Back in my unfettered pre-parental state, we used to visit with friends who had two daughters. These daughters had been thoroughly indoctrinated into Princess Culture, and it gave grown-up, feminist me the shudders. (Delightful children, and their parents were bemused by the princessing of their house as well.) I vowed that should I ever have a daughter, there was no way I would let this sort of thing into our house.
Hubris, in all its Hellenic glory, was just waiting in the wings for its entrance.
My daughter is now six and a half and her dress-up collection is legendary (thanks in part to hand-me-downs from said friends above). She has a shelf on her bookshelf dedicated to storing and cataloging her tiaras (overflowing with books as well, thankyouverymuch). And her costumer mother has enabled her into not one, not two . . . but THREE pink-princess handmade ballgowns.
Clearly, at some point I made my peace with my daughter, the princess. (First thing we did at Disney World was Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutique, followed by a brunch with five Disney princesses.) The first step was reminding myself of my own origins. I, too, once loved ruffles and lace and layered dresses; anything frilly and fancy caught my eye. I dressed as a witch for Halloween when I was seven—with a blonde bombshell wig and a purple glitter mask. The point is, I had really “girly” tendencies as a child, and it hasn’t stopped me from growing up to kick ass and chew bubblegum. There was also remembering that while I definitely loved Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, I also climbed trees, wrestled with my brothers, and gleefully played shoot-’em-up during pretend Star Wars re-enactments. (We got one of my dolls to be the obligatory “rescue bait” since I refused to sit around and do nothing).
So, rather than set up our house as some sort of Disney Demilitarized Zone, my husband and I decided to use what we’d been given as a tool for what we wanted. It’s something I learned as a teacher—any story can be used to teach the lesson you ultimately want them to learn. Holy crap is there still a long way to go, but things are so much better than they were in the Sleeping Beauty days. (My kiddo has still never seen the Disney Cinderella or Snow White. I draw the line at those. Shudder.)
Here’s some of what we’ve figured out along the way.
- We never even considered trying to stop her newfound obsession. If this was what she loved and was interested in, we weren’t going to be the eighties football jock trying to squash her Robert Carradine nerdery.
- We talked about what parts of being a princess were a problem and how we would try to mitigate those messages and lessons. It was a huge win the day that our kiddo declared to another little girl that “Sleeping Beauty is boring. All she does is sleep.” (HINT: Use your own position as Ultimate Authority to introduce ideas. “Mommy, I think Sleeping Beauty is so pretty.” “Yes, sweetie, she is very pretty, yes. I just think it’s sad that she doesn’t really get to do anything fun.”)
- We also used being a princess as a model for traits that we wanted to encourage and support: cleverness, honesty, empathy, problem solving. We were aided in this by shows that supported a much better view of femininity than the classic Disney movies: Sofia the First is pretty good. Word Girl is the absolute bomb—a superhero with great vocabulary! Katara on Avatar: the Last Airbender is everything you could want. And My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is frighteningly entertaining for the whole family. So, when it came time to talk about expected behaviors, we just had to remind her that a princess can do anything she sets her mind to.
(PROTIP: When you define a princess as someone helpful who solves problems for others, suddenly getting help with picking up toys is a breeze.)
- We watched shows with her. It’s basic parenting advice, but it’s so key. First, you have to know where the ideas are coming from. (Why is my kiddo suddenly talking about how girls should only have long hair?!) Second, you can use characters and stories she’s already seen as learning tools and examples of behavior that you want to encourage. “I really liked how Word Girl compromised with her best friend on what project they would work on.” Luckily, the shows that you want your kid to watch are also shows that are enjoyable for the parents as well. (Phineas and Ferb is also terrific, and if you’ve been raising your proto-princess to love science, the lack of princesses is generously overlooked.)
- I don’t know about my husband, but I had to get over the “don’t ruin the nice clothes” reflexes. I never allowed any dress-up clothes that were “too nice” for tree-climbing or puddle-jumping. Dress-up clothes are play clothes, and that means any kind of play—not just acceptably demure don’t-get-dirty play. I didn’t fuss about rips or stains. (I did make sure that our girl understood the natural consequences so that if she didn’t want something to get ripped up, she could choose not to wear it.) And we encouraged active play by putting on shorts or leggings underneath dresses (so that no random strangers ever shamed my daughter in public).
- We pointed out female characters who shared “princess qualities” in all kinds of stories to encourage interest in other shows and movies. Our girl has her very own imaginary Deadly Nadder dragon that she pretends to ride around with her (imaginary) friends from the How to Train Your Dragon TV series.
There are still a lot of problems to address, of course. Our culture sends an overwhelming amount of gender messages, and kids pick them up frighteningly well. (PROTIP: Watch historical dramas and discuss how women weren’t allowed to do anything. You’ll know you’ve been doing a good job when your kid declares disgustedly, “That’s stupid!”) A lot of authors have recognized the Princess Problem, and this has resulted in some great alternative reading: Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, The Princess in Black by Shannon and Dean Hale—even Disney has started putting out ancillary princess stories that feature the classic princesses having adventures. My biggest request of Disney right now would be to have a feature film princess that wears glasses. Please.
We want to raise a strong, confident, caring child. Given our daughter’s naturally headstrong nature, I don’t honestly think Princess Culture could have turned her into a demure flower. And if she grows up to be a frilly girly-girl, that will be okay. As long as she isn’t afraid to kick some ass in her pretty pink dress.