Dispatch From a Princess Wars Survivor
It’s been a while since I last watched a Disney princess movie, and thank God for that. But 40,000 viewings when my daughter was between the ages of three and 10 have pretty well etched Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Cinderella and Snow White into my gray matter permanently.
Like my colleague Victor Fiorillo, I was deeply troubled about what my little girl’s penchant for royal daughters might augur for her future development. Would she become a spoiled, dependent victim of the princess wars? Lorde, did she honestly believe she’d grow up to be a royal? That Her Highness was a viable job description? That some chisel-chinned guy would swoop in and rescue her from the drudgery of middle school and they’d live happily ever after? Was this feminism’s revenge on me?
Victor and I aren’t alone. A few years back, writer Peggy Orenstein was alarmed enough about her daughter Daisy’s princess obsession that she went on a lengthy quest to determine what such a fixation on fluffy pink stuff might mean, culturally and developmentally. The result was a book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, that traced just how cagily Disney and its executives set out to saturate our universe with tiaras and magic wands. Orenstein woefully concluded that the frilly-ing of femininity leads to eating disorders, distorted body images, depression and risky sex.
What Victor seems more afraid of than those dire fates is how wanting to be a princess might limit his 6-year-old in her ambitions. “You’re so much more than a princess,” he sings in a poignant online tribute to his little girl:
You’re strong, you’re kind, you’re curious,
creative and so smart.
You didn’t need Walt Disney’s help
you were perfect
perfect from the start.
The thing is, you know who else is strong and kind and curious and creative and smart? Belle in Beauty and the Beast. She really is. She doesn’t fritter her time away in captivity; she spends it reading all the books in the Beast’s library. Cinderella is no milquetoast, either. She wants to get to that ball, and you know what? Against all odds, she gets there, meets the prince, and winds up marrying him, demonstrating in the process perseverance, initiative, optimism and charm. Okay, maybe marrying a prince isn’t the life goal you’d choose for your daughter. But it’s her goal, not yours. What are you supposed to want to become when you’re 6 — a member of Congress? Secretary of the U.N.?
Reading Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment did a lot to calm me down when my Marcy was in the worst of her gonna-be-a-princess-ness. There are reasons why stories as timeworn as Sleeping Beauty’s and Cinderella’s still resonate — with little boys as well as little girls. Fairy tales are quests for the meaning of life and one’s place in the world, and kids shouldn’t be forbidden to share in those quests because of our concerns for their psyches. Growing up is hard work. The unreality of fairy tales, their distance from the everyday world, is exactly what makes them safe places in which to explore the stuff that scares us when we’re little: the way we sometimes hate our parents and siblings, our fear that we might be abandoned, the suspicion that we might be unlovable. That fairy tales have endured even their Disneyfication is a tribute to their power, not to Walt and his men.
No matter how diligently I tried to interest Marcy in other kinds of stories, fairy tales were what she loved. Princess dolls were what she played with. She was a princess every single Halloween. And she grew up to be … a social worker. Which is, you know, about as far from princess as you can get.
Whatever you imagine your daughter will turn out to turn into, Victor, she won’t. Nor will she be a princess. She might, however, watch the Real Housewives franchises more than you wish she would. Princesses are fun because they’re where the action happens. So get your kid a new tiara for Christmas, and maybe a pair of pretend glass slippers. She’ll be wearing sensible heels soon enough.
Follow @SandyHingston on Twitter.