According to theologian A. Elaine Brown Crawford, “moral evil,” the “evil that results from human choice and acts of free will” (12) can be
expressed through [...] socially constructed acts of evil. Socially constructed evil devalues, dehumanizes, and marginalizes particular groups of peoples. Its pattern of relationships is hierarchical, subordinating the dignity of one group to another. (12)
In A Princess in Theory it is clear that Naledi is subordinated because of her identities. As a Black woman she is not treated like an equal and “a normal human” (Cole 2018, 5). Instead, when she began a new job as a laboratory assistant she was initially asked “to take out the trash more frequently” because her supervisor, Brian, assumed “she was the cleaning woman” (4). Even after her status was clarified he “often stopped to explain basic concepts to Ledi—and Ledi alone—during lab meetings, while asking Kevin, the newbie, for his advice on how things should be run” (4) and, despite her adoption of a “pleasant but deferential tone that seemed to edify him” she still runs the risk that he will accuse her of “giving him attitude” (5). Her life, then, involves her being repeatedly patronised and assumed to be both ignorant and uppity.
There are many readers who, like Naledi, find that their gender, social class, ethnic/racial origin, or a combination of these, render them lesser in the eyes of society. Their “wildest dreams” (360) may in some senses be both very modest and revolutionary. Pamela Fox has argued with regards to early-twentieth-century working-class women authors in the UK that “The romance plot comes into play [...] to represent a utopian private arena in which one is valued for one's gendered ‘self’ alone” (142). The “prince” represents a further development of this wish, of women’s “wildest dreams” to also be valued outside that “utopian private arena”: marriage to a prince is a metaphor for gaining societal validation, for being seen and recognised by all as an intrinsically precious, unique human being. Cole’s discussion of her work suggests that this longing exists because many women, and particularly “women of color [...] grew up in societies that told them they weren’t beautiful or wanted — that the happily ever after ending was not for them. They are taught [...] their greatest value is in how much they can endure or how useful they are to others” (Cole 2018a).
Naledi’s situation is compounded by the fact that she grew up in foster care, trying to make herself “useful to her foster parents. People didn’t get rid of things they found useful. In theory, that is” (Cole 2018, 81). She is also burdened with extra work by others in her lab, perhaps partly due to her wish to be useful, but also due to the intersection of sexism and racism, which ensure that “men make life harder for women who say no, especially women who look like me [...] STEM is already hard to navigate—being marked as someone who doesn’t work well in teams or contribute enough could tank my career” (81). Naledi therefore works “hard—so much harder than she should have had to, really” (6). Her waitressing job brings her no more respect. Though she herself describes waitressing as “physically demanding, and sometimes emotionally, but [...] not rocket science” (37) it is, like many so-called 'low-skilled' jobs, considerably more difficult than many, including Thabiso, would assume: he
had thought he was fit and had stamina, but he was drenched in sweat, he’d pulled something in his back while attempting to lift a heavy tray, and [...] Plating up food correctly and serving it to the right person without error was not quite as simple as he’d imagined. (52-54)
Not enough people are granted this type of insight, however, so Naledi is “used to people thinking she wasn’t capable of comprehending things” (37). She is, then, repeatedly placed in a position where she is undervalued and unappreciated and “living in the dark” (218). Thabiso, however, “is offering to bring her into the light, and that would change everything” (218). Thabiso, as “Bringer of Light” both takes Naledi into a place of emotional lightness, where she has visible connections to others, and also puts her into the spotlight, so that she can be seen and acknowledged as a princess. That “moment when Africa’s Most Eligible Bachelor introduced his betrothed” (236) to the waiting crowds matters, not because Naledi seeks fame, but because it is a moment in which it is declared and accepted publicly that someone who has previously been exploited and only expected to provide services to others, is in fact valuable and worthwhile as a human being.
Cole’s novel is, then, an affirmation she provides to her readers of their worth as individuals: this novel is dedicated to “all the people who were told they couldn’t be princesses: you always were one.” The hope expressed by the novel is that they will be recognised as such by others. At very least, as Cole stated in an interview,
when you finish a good romance — you feel full of hope and that the world is full of possibilities. Even if everything felt really shitty when you first picked up the book, you’re like, Okay, the world itself does not change, but by reading this book I feel somewhat better. I feel better in myself and I feel like there is something good in the world. It can be like medicine for your spirit. (Green)
Ensuring that readers can experience these moments of hope is part of the pastoral care romance fiction provides.
The metaphor of the prince can also express faith in the ecstatic prospect of love at first sight and perfect, instant compatibility. In Cole’s novel this aspect of the metaphor is not emphasised, but rather the figure of the prince is used primarily to express legalistic hopes of finding a better way to live within society. In the next chapter I will examine two other metaphors of hope which are much more ecstatic in nature. They express hope that love’s goodness is so great it can save even those who feel themselves to be, or are felt by others to be, great dangers to society. These metaphors cast a protagonist as a devil, or as one of the damned. As such, they are in many ways the dangerous opposites of princes: they offer emotional risk rather than security.