Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Princess Power

Princesses are a reality in the world of parenting - especially if you have a daughter. They are on stickers and band-aids and everything else. Even if you try to keep them out of your house, they are at friends' houses. What do we do about our Princesses?

Let's think about this though... Are Princesses really as bad as many people would have us believe? I'm not so sure. I think we leap too quickly to obfuscate Princesses because of the potential that our daughters and sons learn a negative message. In reality, I think it's all in the interpretation and the message you choose to share.

Papa-Bug and I were talking about this. After all, consumerism and marketing aside, we have heartily endorsed Brother-Bug's vehicle & 'Cars' obsessions. What if all Sister-Bug cares about is Sleeping Beauty & Snow White? How can we buy licensed characters for one kid and deny the other kid?

In the course of this conversation, we segued into the broad topic of helping our daughter learn to use her power. Papa-Bug said (to paraphrase) "I find the Princess Power to be a little scary - it's so subtle." That idea raised a red flag in my women's studies brain.

Scary? To you, a privileged white male? Interesting.

Before I delve further, let me state that I deplore the physical representations of the Princesses. They are painfully thin, some of them laughably so. But I'm not her to talk about what they look like. That is a related, yet different topic of discourse.

Let's get back to those scary princesses. Why are they so scary? Because they are powerful. Because its a subtle power, often difficult for someone raised to believe in the "powerful might" to put their finger on. Because the princess manipulates and uses her power through biology and desires that subdue the powerful might. Because it's a power that a man can not posess nor fully understand.

This power - the power of looks and biology (read: sex) - is a power that women have used for millenia. When women were chattel, posession of father then husband, it was all the power they had. The Goal was marriage - until very recently it was the only truly viable goal and option for the majority of women on the planet. It is only within the last half-century that Barbie could become an astronaut.

So women developed this power. Good, bad or beautiful, they worked with what they had - their bodies - and evolved complex habits and rituals to keep that power intact. I'm going out on a historical limb here, but assuming that most children's stories were likely concocted by a mother trying to get a child to hear a lesson and/or settle down...Mothers told stories to their daughters that featured young women (princesses) who presevered in the face of hardship to attain The Goal (the prince and marriage).

Princesses are powerful and they always achieve The Goal.

We want our daughters to be powerful right? So did whoever came up with these age-old tales to help their daughters learn to use the power that they had. And what a power it is! History is full of tales of beautiful women who use their skills to subdue the mightiest men. No wonder it's scary.

Fast-forward through bloomers at the end of the 19th century, sufferage, women in factories in both World Wars, and a Feminist Movement that brought us ever closer to equality. We have lots of possible goals now - wife or astronaut, teacher or congress-woman. I'm not here to say that marriage and baby making is The Goal anymore. But even though women's options have increased and our horizons have broadened, Princesses are still powerful.

My favorite Princess. Grace Kelly.
And if we deny our daughters knowledge of and access to that Princess Power, are we not cutting them off from some amazing aspects of Womens' History? If we take away that power, what do we replace it with? We can talk and write and discourse for hours about the power of the empowered woman, and advocate for the ERA, non-gendered toys, and positive role models for young women... But those are lacking in the magic and mystique that appeals to little children. Why don't we accept that Princesses are here, historically important, and that they aren't going anywhere? How can we find ways to show our daughters how very strong and cool a princess can be?

I am choosing, as a parent, to embrace Princesses for all their might. I'm going to celebrate their strength. When my kids are older (because you know that Brother-Bug is as much or more into Princesses than his sister is) I will show them historical Princesses and we will talk about thier role in the world. We will enjoy Princess movies and Princess tales.

I will not villify something that has so much potential for teaching strength and courage. I will not tell my daughter that ANY woman is bad/evil/wrong, even if she is pencil thin with gigantic eyes.

I will point out how cartoon women's bodies are...not accurate.

I WILL play dress up with my Princess-loving children.

Because Princess costumes are FUN! Much more fun than an empowered feminist dress-up set - what would that even look like?


I have more thoughts on Princesses, so keep your eyes tuned. Princess Ariel (from Disney's Little Mermaid) is one of my new favorite feminist figures. Wonder why? Stay tuned!

Also, I realize this is potentially inflammatory for lots of people. I welcome your comments as long as you keep said comments in the spirit of inquiry, conversation, and polite disagreement. I will delete any comments that are mean or disrespectful. 


  1. Love this, really well thought and written. Thanks for the perspective!

  2. Very interesting! I'm not even sure I can think fully about it, yet. I think, for me, the problem has never been in the concepts or even the images associated with them. The problem has been the way they are used in the lives of kids - particularly gender non-conforming kids. For some kids, this image of a woman (or, you know, Heman or whatever for the dudes) is a dominant part of what they see, and if they don't match it, it's like, "WTF is wrong with me, then?" I mean, very simplistic obviously, particularly in light of your fine analysis. But, there's something there for me that's worth thinking about some more.

    Until then, go princesses!

  3. As a parent of a gender-flexible kid, I find that I follow his lead on images so far. And who knows where that will take us!? I do think it is hard that there are so few androgynous or non-determinate images directed for kids. I think part of this is we start when they are very little - when the world really is this or that, boy or girl, good or bad, before their brains have the maturity to be flexible. And we lock ourselves/them into that dichotomy. It's a lot to think about, and I would LOVE to talk more about this with you since I know you like to challenge these assumptions too.