Princess Riot, or: Everything you always wanted to know about princesses (but were afraid to ask)

My three-year-old step-daughter wants to be a princess for Halloween despite her having already gone as one last year. We bluffed, “Okay, but you were a princess already. You can’t be the same thing two years in a row…” (Even though I was a widow’s-peaked blood-sucker like, 400 years in a row when I was a kid, but what is a parent if not a hypocrite?) “Is there ANYTHING else you want to be?” She insists she wants to be a princess, which is not particularly surprising considering almost all roads for a three-year-old girl lead to princesses, an inevitability I propose we all finally do our part to give an effing break.

To begin with, I have a Hitchens-esque aversion to royalty worship. We’re Americans, dammit, and a foundational piece of who we are is rooted in our secession from and fight against the Monarchy. That one American watched the royal wedding without a palpable sense of disdain or irony repulses me to the core, but that this was the case for millions should not come as a shock. We have been rearing princess-worshipers in a manner that is only coincidentally attached to the actual monarchy for decades. The attachment is a byproduct of creating generations of girls who, after having chronically been on the receiving end of the weird insinuation that they aspire to be like princesses, decide that—what the Hell—they want to be princesses.

If you don’t believe me, consider that in the past year our daughter, a brassy youngster who dances along to Ween, loves Ren and Stimpy songs, and will more-often-than-not explain that she would one day like to be an arborist like her father, has herself inexplicably been on the receiving end of a Barbie doll with three different princess outfits, a princess tent, a play makeup kit, a Disney princess memory game, and a Disney princess dress. Nearly every adult that talks with her asks if she likes princesses or wants to be one, and this an exaggeration by no means at all. I have come to believe that most adults think, “Well, she is a girl; she must like princesses, so I will ask her about them.” But they probably think this because they or some girl they knew were bullied by repeated insinuation into thinking the same thing, and now they are doing their part to pass said bullying on to a new generation. It’s a vicious, sparkly pink and purple cycle.

To be honest, I would have less of a problem with this if there were alternative aspirations targeted toward little girls, but one rarely encounters these, even in this, the Twelfth Year of the Twenty-First Century. To celebrate NASA’s success with landing the Mars Rover, we looked at space-related toys for her only to find that every vehicle was accompanied by a male astronaut. I was initially irritated by this and so when I got home I searched online for female astronaut toys only to come up with an assortment of Barbie iterations of the profession and little else. While there exists an ongoing debate as to whether or not Barbie is a positive female role model, I can’t help but see the message of the toy as being, “Sure, you can be an astronaut, so long as you have an impossibly skinny waist, bound feet, and giant cans.”

To be clear, this isn’t to suggest there are not plenty of strong female icons available to kids these days, and there certainly exists plenty more than when I was a kid. From Dora with all her exploring to Hermione with all her metaphysical ass-kicking, there are plenty of strong women we can expose our daughter to throughout her development, and I count on plenty more to arise along the way. This is not an attack on or dismissal of gendered femininity, which, when it is not being forced on people, can play a significant role in the lives of those who embrace it. After all, we happily oblige when she asks if she can wear her pink tutu to school as it is simultaneously adorable and unique and sort of punk rock in that sense.

This is, however, to suggest that if you are forcing the princess thing—whether you have been doing so consciously or not—there is no better time than now to knock it off. It is okay if you were brought up on the princess myth, or surrounded by it—we’ve all got baggage—but please stop forcing this nonsense on little girls. Can you imagine if we were as aggressive about asking girls if they plan on being mathematicians, musicians, scientists, artists, philosophers or other professions partially defined by lacking in female representation as we are with forcing pink dresses and Prince Charming on them? Let’s stop corrupting the imaginations of our girls with prefabricated, needy and unoriginal narratives. The last thing they should have to do is to be faced with unlearning this artificial obsession before they explore their actual potential or worse: perpetually feel somewhat unfulfilled by the fact that nothing ever really plays out the way it does in fairy tales.

Besides, have we forgotten what our modern personification of the “princess” manifests itself as these days? We have produced more than enough Hiltons, Kardashians, Honey Boo Boos and Snookis, thank you. It’s time we construct an aspirational narrative that favors the multidimensional more than it does the socialite.

NOTE: The princess dress our daughter received was a gift from her auntie who went to Disney World and asked us what sort of princess-related gift we would prefer. I had read a somewhat positive feminist critiques of the The Princess and the Frog, and so we opted for that. We actually like the dress, which our daughter has only worn with a tie-died shirt, as it looks nothing like traditional princess garb and, in truth, it makes her look like any Grateful Dead-loving caterer I have ever worked with.

UPDATE: Also, a number of people on Facebook and Twitter have suggested I read Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter. I will definitely do so. [September 10, 2012, 09:21]

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.