Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Princess Problem

The princess paradigm, as I pointed out the other day, can be empowering. But sometimes it can be hard to see how. One thing's for sure, there's no steering the kids away from them. Princesses saturate pop-culture, and there is only so long a lone parent can hold back a tidal wave. Besides, as a parent I can't help feeling a bit stingy and humourless if I attempt to ban all things girly. This morning Una came into my bedroom wearing a tulle dress. I asked her if she was a fairy, and she patted her dress and said that she was a 'pin-cess' (she is 21 months old).
I remember as a child being enchanted by princesses, romanced by these fairy-tale figures. My memory for the most part is a vague sense of resourceful and fairly independent girls, alone in the world with their problems and generally with some hand in their own deliverance. I can't remember actually playing at being a princess though, I don't think it weighed as heavily on my consciousness as it does on today's generation. I think Brides were the ultimate form of femininity when I was a kid (even Diana was a Bride before she was a princess), but personally I didn't ever play that either (and I'd rather my daughers were aspiring princesses than aspiring brides).
There are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. On the other hand, there is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs — who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty — are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception.
Peggy Orenstein What's Wrong With Cinderella?
When thinking about princess power, it's much easier to see how princesses are disempowering. And actually the presence and absence of the power of the princess often comes from the same place. Princess tales are generally transformational tales. Cinderella (or, as I like to call her, Ashputtel) is the prime example, from ashes to princess. Actually to me Ashputtel is a slightly more empowered version of the story, as Ashputtel is more of an agent in her own transformation - instead of being 'saved' by a fairy godmother, her transformation originates in her relationship with her environment, where the earth seems to stand in for the body of the mother and the spirit of the mother is revitalised in the spirit of the bird. A tree grows from the mother's grave (a tree that grows from a twig Ashputtel requests as a gift from her father when her stepsisters ask for diamonds and pearls - a twig that represents Ashputtel's loyalty and modesty) and Ashputtel's divine assistance comes from a bird who makes a nest in the tree.

Subverting the myth
Many modern princess myths subvert the transformational tale. But sometimes what masquerades as a subversion, can be another way of telling the same story. Take Princess Fiona in Shrek for example, instead of monster to princess, ugly to beautiful, the transformation moves in the other direction. Gasp. This is the twist, the plot turn that makes the whole movie special: Princess Fiona chooses to be an ogre too, even though she's a really beautiful girl who could marry a really handsome prince (it's such a big whoop they made a second movie pretty much based around the same twist). Of course it's not really a subversion - it's all relative. The choice she makes is to remain beautiful, just by someone else's standard.
According to canon, she was sent away to the castle because her parents couldn’t handle the fact that their daughter was born an ogress. It’s like a fairy tale version of fat camp.
from curvature
At no point does she really choose who she wants to be just for herself, to suit her own goals or desires (does she even have any? According to Shrek 2, it's to become Mrs Fiona Charming). It also promotes the idea that there is one perfect person out there for everyone, the soul mate myth. A bigger stereotype buster would have been if Princess Fiona had chosen to be a girl and married Shrek anyway. If they had remained mismatched, but had been determined to make it work anyway. No happy ever after, just good honest (relationship) work. Is that a boring outcome? I don't see why it has to be. In some ways it would heighten the romance, the love arc would have to be more convincing than 'you rescued me and then we hung out for a few days, and hey we look alike, I love you, let's get married in a hurry.' And the sequel could have had, you know, a different plot. Don't get me wrong, I loved Shrek (the first thirty or so times I saw it), the music's great, the story's engaging and original, the dialogue's funny and fresh, the acting first rate, and it is refreshing to see the happy ever after couple have a different body type from all those other Disney princesses and princes. It just doesn't add anything new to the princess myth.

On face value, Anastasia (1997) seems like a more straightforward and fairly typical transformation 'rags to riches' princess plot. The movie take it's premise from the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Anastasia Romanov (actually a Grand Duchess rather than a princess), the youngest daughter of the Russian czar, who was rumoured to have survived the capture and execution of her family. The story is of Anya, a young woman of uncertain origin who is convinced by con-artist Dmitri to travel to Paris to discover whether or not she is really Princess Anastasia (the audience knows she is from the outset, it's never a surprise). Although the movie seems to be about Anastasia's quest for her identity, in actual fact she is who she is from the beginning, we know she's the princess, she just doesn't know it yet. We also know that she's going to be the same gutsy, individualistic girl whether she's a princess or not. The real shift, the real transformation, is Dmitri's. He goes from being opportunistic, self-serving and materialistic, to discovering inner meaning and a stronger, truer set of values. This movie, a favourite of Fred's, is actually a much better example of a subverted princess tale, where the princess gets to be true to herself in the end, but still get the rewards of true love, identity and family.

The Little (Rough and Tumble) Princess?
Sometimes we use the word Princess to mean spoilt. Sometimes it means a sort of preciousness, a princess can be a girl who likes accessories and glitz, who doesn't like getting dirty or breaking a nail. Sometimes (worryingly) princess and girl can seem to be used interchangeably - thrown in with a bunch of other coded girl words, like fairy, ballerina, bride, mother and even baby. I've heard mums use it affectionately. She's 'such a princess' can be a way of saying she likes pink and sparkles and tiaras. Nearly always it's accompanied with an astonished 'I don't know where she gets it from, I'm not like that.' (But I wonder if that is where they get it from, encouraged to continue exploring this side of themselves by our kinda sorta feminist delight in our daughters showing an interest in being a type of girl that isn't like me).
Often princess just seems to be just another affectionate way of saying 'favoured daughter' or 'special girl'. In Tony Ross's Little Princess books for example, and in Liz Honey's Princess Beatrice and the Rotten Robber, there's nothing in particular about the story-lines that absolutely necessitates that these girls are princesses. In fact these girls are both wild and woolly, with their maniacally wayward hair, stubborn resourcefulness and messy ways. What they also have in common is that they are firmly situated at the centre of a large, loving family. They do wear crowns and jewels, live in castles and eat fancy food, attended to by servants (who really represent the whole adult world, at once attending to their every need, but also curiously indifferent to them and busy with their own lives). But they also muck about, there's nothing precious about them. In a way princess is a perfect way of describing the state of childhood. On the one hand these girls are the centre of their universe, with power over everyone, embodied in the image of the crown. But on the other hand they are entirely disempowered, they're children; carted about by adults and told what to do. Besting the adult world requires drawing on inner resources rather than simply relying on their status as princess. These books don't give a partial idea about what girls are - in this case princess doesn't mean limited. You can't imagine either of them getting cursed then lying around perfectly preserved in a glass casket waiting to be rescued. These girls are everything I want my kids to be.
Speaking for Fred, I think it's in this apparent contradiction that the princess myth shows promise (though Fred told me today that she'd rather be a fairy - she's worried about a princess's crown being too tight). But this model of princess definitely offers girls scope to interpret and reinterpret femininity, using both imposed social codes and their own desires. A girl can embrace all sorts of conflicting aspects of herself and tie it together with the word princess. She can live out all sorts of desires, such as the desire to swish around in a long dress coupled with the desire to wallow about in the dirt. It doesn't have to be commodified, corporate or commercial, Fred's princess isn't trademarked by Disney. Maybe one day she'll replace the word princess with girl or woman, embracing the multiplicity of her feminine identity. What more could any proud mum ask for?

I've actually remembered to tag this one. More on princesses, fairies and brides coming up later, this is an endlessly fascinating topic.


  1. Anonymous10:40 PM

    Princess Bubble has not found a prince but she is happy!

    She would love to find love but is not definded by being princeless.

  2. When I was a child I often played at being a princess with my friends. I was a magical princess - I had a horse, and a sword, I defended my lands with courage and escaped from goblins. (And sometimes locked the princes up.) I had a magical force-field shield made from a pearl necklace that I swung around very fast so it went blurry. I remember with tragic clarity catching a glimpse of myself reflected in a window as I tore around the outside of the house - I was so sure I was tall and beautiful and elegant that I didn't recognise the scruffy little girl in dress-up rags.

  3. I really enjoyed this post. My duaghter Lu is 2 and she's not interested in princesses - she role plays at being Jerry (the helicopter pilot) from Skippy. As a girl we didn't play princesses, either. We were witches, disguised as ordinary girls. We felt smug that we could hide out identities from others, and we controlled our transformations, becoming magical when we needed to and passing through life undected when we did not. I think this was empowering for us. We used our skills to cast love spells on boys. The meaning of this is ambiguous to me now. On the one hand, we thought we had power over these boys but on the other, we were in thrall to their favours, using that power to make Justin, Grant and co. like us.

    But I did have a Princess Diana scrapbook. And I dreamed about marrying Prince Edward! I'm glad that particular dream didn't come true.

  4. Hi! Found you from Bluemilk this morning and really enjoyed reading your post. However, I'm not sure that Peggy Orenstein's quite got it covered - I recently read an article by two social psychologists from Rutgers on a "glass slipper effect." They found that the degree to which adult women subconsciously endorsed "romantic fantasies" (associated romantic partners with fantasy constructs like "Prince Charming", white knight, castles, etc.) the less likely they were to express interest in obtaining personal power, including high-status jobs, education, and group leadership positions. To me, the princess thing definitely smacks of serious cultural backlash against feminism, but what can you really do on an individual level? We just had a baby boy, and although I really really want a girl I'm kind of glad to have a first crack at parenting without having to cope with quite so much strong gender-coding from the get-go...