The princess strikes back

Is there more to the princess than meets the eye?
Is there more to the princess than meets the eye? 

Bloody princesses! You do your best to keep them at bay. Your daughter is immersed in non-gender specific toys and books. She’s always dressed for play not beauty parades. She is different: free to choose her own path, be her own girl. You high-five yourself for freeing your child from constricts that would bind her in pink and subservience quicker than you can say ‘glass slipper’. Then BAM! Seemingly out of nowhere your preschooler sprouts a pair of fairy wings and starts salivating over plastic tiaras and purple polyester dresses.

Avoiding the princess phase seems about as easy as sidestepping a herd of rampaging wildebeest, which is frustrating because as all grown-ups know princesses totally suck. They are inert, vacant creatures who spend an awful lot of time doing nothing of note until a man of regal lineage rewards their beauty with the ultimate treasure: marriage!  

No wonder many parents baulk when their girls want to emulate such vapid role models. As Rosa Brooks from The Los Angeles Times wrote in response to her daughters’ desire to be princesses, "You can do anything when you grow up! You can be scientists, ski instructors, or hedge fund managers. Why would you want to be passive, anorexic princesses"?

The growing sense of parental antipathy towards the princess must make Disney a bit nervous. Although other princesses are available, Disney’s pack of fairytale lovelies loom largest of them all. Since 1937 when Snow White took a chunk out of a spiked Red Delicious, the Disney princesses have beguiled tiny tots with pretty faces and equally pretty dresses. In 2000, Disney bundled the princesses up into a kind of multi-headed amalgam. No longer disparate characters, the princesses became part of a gigantic pink frothed whole and formed the Princess franchise; a brand that has earned the company over $4bn.

Unsurprisingly Disney is keen to defend the Princess from parents’ disgruntled rumblings. At the end of last year Disney launched a promotional film designed to give the princess an empowering shot in the arm. The film shows a wide range of girls talking about why they are proud to be a princess. The girls are explorers, martial arts practitioners, friends, carers and book lovers and none of them say anything about holding out for a prince:

In our haste to denigrate the Princess I wonder if we've overlooked the important traits they embody, the ones we actually want to instill in our daughters ...

Did it make you cry? Yeah, me too. Oh I know, Disney probably only cares about young girls’ sense of self to the extent it translates into cold hard cash, but still, the film has a point. In our haste to denigrate the Princess I wonder if we’ve overlooked the important traits they embody, the ones we actually want to instill in our daughters (and our sons come to that). The princess promotes kindness, humility, community spirit, generosity, and a pacifism that is more about dignity and strength in the face of adversity than passive cowardice. Bella (from Beauty and the Beast) is a champion of intellect and rejects the superficial. Cinderella is resilient, Ariel never gives up on her dreams, and Aladdin’s Jasmine shows immense courage and smarts to overcome her challenges.    

That’s not to say the princess has completely shed her baggage. There are still problems with the prince and his tendency to step in at the last minute and make everything hunky dory (because he’s a man and that’s what women wait around for men to do). It’s still troubling that the princesses’ problems are erased by untold riches and a royal title, however I’m not convinced modern alternatives are providing a better option.

Last year, Pixar’s Brave won plaudits for subverting the princess stereotype. Brave was wild and rebellious, rejected marriage and was a dab hand with a bow and arrow. That’s right a bow and arrow, a weapon that can disembowel at ten paces. Brave’s courage was augmented by a symbol of violence because the ability to disarm someone by removing their lower intestines infers power.

The free-spirited Brave may seem like a far more aspirational role model for a young girl, however, aligning Brave’s self-determination to her ability to use a weapon hardly feels progressive. It merely succumbs to the notion that yes, of course girls can be awesome as long as they do all the stuff we associate with boys i.e. violent things that allow power to be gained by brute force.

The princess may have her faults, but as the Disney film clip attests - kindness, consideration, and gentleness yield their own power and are not altars at which courage and assertiveness need to be sacrificed. Rather than dismiss the princess out of hand, it might just pay to guide our daughters through the thorny issues of princes and wealth and beauty, because at the heart of every princess is a worthy, smart and kind human being. I for one would be very happy if my girl wields those things with as much passion and verve as the average superhero wields his fists.