“Princess”? Try “Queen-in-training.”

22 Dec


(image from peggyorenstein.com)

Picked up Cinderella Ate My Daughter today at the library–one of those books that was never on my Must Read Or Die Trying list, but that’s the thing about libraries. You run into unexpected gems.

And boy is this one a gem.

One chapter in and I feel for Peggy Orenstein. Here we’ve got a bangin’ journalist from the Third Wave of Feminism, who has made a living out of, “This Is How Girls Do,” and she is struggling to comprehend this sparkly world that her daughter has gotten into. Pink and sequins and princess everything.

To us girls of the 90s, it’s as familiar as anything. Wake up in the morning feelin’ like Snow White. Or Ariel. Or Belle. Swish around the house in cascades of silk scarves and Halloween gowns. Even if you rebelled against the hyperfemininity of the Disney Princess phenomenon, that still meant you were growing up with an awareness of it.

Orenstein is not cool with this. Not on a freak-out level of not-cool, but she is very, very eager to jump on all the negative connotations of princesshood. She zeros in on the particular fairy tales and the lessons they teach impressionable little girls:

  • The Little Mermaid = give up That Wonderful Thing That Makes You You for the sake of a boy who may or may not be aware you exist.
  • Snow White = cleaning ALL THE THINGS is a totally acceptable defining characteristic. And “happily ever after” solves everything.
  • Sleeping Beauty = No seriously, “happily ever after” really does solve everything. Just wait for the prince to come.


While I’m not disagreeing with her argument that these concepts are horrendous to instill in the minds of our girls, I challenge the idea that the princess phase is a Bad Thing.

What does being a princess mean? Well, you’re the daughter of a king. That’s pretty much it. Anyone can be a princess with the proper lineage. There are no moral qualifications–you’re just as likely to get good princesses as god-awful ones. If you look at history, most of ’em were just boring, because their only significant contribution to the realm was to get strategically married. The really awesome princesses, like Elizabeth II, didn’t start being awesome until they were crowned queen. Now, if Disney wants to give girls the idea that being a princess means that you are more than just a royal XX chromosome pair, that you must be a decent, compassionate human being who often cares about other human beings more than herself, well then I’m all for it. Teach kids some humility in this age when they’re more likely to be coddled, given iPads to play with and told how “special” they are every time they can string two words together that aren’t “butt” and “face.”

Moreover, what do princesses have the potential to possess? Power.

No way, right?

When I played Hunchback of Notre Dame with my preschool gang, my favorite scene was the end, where she’s unconscious and they have to get her to safety. Whoever was playing Esmeralda, usually me, would lie on the ground until Phoebus and Quasimodo and Clopin and whoever was along for the ride came to rescue you, then you all tore off to flee Frollo together. It was a little like the Sleeping Beauty thing, except no kissing.

Oh my god Natasha, the part where she’s unconscious? What a twisted kid you were. But it wasn’t about that. I didn’t know unconscious meant being passed out. To me, it was a mythical state of looking like you were asleep, but you weren’t. Playing it was about the delicious anticipation of lying there, waiting for your friends to run over and “wake” you–would they try to scare you awake? Poke you? Hidden behind your closed eyes, what would they do to you, the star of the story?

And that’s what it came down to. Waiting to be “rescued” wasn’t an exercise in weakness; it was an exercise in power. They couldn’t escape Frollo without Esmeralda. The entire scheme, the whole movie itself, was concocted around her. I had two boys in preschool who willingly were my Phoebus or Quasimodo or Clopin, and plenty of friends for all the roles. It was about attention. Attention was power.

What does a princess grow up to be? A queen.


4 Responses to ““Princess”? Try “Queen-in-training.””

  1. CanaryTheFirst December 22, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    That’s a real interesting point – reinterpreting the pink stage to be not so much about being pretty-pink-and-fluffy-feminine, but about seeking the power there. The Disney princesses really are the center of their stories (well, okay, Jasmine not so much, but Mulan makes up for it), and the story does revolve around it.

    It does beg a different kind of question for me – I’m all for girls seeking roles that give them power, but should young girls really learn that attention-seeking (through pretend-swooning or physical appearance) is their path to power?

    In an of itself, loving Disney and pink ain’t gonna turn all little princesses into drama-queens, but there is an important element of socialization that comes with the role models princess-movies present.

    • Natasha N December 24, 2012 at 3:04 pm #

      You’re right–little girls shouldn’t interpret attention as the be-all and end-all of their existence. But the idea of being a princess leaves the possibility for other types of power, too.

      Take the Jewel Princesses, for example: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_14?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=jewel%20princess%20books

      They each ruled their own kingdoms, had magic abilities, and wicked awesome sidekicks. Playing out their stories was like an exercise in Heck Yes I Can Do Anything.

      • CanaryTheFirst December 24, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

        Maybe it’s more correct to say that it’s not being a princess that can be a problem, but rather which princess the child decides to look up to and the kind of behaviors and implicit messages that the princess models within her story (point to you, here).

        I haven’t heard about the Jewel Princesses (so I can’t comment), but it sounds like they offer a stronger role model for young girls without taking away the glitz and drama of being rich, famous, and in power. That said, they’re not as mainstream as Disney, Bratz, or Barbie by a long shot (or, I haven’t seen them before, which may not be a good measure, but I’ve heard of the others).

      • Natasha N December 25, 2012 at 11:34 am #

        You’re exactly right. And that’s why I took issue with the book, because the author lumped all princesses together in one category of dis-empowerment without taking a closer look at individual cases like Belle, who actually was pretty badass. The only exception she cited was the obvious, technically-not-a-princess Mulan.

        That being said, I’d definitely recommend the Jewel Princess series if you’re looking for something fun to read/review.

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