I lay down beside my three-year old daughter last night because she woke up calling for me in the middle of the night. At some point, she smacks me in the face with her arm, which awakens me,
and she whispers to me,
“Mommy, let me be a princess?”
My heart sank a little, and even though I knew she was half asleep, I asked, “Why do you want to be a princess?”
“Because I love it so,” she replied, fastening her thumb back into her mouth and falling asleep again.
This conversation, albeit short and to the point, jarred me, saddened me. I don’t want my daughter to be a princess; I don’t want her to be girly or silly, or anything that is attributed to princess idolatry. I want her to be strong and intelligent, fiery and confident. I want her to play sports, with the boys, Annie Oakley’s tune “Anything you can do, I can do better,” embedded in her head and springing forth from her vocal chords in daily recitations of her strength and empowerment. I want her walls to be plastered with quotes from famous writers and feminists, degrees and awards bumping and edging against one another and nailed to her walls in permanence, reminding her every day that she is a woman, an intelligent, confident, superior woman who can do anything that men can do, and she can even do it better than they have done it.
Princesses don’t send these messages. Princesses are physically perfect, sweet, lovely to look at, and demure. They are compliant, one-dimensional, and helpless until the Prince they have been waiting for comes out of nowhere, usually upon a horse, to save them from their troubles. And even though Disney has updated its perspective on Princesses to fit the changes in time and young girls’ attitudes, we are still stuck with the same archetype of femininity: we all strive to achieve, to no avail, until we meet Prince Charming — it is only when he comes along that our journey begins. It is only through him — his tenacity, his virility — that we are able to discover ourselves and our femininity. Let’s look at some contemporary examples:
Beauty and the Beast: Belle, a bookworm seeking adventures, struggles in a provincial town until she meets the Beast. It is only when she meets him that her adventures begin, and really she is powerless throughout the movie, since she is his prisoner. Of course, all ends happily when he turns into a gorgeous Prince — Would she have stayed with him if he had remained the Beast? And could she have had adventures that did not include men?
The Little Mermaid: Ariel is a beautiful mermaid who seeks adventures and explores the ocean against her protective father’s will. She is a collector of human objects because she wants to be human, but her true adventure doesn’t begin until she sees Eric. It is only when she sees him that she wants to truly be human. In the end, he saves her from the sea witch and despite her free spirit and adventurous soul, she settles down with a Prince just to live a domestic life as a Princess.
The Princess and The Frog: Here we have our very first black Princess, who is not really a Princess; she is the complete opposite: poor and disadvantaged. Tiana works hard to save enough money so that she can buy and run her own restaurant — which was also her father’s dream. She is not looking for love, or a Prince to save her, but her adventure only begins when the frog — a lazy and good-for-nothing Prince comes along for a kiss that will make them both rich and royal. She works too hard and doesn’t have any fun — he is too lazy and has too much fun — and together they fall in love and balance one another out — but why is working too hard and being single-sighted and ambitious such a bad thing for Tiana? Is it because she’s a girl? If she were the Prince, there would be no story to tell — ambition and single-minded hunger for success are innate, supposedly.
Tangled: Disney’s new and contemporary version of Rapunzel, she is feisty and beautiful, but she has lived in her tower all her life until fun-loving bandit Flyn Rider comes along. Again, her adventures don’t begin until a man finds refuge in her prison tower, and it is not until she falls in love with him that she endeavors to escape her prison walls, discover adventure and herself, and fulfill her dreams.
Unlike the old-fashioned models of the soft-spoken, docile, and patient Princesses like Cinderella, Snow white, and Sleeping Beauty, today’s princesses are similarly beautiful — but they are also strong, intelligent, and confident. However, their adventures are dependent on the men that “save” them. Being independent and empowered is not enough in the minds of those who continue to make these movies and revamp old stories of young girls — Like Sleeping Beauty, they are all asleep, trapped within the confines of society’s norms and limited definitions for femininity and girlhood — They may be smart, educated, and capable of taking care of themselves, but they still need a man, a prince, to awaken them. Men bring them the adventures they desire to have for themselves in order to grow and develop into women, which is unachievable without the presence of a strong and fun-loving male – whether he is a Prince, a bandit, or a lazy leech. The Princess dares not become Queen without a King to guide her towards womanhood — and this is the subtle messages these Princesses and their Princes send to our little girls.
Question: How do you address the Princess issue with your daughters? Is it even an issue?