Monday, February 7, 2011

on being a princess

There is an interesting article posted on NPR this week about little girls who suddenly must be princesses: Saving Our Daughters From An Army of Princesses. This mother is considering whether her daughter is choosing to be a princess or being railroaded into it... I suppose it's appropriate to use the term railroaded because when this child went to nursery school the first day in her favorite train engineer outfit, carrying her Thomas the Tank Engine lunch box, a little boy yelled, "Girls don't like trains."  Not long afterward, she wouldn't even wear pants to school. 

I find this disturbing.

Now, I don't believe that dressing up as a princess is a bad thing.  I dressed up as a princess for Halloween at least once, and I remember that at 5 I loved to draw princesses with ball gowns with big puffy sleeves.  I even had a Cinderella watch.

I also have to say that I am quite sure that playing princess is not impossible to combine with a little more rough-and-tumble activity.  One of my goddaughters, who has three older brothers, loves her pink and sparkles and princess outfits.  Or she did; I think she may be getting a bit old for that now.  But she could (can?!) also play in the mud with the best of them.   I have a picture of her dressed in a pink princess outfit and sitting on a toy motorcycle. That's my goddaughter, all right.  And I love it.

I've always been, however, a bit more for the unusual princesses in children's books.  I have always loved, for example, The Paper Bag Princess, in which the princess rescues the prince from a dragon with great creativity.  I enjoy The Ordinary Princess, though it is not as far from a typical, traditional princess story.  I also seem to remember a fantasy book of my sister's in which the princess hasn't much use for being married off to the first prince her parents can find and so goes off to be the librarian for a local dragon for a while.  When princes come to rescue her, she usually manages to get rid of them, since at least at first they seem to be no one any self-respecting young woman would care to marry.  I believe she learns to be a wizard and otherwise take care of herself as well, but I don't remember the details.

And then there is the musical Once Upon a Mattress, which, when I was in the high school orchestra playing for the show, made me laugh all the way through it from the beginning of rehearsals to the end of the performances.  (Good lines included, from the princess, "Does your mother ever say anything other than 'You swam the moat?!'?" and, from the prince, the song "I'm in love with a girl named Fred.")

Perhaps I like the humor in all of them.  Perhaps I like the unfussiness of these princesses and their can-do, independent attitude.  I assume most real princesses are much more like this than like Disney or fairy-tale princesses.

Just think Princess Leia in the original Star Wars movies (minus the appalling scenes with Jabba the Hut, which I prefer to forget for so very many reasons) rather than Disney's version of Sleeping Beauty.

And in all honesty, I can say that if I had it to do over, I would still get up in the middle of the night to watch Princess Di marrying Prince Charles, even as badly as it turned out.

So what's the problem?  I guess, following ten years teaching in a boarding school for girls, that I am concerned that this separation between boys and girls so early on is not only trying on identity and having fun with dressing up, but also limiting in options.  As long as our girls can dress up as princesses AND dress up as train engineers without being made fun of, I'm happy.  I am just sad that it doesn't seem to be as automatic as one might think.  And pity the poor boy who is being made fun of for stepping out of assigned gender roles (just google Princess Boy if you don't believe me).  I was pleased - I think - to note that at least  Disney World's Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique has packages for boys.  I wonder what they'd do if a boy wanted to be a princess or a girl wanted to be a knight. Hm.

I am also wary because the need to be a princess is much more culturally important among little American girls than it used to be thanks to the ever-present marketing of Walt Disney.  There was a recent article about this in the NYTimes, I think, but I can't find it.  However,  How Disney Princess Works is rather enlightening. But these little girls seem to be enjoying a Perfectly Princess Tea at Disney World: Be a princess for a day at Disney World.  And they say you can go to another place to be a pirate.  I bet they do let girls be pirates, at least!  I think I would have enjoyed all three costumes, to be perfectly honest, with or without marketing. I just don't remember anyone talking about being a princess when I was little (back when the earth was cooling, you know, just before the era in which princesses and knights fought dinosaurs instead of dragons).
Of course, I'm not a mother.  And neither was the author of the article above which sparked this post when she first developed her opinions.  As she put it, "Oh, how the mighty fall."  It's easy to have opinions when you don't have children...  And then when you do, they have their own personalities and opinions, right from the start.  It rather reminds me of the old comic strip "Cathy" when Cathy's feminist friend Andrea has a daughter who chooses a Bride of Rambo Halloween costume.

You mothers of girls out there, reading this, I'd be interested in hearing your take on this. Comments from experience?


  1. I think we should all stop worrying. Maybe the book has more, but this clip offers only anxiety and worry. I think it says more about the mother than the daughter. It is as likely that princesses are going to turn our girls into helpless maidens as it is that videogames are going to turn our boys into murderous lunatics. Everybody take a deep breath, and realize that the younger generation has been going to hell in a handbasket for thousands of years. It's right there in the Bible. You can look it up. :-)

    Princesses are a phase, probably because it comes at an age when girls are trying to figure out what it means to be a girl. My daughter was the original girly girl -- pink dresses, princess outfits, princess sheets, breakfast with Disney princesses. And now she is figuring out to get into Harvard and Tufts, and planning for the day when she has her own veterinary practice. We recently took down the princess curtains and repainted her room sky blue; she prefers blue to pink. She even wears a couple hand-me-down sweatshirts from her brother.

    I played with Barbie growing up, and I'm now preparing to be ordained a priest -- a job women just didn't hold when I was small. Indeed, I was 6 before the Episcopal Church even permitted women to be ordained. And yet, here I am.

    My babysitter, Gwen, did the princess thing too, and she's now, in her second year of college, running the campus shuttle system as second in command, giving drunk college kids a ride and what-for, as needed. If princess passion (not to mention years of ballet) made her a "girlie girl," it's of the "not taking any of your #$%S" variety.

    When Eric was two, I bought him a baby doll. Over the next few years, I observed how what he did with the toy, and then what his sister did with it. Eric and his cousin Wyatt would take the doll outside, and an hour later I'd find it naked face down in the mud. Give it to Becky and her cousin Amelia, and an hour later it was bathed, dressed, given a bottle, and tucked into bed. (And let's note, for the record, that Wyatt and Amelia's primary caregiver was their dad.) I do not think that proves Eric will be a bad father. I think it just means boys and girls can be different. So what?

    Children are far more resilient and far more individual than we give them credit for. They are not blank slates for us to write on, and princess dresses will not turn a strong-willed girl into a simpering, helpless Snow White. My hunch is that every girl everywhere goes through a phase where she tries on an exaggerated gender role, but if we were all stuck in what we tried on at 2, most of us wouldn't be who we are today. Far more influential than Disney princesses are the ways we see our mothers and our fathers interacting with the world and each other. So what the heck? By the time she's 6 or 7, she won't be caught dead in a princess dress anyway. Let her try it on and discover where it doesn't fit comfortably, where it constrains and even annoys. (And enjoy it while it lasts, because it's fun!) Personally, I think girls -- and kids in general -- do better when we are willing to let them dream their own dreams, instead of insisting they dream the dreams we approve for them, even when that means princess dresses instead of Little League. But feel free to ask me again in 10 years!

    And feel free to check out my blog post on Tiger Moms, my daughter, and Little League at !

  2. I am a mother of a self proclaimed queen (she had her own imaginary island that she ruled!) who can hunt, fish, ride and muck a stall with the best of them! Our daughter has grown into a confident, smart, compassionate young Christian woman who spent a lot of time watching Cinderella. She knows how to dress, walk and speak beautifully and has a passion for all things lovely. She is strong in her opinions and not afraid to voice them! The point is she is who she is regardless if we had put Thomas in her hands or a tiara on her head!

  3. You all are making me happy. (-:

  4. Sarah LarsonFebruary 08, 2011

    As a mom who was deeply involved in the anti-war movement in the late 60's, I swore my sons would never play with GI Joes or have play guns. Well, I backed off when I learned that GI Joe and action figures were the lingua franca of boyhood. I held firm on the guns, only to watch sticks of various sizes turn into a bloody arsenal. All three of my sons grew up to be warm, caring, and peaceful (within the rubric of being guys).

    When I read the princess article, I had a number of reactions:

    1) Wouldn't it be more profitable for the mother to participate in princess-hood with her daughter, rather than turn this into an abstract exercise in worrying? The woman next door to me, at the insistence of her daughters, was the "brue" princess to their purple and yellow princesses. They would dress up in an appropriately colored gown and have adventures.

    2) If the author has so little faith in her skills as a mother, can't she at least have faith in her daughter? Children take what they see and transform it by imagination into something that helps them learn and grow.

    3) Somebody hasn't been paying enough attention to the Disney princesses. They are a variety of races--with appropriately shaped facial features--and they are strong-minded individuals who save themselves. Yes, they all fall in love and end up happily ever after, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that goal.

    4) The real threat, to me, is the commercialism. So, don't dump your loot in the Disney aisle. When I was a young girl, we had a barrel in the basement of my mother's old clothes. My sister and I and our friends would dress up and range the neighborhood in whatever identities we had adopted for the day. Add a few sparkly pink Disney items to a barrel of clothes collected from second hand shops and you not only have the makings of princesses, but my childhood favorite: going to League of Women Voters' meetings. For that one, however, you MUST have a clip board.

  5. I'm with the commentors so far. My Katie never gave three licks about Disney (except visiting the theme park, and Pooh Bear--but she's never watched most of the movies) or Disney princesses, and probably my favorite parenting moment to date was when, at age four, she looked her grandma's well-being friend in the eye and said, "BARBIES? I don't have any Barbies. I have a real pony." However, I've come to see that what we think of as stereotypical role-playing is really just part of growing up. There's a certain age at which most boys and most girls start to conform to what we think of as boy or girl play. When Katie was born, I gave three-year-old Matthew a doll so he could have a baby to take care of, too, but he ignored it in favor of his box of Matchbox cars. Katie's been more in favor of stuffed animals than dolls, but she reads any book with Princess in the title. It's all good.