The vivid landscape in which the restlessly creative and culturally omnivorous Cartoon Network hit Adventure Time unfurls — an apparently apocalyptic Earth now named Ooo — grew organically as the program developed from short-to-series-to what the New Yorker would describe as “one of the most philosophically risky and, often, emotionally affecting shows on TV.” Like a coral reef, new branches formed on top of old nubs on top of old lumps to create something gorgeous, intricate, and distinctly unplanned.
Neither weighed down by the Tolkienesque seriousness of high fantasy nor falling victim to surrealist cartooning’s susceptibility for the etiolated anomie of reference and randomness, Adventure Time takes small ideas and makes them large, building its vividly realized universe from the bottom up. If this is a show about an evil wizard who “steals” — to use the idiom of hero Finn the Human — princesses, then why might he do that? And since his theft is repeated, and involves princesses, plural, then who are these other princesses? What are they like and what do they do?
Adventure Time did not begin as a political fantasy in the mode of Game of Thrones, but in its ever-expanding exploration of the world that is Ooo, politics became necessary to incorporate. Cities and states were introduced, and leaders likewise to rule over them. Militaries came into existence, and sometimes they engaged in wars. People turned out to be polities. Power became something prized and something to be struggled for and fought over.
It should be no surprise that Adventure Time would treat its politics as sensitively as it did its other concerns, but it is nonetheless remarkable how complex it has allowed its political intrigue to become over its development as a series.
As we shall see, Ooo’s political landscape is shaped by specific power constructions and conceptions of authority and statecraft. These have a notable gendered quality; the show portrays stability and civilisation as feminine constructions, contrasting them with a chaotic and unruly masculinity. The result is a series with an understanding of power relations often sympathetic to ideas of feminism and at odds with patriarchal structures.
This is apparent from the first proper episode of the series, by which time damsel-in-distress Princess Bubblegum had developed from the helpless and all-but-silent plot coupon she represented in the original six-minute animated short to become a veritable ruler complete with a kingdom, subjects, and responsibilities. She is also shown to be a highly capable scientist — because, in the spirit of the show’s carefree approach to world-building, why shouldn’t a fairytale princess also be a teenage chemistry whiz? As a ruler, Bubblegum is endowed with greater and greater powers as the series progresses: she maintains national security and law enforcement in the form of the Banana Guard, is regularly shown to be a patriotic symbol charged with maintaining national morale and unity, and willing to place the maintenance of state power over sentimental or moral concerns.
As with the Candy Kingdom, so too with the show’s other nations; rule-by-princess is the predominant form of government in Ooo, certainly in terms of international and economic influence, if not actually in terms of ubiquity. The show invariably depicts kingdoms ruled by princesses as culturally sophisticated and cosmopolitan societies characterised by an institutional order and liberal modernity paralleling that of the real life Western world.
The Candy Kingdom, the closest thing Ooo has to a hegemonic power, is an economically diverse city-state with advanced infrastructure and wealth dispersed widely amongst the citizenry. Slime Kingdom, while aesthetically unpleasant, has Ooo’s only “triple-cray” rated disco, suggesting cultural vibrancy and the possibility of a thriving tourist industry. Lumpy Space parodies American suburbia. Wildberry Kingdom has a market economy and “upper middle class” teenagers, though the season six episode “Furniture & Meat” suggests Wildberry Princess’s rule can be capricious and authoritarian — a guard threatens Finn and Jake with harsh punishment for trivial crimes and the kingdom’s monarch later sentences the pair to execution. Even the more marginally interesting princess-ruled kingdoms are apparently innocuous and peaceful — think, for example of the fenced-in yard that forms Hot Dog Princess’s domain.
Reinforcing the desirability of the princess-ruled kingdom as a system of government is the comity that exists between these kingdoms. Season One’s “The Duke” introduces the Grand Meeting of Ooo Royalty, an international body that meets regularly as an “Ooo version of the G8 summit.”
Princess Day, as portrayed in the eponymous Season Six episode, draws an even stronger link between princess authority and international institutional order. The host of the meeting portrayed in that episode, Breakfast Princess, details an agenda of defense, economic, and diplomatic issues to be resolved by the body: “Brigands have been attacking our western seaports, dozens of unregistered princesses roam the land, and trade deficits are at an all-time high.” The meeting’s proceedings are by no means orderly, and it is doubtful these issues were resolved given the subsequent kidnapping of the host, but the existence of these diplomatic structures suggests a well-functioning international princess community.
By contrast, the show portrays states outside the princess system as invariably hostile, chaotic, or dysfunctional. The Ice King’s territory is a lunatic wasteland of snow and penguins. The Hunson Abedeer–ruled Nightosphere is a literally hellish underworld where life is, in the classic Hobbesian formation, nasty, brutish, and short. Elsewhere, the nation established by the Earl of Lemongrab is a harsh kleptocracy in which daily life is shaped by the capricious cruelties and paranoias of its ruler. Even less explicitly horrifying realms external to the princess system are characterised by a pervasive sinisterness: the decaying City of Thieves, for instance, or the City of Goblins, which is marked by archaic medievalism.
Even the predominantly male Wizard City, while apparently vibrant and commercially thriving, is cloistered, hostile to outsiders, and regulated by draconian law enforcement empowered to inflict severe punishments without judicial oversight. Ooo’s most stable and cosmopolitan societies are, without fail, those governed benevolently by matriarchal monarchies.
The gendered nature of this political divide appears not to be coincidence. In Adventure Time’s conception, femininity and princess-status are nearly synonymous; all girls are princesses. This isn’t only illustrated by the frequency by which princesses appear compared to non-royal female characters — apart from the stray candy commoner, or oddball outsiders like Tree Trunks or Maja the Sky Witch, they are few and far between — but by the way the characters talk about princesses.
In “Prisoners of Love,” Ice King explains his obsession with “stealing princesses.” “I collect princesses because I want to marry one,” he explains when Finn demands know why he’s “keeping these girls prisoner.” Later, he laments, “I try so hard to be a good husband for girls” (emphasis added). Ice King doesn’t abduct princesses because he seeks their power or status, but because he considers them synonymous with femininity.
Finn does too: in “Love Games” he announces to Jake that he will re-dedicate himself to bachelorhood by renouncing interest in princesses specifically: “the time has come to stop dating princesses, and return to savin' 'em.” His crises of chivalry in “Loyalty to the King” come in the form of a fear he’s treating women poorly, which he phrases in terms of treating royalty poorly: “Princesses are suppose to be treated with niceness,” he says. “We can’t beat up princesses.”
The show’s endorsement of matriarchy as preferable to patriarchal rule is exemplified by the ongoing saga of the Fire Kingdom, which is worthy of close examination on both governance and gender grounds because it dramatizes an internal power struggle within an Ooo kingdom and portrays its effects on surroundings realms.
The Fire Kingdom is the nation of a race of anthropomorphized fire beings; it is an environment so hostile to life as we know it that non-flame people cannot enter without taking precautionary measures in the form of protective armor or magical spells. When we are first introduced to the kingdom, it is ruled by the Flame King, a psychotic and mercurial tyrant who took power after murdering his brother. An archetypal strongman, Flame King’s nation is typical of a male-ruled Ooo kingdom: it is chaotic, violent, and hostile to outsiders.
Like all autocrats, Flame King guards zealously against challengers to his power and quashes rebellion ruthlessly. He sentences a disguised Finn and Jake to death after they discuss an assassination threat against him in a theatrical performance and he orders his daughter to be “sent into the wilderness of the outside world to perish” after hearing that she will be stronger than him.
That daughter, Flame Princess, proves destructive enough when allowed to wander outside her own country to capture the attention of Princess Bubblegum. Bubblegum, as ruler of Ooo’s hegemonic power, is eager to neutralize the threat posed by Flame Princess, and her technique is an exercise in realpolitik: she negotiates directly with Flame King to have his daughter imprisoned.
The scene is notable for what Bubblegum does not do: in spite of the existence of prior-mentioned established international decision-making fora — the Grand Meeting of Ooo Royalty or the Princess Day conference — Bubblegum acts unilaterally to neutralise the danger of an unrestrained and unfettered fire-being roaming the world. Typical of unilateral action, her impulse was comprehensible: Bubblegum’s response was decisive and unconstrained by the bureaucratic delays and disputes of negotiated decision-making. Also typical of unilateral action, hers lacked the legitimacy conveyed by international institutions and subsequently created unforeseen consequences.
As well as disregarding existing international institutions, in responding to the threat posed by Flame Princess, Bubblegum explicitly weighted national self-interest over ethical considerations. “Find some way to contain her power or I will,” she tells Flame King, and the solution comes in the form of a subsequently negotiated imprisonment of Flame Princess that sacrifices her personal liberty for political stability.
Like the United States cutting a deal with a two-bit dictator to ensure temporary peace, Bubblegum’s plan backfires. She creates resentment in the rebelling force — Flame Princess — and undermines her own moral authority. When Flame Princess leads a coup and takes control of the Fire Kingdom, Bubblegum’s influence in the region is lost, weakening her international authority. In the season five episode “The Red Throne,” when the Flame King tries to reassert his power, Flame Princess refuses to consider Bubblegum as a source of support. “I don’t trust her,” she avers. Her consigliore Cinnamon Bun, a Candy Kingdom expatriate, agrees: “She’s devious.”
While the Fire Kingdom has not yet achieved the cosmopolitan good standing of Ooo’s other princess-led kingdoms, the transition from patriarchal to matriarchal power seems to have fostered some level of liberalisation. Flame Princess’s diktat of universal honesty as the law of the land is a megalomaniacal transformation of personal trauma into public policy, but as a social organizing principle it is more honourable and internally consistent than the recurrent treachery that characterized her father’s rule.
Flame King saw his people as invariably evil, whereas Flame Princess perceives them as merely “weak and vicious,” and able to be constrained by her. And while her rule has not changed the fact that everyone in the kingdom is “deceitful and Shakespearean” — as evidenced by the coup her father attempts — the flame people celebrate Cinnamon Bun’s argument that she’s a worthy ruler who “may not be the most ruthless of all despots, but she is strong where it really counts—in her heart.” The citizenry prefers a compassionate princess to a violent king.
Notably, even Ooo’s most liberal, princess-governed societies are not democracies. The instruments of politics here do not extend to electioneering. The dangerous introduction of the volatile Goliad and the hysterical Lemongrab to Ooo both arose from Bubblegum’s attempts to find a mechanism to maintain her power beyond her lifespan — she is apparently uninterested in devolving governmental authority to the Candy people themselves. And the show endorses this hoarding of power amongst the elite; the Candy subjects are shown to be childlike, naïve, and naturally subservient. Bubblegum towers above them: a parent in stature as well as in practice.
A chronicle of life after armageddon, much of Adventure Time is concerned with the civil structures in which its unfolding story takes place, and politics is a crucial component of this creation of a new normalcy. It echoes traditional myth and fantasy in its patchwork of monarchical kingdoms and international intrigue. But its inversion of these old stories is important too; in Ooo, princesses are neither marginal nor ornamental, but the source of power and stability. Princesses have become the last best hope of the post-apocalyptic world.