The above screenshot is from the January 2017 issue of National Geographic, which focused on gender. The page pictured asks,
Is dressing up as princesses ‘a normal girlie-girl phase’ or does it encourage girls to define themselves based on appearance and passivity?
I don’t know about other little girls, but the appeal of ‘Princess’, for me, included power.
How quickly we forget that as heirs to a throne, princesses have power!
When I was small, maybe 4 or 5, I boldly told my mother that I wanted to be a queen. Why? It seemed a natural assumption if you want to be in charge of your own life. Queens get to control things. They get to do things. And their daughters are just one step away.
I resent the assumption that princesses are powerless. That their worth is based on appearance and they exist as passive objects, not actors with agency. I feel this is more a matter of society projecting its mistaken ideas about girls in general. Society, in the form of Disney, told us Snow White was weak and prone to fainting. Nothing in the original fairy tale told us she was. The men of 1937 did that.
As a preschooler I knew that queens, and by extension princesses, had power.
Maybe this is why I’ve always been drawn to historical fiction like that of Philippa Gregory. She writes about aristocratic ladies who learn to wield power.
I don’t mean to pretend that women have ever been handed power on a silver platter. No, they have had to earn it and seize it. But hierarchy asserts that some women had more power than others, even if their sphere was only that of a single household. And women used that power.
Women still use the meager power granted to them, and they use it to secure more power. As a young child I knew the difference between a peasant and royalty. The latter got to make choices.
I think we need to draw a distinction between princesses in princess culture. There are the 1937 models, who fritter and sway, based in the imaginations of misogynists. There are princesses like Queen Elizabeth II, herself an 11 year old princess in 1937, who is still an indomitable force at 90. There are the historical queens like Catherine the Great who built an empire. There are also princesses like Merida and Mulan and Tiana who bravely, skillfully, fight for what they want. So long as your daughter is emulating the right sort of princess, I don’t see a problem.
Princess doesn’t have to be a derogatory word. Treating it as one denies a rare class of women the power they held. And do hold. It erases their contributions.
I knew ‘princess’ meant power. And I guarantee that many other little girls also sense the authority in the term. They don’t go into it wanting just to be pretty, or to sit around being pampered. They want agency. They want control.
They want the promise that who you’re born as can be an asset, not a hindrance. So much of being female ties your hands before you even realize you have fingers. It’s nice to have one thing, just one role, where the opposite is true.