My Problem With Princesses
“The problem with princesses is threefold: their aesthetics, their functionality and their relationship with meritocracy.”
I don’t like princesses. I don’t want my daughter called “princess.” I would rather she not play with “princess” things, both those that are bona fide accoutrements of the throne (e.g. a tiara) and those that are merely decorated or marketed as such (e.g. a Cinderella toothbrush). If I had my way, she would never, not once, take to the streets as a three foot tall version of Snow White, bedecked in a satin, gold-sequin-trimmed costume with glitter detail.
Before you cast aspersion on my dismissal of an entire category of plaything, mode of dress and term of endearment, know this: I haven’t just banned princesses from the house willy-nilly. When fate handed me a daughter amidst three sons, I did my homework. I read my Peggy Orenstein (among others) to find out why—not just that—princesses suck. The problem with princesses, as I see it, is threefold: their aesthetics, their functionality and their relationship with meritocracy. Taken together, these reasons have convinced me that a princess is neither a healthy nor a desirable role model for my daughter.
The aesthetic issue is obvious enough, thank you Disney and your billion dollar industry. Princesses seem to come in one size and one shape only, as if being impossibly thin and having perfect hair are requisites for the title. Princesses can have different colored hair, of course, but it has to be long, unless it is possessed of magical powers and cut off to save her life. They wear dresses mainly or other impractical clothes, even while slinging arrows on the back of a charging horse or trekking up a mountain through the snow. Their eyes are caught-in-the-headlights large, their noses resemble something of a button and their bone structure is spot-on symmetrical. It should go without saying that this is not an attainable look for most girls.
Conventionally beautiful and impeccably dressed, princesses don’t really have to do anything. Except be kind or be kissed or catch a husband. This is the functionality issue. Traditionally, the life goal for princesses is to find true love (with a man). Often it involves being saved by the selfsame man and living happily ever after as a wife and, one suspects, not much else. To be fair, Disney’s recent royals are a little more go get ’em. But even for firecrackers like Rapunzel, Merida and Anna, so much of their raison d’Ãªtre is interpersonal. It’s not that their quests are unimportant: discovering your birth parents, rejecting an arranged marriage, reuniting with your sister, these are worthwhile causes indeed. It’s that they are the stuff, rather, of stereotypical feminine and domestic concern. (Mulan and Tiana are perhaps the exceptions that prove the rule here and are, unsurprisingly, among the least popular Disney Princesses).
The meritocracy issue is the fact that princesses must either be born into their title or marry into it. This tends to be overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant, especially by Americans who have no culture of royalty, but how you come to be who you are is never insignificant as a lesson for children. In the same way we can contrast a princess’ functionality with an astronaut’s or a policeman’s (typical “boy” things), so too we can consider how she got her position with respect to these other professions. A princess does not earn her princess-ness through intelligence or diligence: you can’t knuckle down to become Queen. Princesses are elevated creatures by dumb luck, not by true grit.
And yet, despite all of this, “it has become nearly impossible for girls of a certain age not to own a few Princess trinkets,” Orenstein writes in Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Ah, but Cinderella will not be making a meal of my daughter, I thought smugly, as I read those words a little over a year ago, glancing at a toy chest remarkably devoid of sparkle.
That smugness lasted about six months, my fall from grace a reminder of how even the best laid, mom-made theories can crumble in light of little mouths begging and little eyes crying. For as soon as my daughter turned the corner of three, things started appearing in her room, as if by the wave of a wand. Magazines she had persuaded her father to buy, called, somewhat unimaginatively, “Princess Magazine.” A plastic tiara her grandmother had gifted her, or maybe it was the babysitter, beset with a huge magenta jewel in the middle. And now that she has pinpointed the common denominator of this new toddler lust, the requests for “princesses” are raining down in earnest. She wants a princess castle for her birthday. She wants to be a princess for Halloween, with a princess dress, not Anna’s sadly, but Elsa’s, the one she wears after she morphs from Swiss Alp girl into Barbie look-alike.
Though most of us believe, deep-down, that our influence on our children will prove a force above nature, I was prepared for this, to some degree. Three years old is a watershed moment for gender identity. It is a formative time, when children are learning not only that gender is a defining characteristic, but that it is a fixed one. This period is associated with an exaggerated amount of gender-typical behavior and toy choices, a torrent of pink and blue as it were, and it’s actually a normal part of development. At this age, a report by Princeton Univesity concludes, “girls’ love of pink, frilly dresses may be viewed as a kind of obsession linked to developing knowledge about social categories.”
It’s typical for feminist mothers whose little girls have turned, seemingly overnight, into bundles of fuchsia and frill to wonder where they’ve gone wrong. The truth is they haven’t, we haven’t. Letting our daughters wear frothy cotton-candy-colored frocks, however, is a different beast from encouraging them to identify as Sleeping Beauty. The first might be unpalatable; the second raises alarm bells. My daughter will be disappointed when I don’t buy the princess costume for which she’s asked. But if saying no now means preventing her, even in some small way, from internalizing the message that she is the sum total of the luster of her hair and the circumference of her waist and the ability to marry well, then that’s a price I am willing to pay.