Eve party. In this same exchange, she undresses both the male leads, Kevin and Edward, with her eyes then finishes off a glass of champagne before demanding another. She is the only one of the three women who is overtly sexual and is also the only one to indulge in a second glass of wine or champagne.
We further learn Fiona wasted her family fortune on her decadent lifestyle. Fiona and her assistants arrive in Montenero to pickpocket and steal enough from other coronation attendees to pay for their trip to Capri. Fiona is a grifter, comfortable taking anything from anyone. It’s when we see her grifting hopes dwindle we begin to understand the amoral world in which she resides. She concocts a plan to kidnap Margaret, take Margaret’s place as queen, and funnel a large sum of money from the royal holdings to an untraceable account before disappearing to continue her pursuit of excessive pleasure.
Vanessa Hudgens plays the part as the self-satisfied id, seeking out constant gratification. Rohl’s direction comments on society’s infatuation with beauty and influencers each time Fiona sashays onto the screen. She’s vapid and salacious but always well dressed. She snaps photos of herself when she’s not snapping at other people to heed her every whim. Rohl and writers Robin Bernheim and Megan Metzger use Fiona to point out we’ve become a society of id. Fiona’s superficiality is a caricature of the look at me culture we’ve become where children aspire to be influencers and status often exists outside of reality. Despite the dire message, Hudgens infuses her performance with an endearing cattiness, preventing the film from getting too heavy-handed with its social criticism.
In direct contrast to Fiona is Hudgens’s finespun portrayal of soon-to-be Queen Margaret. Margaret’s role is the superego. She grapples with guilt throughout the film at her reluctance to be completely committed to fulfilling her duties due to her desire to be with Kevin. There’s a poignant moment reminiscent of a plotline from The Crown when Margaret confesses to Stacy she wants to be with Kevin but must accept the royal limitations on her happiness.
Margaret’s focus on aspiring to be her best self differentiates her from Fiona and Stacy. Rohl casts Margaret’s motivations as those of the ego ideal, the perfect self towards which the ego should aspire. Margaret’s sense of propriety limits the many faux pas marking Stacy’s life, and her obligation to duty reins in the types of urges driving Fiona. She’s the governing principle of the three women, in psychoanalytic terms and literally as queen, but she knows her protocols are insufficient for actualizing her full humanity. She’s envious of Stacy’s freedoms and affectionately describes Fiona as a ‘free spirit.’ Margaret’s desire to feel unbridled from the burden of becoming queen motivates her to do a second switch with Stacy so she can responsibly shirk her duties and spend time with Kevin.
Rohl directs Hudgens’s handling of Margaret as an exploration of the human spirit. While Fiona wildly pursues pleasure because she can, Margaret is confined by should. The filmmakers want the audience to see how many of the limitations we place upon ourselves are contrived. Even concepts of should must have balance, which Margaret acknowledges in the end when embraces a second chance with Kevin. Accepting this balance leads to her happiness.
This is where Stacy comes in. She is the mediator between the two extremes of Margaret and Fiona. The viewer identifies with Stacy, as the most realistic character of the three, and she is a mix of the other two. Stacy works to convince Margaret true love is possible, even for a queen. She also convinces Margaret to a second switch by fudging the truth in her conversations with Margaret and Kevin. She sees the attainment of love as paramount to duty and honesty.
Likewise, Stacy’s approach to life contrasts with Fiona’s. This is most evident in the scene where Fiona argues her case to Margaret, insisting she’s innocent because she didn’t technically kidnap the soon to be queen. Stacy jumps in and reminds Fiona she committed treason. Stacy can be a stickler for rules!
Stacy represents the ego, the part of the personality dealing with reality. She is the problem solver for negotiating with the superego and demonstrates the self-control lacking in the id. Rohl utilized Stacy to carry the narrative of the first film, and in the second she is the viewer’s gateway to understanding the more extreme aspects of the human psyche with which we all contend. Stacy is our guide through Rohl’s deep dive into the human unconscious.
The film ends with Fiona in chains, Margaret crowned queen in an elaborate ceremony, and Stacy looking on as a member of the audience. Rohl reminds us we view everything with Stacy. We are also the ego in this analysis. It ends on a happy note with each of the three women beaming their individual smiles as the film fades to black while a Christmas ballad proclaims ‘I’ve got all I need.’ Hudgens’s performance puts each component of the human psyche into balance, one temporarily restrained, one governing, and the last experiencing it all. Netflix’s Christmas moral for us this season — we’re at our best when we harmonize the aspects of our personality.
I dropped my hot cocoa on the floor, smashing my cute Santa mug into shards, as I pieced together the clues of Mohr’s Christmas tale. It may not become the holiday classic of It’s a Wonderful Life, but it is the 2020 Christmas movie we need. We can find happiness in even the most absurd circumstances if we balance the excesses available to us against our need for control, and we pause to view life’s splendor with the wide-eyed wonder it merits.
Happy holidays to you and to Sigmund Freud, wherever you are, you fabulous Golden Siggie!