The Princess Problem

Sept. 15, 2016

As a dad and a feminist, I don’t really know what to make of this princess thing. It’s a huge industry. (It would be ironic if it was just a “cottage” industry.) I didn’t notice it until I became a parent, but there a princesses freaking everywhere!  Want to take you daughter on a “Disney Princess Cruise?” Your son probably will skip that one for a roll in the mud. But there is a pushback against the “princess narrative,” so I’m trying to figure out how to fit my daughter into it and still keep a smile on her face.

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I know that I never played “prince” as a little boy and all the storybook princesses I knew just waited around to be rescued by Prince Charming. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your damn hair!” One might guess the Brothers Grimm didn’t know many bad-ass chicas who could escape the castle on their own. Or maybe stories of heroines just didn’t sell in the early 1800s. The Nazis really loved those Grimm fairy tales, so that should tell you something.

The Brothers Grimm published Cinderella in 1812 so you’d think 204 years later this princess thing would be played out, right? Au contraire mon frère, it’s bigger than ever. Just take a trip to the “pink” isle at any toy store or the Help Wanted ads at Disneyland. “Help wanted: An anorexic girl to dress as Sleeping Beauty and smile for 8 hours a day in the Anaheim sun. Previous princess threw herself under a pumpkin.”

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This gets a mention because suddenly one of my daughter’s precious vocabulary words is “princess.” I was hoping “theoretician” would come first, or even “OBG/GYN.” But there it is. “Princess!” with a squeal of delight. She has a CD from the Disney TV show Sofia the First and the good thing is that she learned how to work the CD player in her room so she could play it. (It’s playing as I write this and Cozy is dancing in her Minnie Mouse dress.) The bad news is these are the lyrics:

There are many things princesses do

Like hosting balls and dancing too

Or Wearing gowns of pink and blue

That’s what we like to do

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There are many things that princes like

Jousting polo and taking hikes

Suits of armour with lots of spikes

That’s what we really like

We do princess things

And we do princely things

And no-one crosses in between

We stick with our routine

Not very gender queer. To be fair, Sofia believes that anything can be a “princess thing,” but it’s an uphill battle, not a given that she’s already liberated from her princess routine.

The princess tales seem to fall into two categories, one is the girl born into royalty but the more common version is the peasant girl who is “lucky” enough to be launched into royalty. What’s better than being rich? And they are all hyper-heteronormative. How many little girls grew up singing, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” from Snow White, thinking the story ends when he (or a reasonable facsimile of Prince Charming) shows up. The fairy tale leaves out the part that after the “happily ever after” part when he’s banging the milkmaid and won’t even think about letting his “queen” take night classes at the kingdom’s community college.

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Little girls seem to think the life of a princess is all peach pudding and party dresses. Bud Light pitch girl Amy Schumer has a brilliant skit about the reality of the medieval princess forced into arranged marriages with cousins so she can get busy birthing male heirs to the throne. Every girl should see it before asking for a princess party for her next birthday.

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Earlier this week, Andrea and I were at the Disney Studios in Burbank visiting a good friend and pretending that Hollywood was ready for us. We stopped by the employee store to pick up some Minnie Mouse swag for Cozy. (It’s just too cute when she says, “Minnie Moush.”) When I saw all the princess dresses from all the Disney films I could just imagine our daughter exploding in screams. I resisted the urge to buy her a Belle dress and bought her an Incredible Hulk t-shirt instead. (Disney owns Marvel now.) But I know what she would really want.

Let me say Disney princesses have come a long way since Snow White. There are princesses of every shade these days, including Elena, the Latina princess. And Merida, from Brave, isn’t exactly a damsel in distress and didn’t even have a romance with a brutish boy. But if you survey the list of Disney princesses, they pretty much are all teenage girls who are awarded with a dominant male at the end of the tale. They are less passive than Sleeping Beauty but their goal is still to end up like a Mrs. Trump.  I’m going to encourage Cozy to avoid all that. The princesses tale is exactly what not to wish for.

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We’re not raising a demure princess in this house, looking for her Beast. She’s not a kitten who needs to be rescued from a tree. (As Ani DiFranco once sang, “Don’t you think every kitten figures out how to get down, whether or not you ever show up?”) If she wants to live in a palace, she can invent an app or something. But she can pretend to be whoever she wants to be. Who are we going to be today, Cozy? Ariel or Harriet Tubman? Oh, Princess Leia? We’re good.

 

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