Know When to Fold ‘Em: Princess Principal and the feel-good feminism of “Loudly Laundry”

By: Dee September 8, 20176 Comments

In case you missed us gushing about it on the mid-season check-in podcast, we’re pretty fond of Princess Principal here at Anime Feminist. It’s an entertaining spy caper with an unexpectedly progressive core, not just because of its cast of capable, complex female leads and light yuri undertones (although all of that is pretty great), but also because of its central focus on tearing down barriers. Some of those barriers are literal, like the wall that splits alternate-history London into two warring nation-states, but most of them are figurative, dealing with the sharp social and economic divisions present in this world.

Many of Princess Principal’s stories discuss the hardships inherent in these divisions, such as the poverty that’s influenced many characters’ lives or the walls that prevented our two protagonists from being together. All of that is valuable, as it both shows how these barriers negatively impact individuals and helps explain why Princess Charlotte is so determined to change things. But it’s the upbeat and inspiring Episode 7, “Loudly Laundry,” that offers perhaps the show’s most nuanced depiction of inequality to date, asking our central cast to acknowledge their own privilege—and encouraging them to find a better way forward.

Women in working-class Victorian clothing stand at tables covered in white shirts while a man, shown from behind, stands before them

As the episode title suggests, the story finds our characters infiltrating a laundry mill in order to track down a dangerous terrorist. It’s easy to forget in a story about female spies that the power our main cast wields is a rarity in this world, but the laundry mill brings those gender divisions into sharp focus: the mill is run entirely by women (because “men don’t do laundry,” as Ange notes), with the exception of a male foreman who is largely absent and utterly incompetent.

Once they join the mill’s staff, Chise, the Japanese exchange-spy, becomes our primary perspective character. While the rest of the characters are native to England and many grew up in poverty, Chise is an outsider who seems to have lived a life of relative economic comfort. Her upbringing and limited perspective are reflected in her early attitudes about the mill. When the shoddy machines break down and de facto headwoman Marilla orders everyone to take a break, Chise complains that the girls are “lazy.” She pins their low output on their attitudes and argues that they just need to work harder.

A dark-haired girl holds an iron as if keeping it out of a taller brunette's reach. The two stare at each other. Text: "Why would you not give everything your best effort?"

Thankfully, rather than agreeing with Chise’s “bootstrap” mentality, Princess Principal exposes her privilege and ignorance. It turns out the machines at the laundry mill are poorly maintained thanks to the neglectful foreman, and if the workers don’t let them rest it leads to mechanical errors and accidents.

It isn’t until Chise sees the burn scars on two of the women’s arms (and finds out they’re paid daily and not hourly, meaning they have no financial reason to risk their lives for their livelihoods) that she finally understands it isn’t about “laziness,” but about practical limitations and self-preservation. “If we get hurt, we can’t earn money,” Marilla tells her. “We may not like it, but we do what we can to get on.”

A dark-haired girl in Victorian working-class clothing holds a white cloth in one hand and a girl's arm in the other, looking at the burn scars on the girl's arm. The girl in glasses flushes and smiles faintly.

In addition to those dangerous working conditions, we soon learn that the foreman is also deeply in debt and planning to close the laundry mill to save his own skin. His poor management almost loses a number of women their jobs, but fortunately Princess Charlotte sweeps in to buy the mill from him. This is framed as a strategic move, as it’s easier for our spies if they can stay at this same laundry mill until they’ve completed their mission, but it’s also heavily implied that she does this to keep the other workers employed.

Charlotte wields her power to help others, and the rest of the team soon follows suit. With the laundry mill under their control, they each pitch in to make the mill safer and improve efficiency. Beatrice fixes the faulty machines, Ange streamlines the work path, and Dorothy launches a Sales Team, teaching some of the girls how to use their wits and charms to bring in new clients. Profits go up, and—because Charlotte is a leader who empowers instead of exploits—so do everyone’s wages.

A front view of women in a "Little Lambs Laundry" truck; a brunette is driving while the others smile beside her, wearing flower crowns

Fittingly for a series that’s so dedicated to removing barriers, Chise also helps to improve the laundry mill through some cheerful cultural exchange. She introduces the women to Japanese working methods—like singing to create a coordinated rhythm (and a more pleasant workplace) and using hachimaki headbands to “rouse our fighting spirit”—which the English workers happily adopt.

Chise could have kept thumbing her nose at the workers and demanding they just “work harder” despite the dangers (as many people sadly do), but instead she acknowledges her misconceptions and tries to make reparations. Like Charlotte and the other spies, Chise uses her education and experiences to support other women instead of judging them for conditions outside their control. It’s an important reminder to any audience member with their own set of privileges (be those economic or otherwise), as well as an example of how to learn from mistakes and take actions to fix them.

A brunette with freckles and a dark-haired woman wearing a white headband look down at a task off-screen

Of course our spies do have to complete their mission and move on to new jobs, so once they catch the terrorist they quickly remove themselves from the other workers’ lives. Charlotte once again demonstrates why she’s a leader worth following, as instead of maintaining control over the mill from a distance (like the previous foreman), she hands the reigns over to Marilla, much to the rest of the staff’s delight.

This promotion highlights an important fact: the laundry mill workers don’t need to be led by a princess. They always had the raw ability to handle the work on their own, they just lacked the training and resources needed to enact all these changes. Charlotte’s team undeniably has more money, influence, and business knowledge, but where many might use that power to control or abuse others, they pass on their skills and share their experiences, lifting people up instead of shoving them down. And now that the laundry mill workers also have the tools and training, they’re more than capable of leading themselves.

Women in Victorian working-classes dresses look excitedly at an open-mouthed woman standing at the center of the group. Text: "Marilla? Our foreman? Then we've nothing to worry about!"

“Loudly Laundry” is 23 solid minutes of women supporting other women in the workplace, and it warmed me right down to the soles of my feet. Better still, it’s an intelligent exploration of privilege and power structures, as well as an excellent depiction of how the values of intersectional feminism can be used to benefit others (although the series is admittedly, sadly low on characters of color, so it’s not a perfect example by any means).

Charlotte and her team have their own battles to fight and walls to topple, to be sure, but just because they’re still climbing a ladder doesn’t mean they’re on the bottom rung. This episode reminds them and the audience that economic and social inequalities create divisions among genders as much as they do between genders, and that true progress isn’t just about empowering ourselves, but using what power we do have to help others do the same. Princess Principal offers a positive, inspiring example of how best to do that, giving me just one more reason to love this unexpected jewel of a series.

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