My daughter wants to be a princess. I have done nothing to encourage this feeling in her because, personally, I dislike princesses. They represent everything I instinctively stand against – privilege without merit; an over-emphasis on physical beauty; a nostalgic attachment to traditions that were largely about domination and oppression.
And that’s without even getting into the sexism inherent to the role – a young woman is considered perfect so long as she agrees to stay inside her gilded cage. But I don’t want to ruin something that for her clearly brings so much pleasure. So instead I’ve tried gently steering her in other directions.
‘You could be a warrior,’ I say. ‘Or a queen. You know a queen gets to be in charge.’
But alas she wants to be a princess and dance around the room in a long dress and a towel pressed in place with a plastic tiara. I suppose I am not overly troubled by the spectacle (I bought her the tiara after all). And on one level it seems nothing to worry about; just a kid creating a beautiful fantasy. Harmless right?
Princesses: A dark past
But the world to which princesses belong is anything but harmless. In European history, for example, princesses formed part of a system of aristocracy that reduced ordinary people to the status of serfs, peasants who could literally be bought, sold or traded at will. Nobody today would think it was okay to buy their kids dolls of the slave owner’s daughter. But that’s essentially who princesses were. Only on a much grander scale.
The princess problem brings up one of the big parenting challenges for me: namely, the extent to which I feel comfortable taking part in traditions that I find questionable.
Recently I was talking with a young mom who was complaining that her son wanted a very expensive toy. The boy was planning to ask Santa for it for Christmas and the mom seemed to think she had no choice but to get it for him or else ruin her son’s perception of Santa as a miracle-maker. It sounds absurd that a parent should be trapped in to spending beyond their means because of a myth about a garrulous old man who lives in an igloo. But that’s our culture, and if you don’t join in you look like a party pooper and your kids feel left out.
Last Christmas for the first time my daughter began talking about Santa. The details were scant. There was talk of his reindeer and of his largeness though not, thankfully, of his largesse. Exasperated, I told her I’d heard that Santa was a woman.
My unconscious part in creating the princess problem
If the weight of all these traditions can feel straight-jacketing, the nice thing is that it’s possible to re-frame these traditions in ways that align better with your own beliefs and, if you’re committed enough, kids will follow you on that journey. I read a nice social media post a few years ago by a dad who had taught his kids that Santa expected the gift-giving to be reciprocal. So each Christmas he and his kids would go out and surprise a stranger with a present… and the kids loved it.
The other great thing about the princess problem is the way it forces me to examine my own ingrained prejudices. The other day, for example, my daughter told us that she didn’t like another little girl because the kid wore a grimy t-shirt. My reactive mind recoiled in shock that my daughter could be so shallow. But when I thought about it I saw that – if I’m honest – I have spent much of my life judging people on their appearance (often negatively) and that these judgments are in fact the default unless I choose to bring conscious awareness to how I see another. My daughter in fact was just being real.
So I’ll allow her her love of princesses in sparkly dresses but I’ll try to emphasize how a princess can be kind, strong and fierce as well as beautiful and – when she’s old enough to get it – I’ll tell her that any princess worth bothering with should also have an awareness of the inherent unfairness of the system that she benefits from.
Though by then of course the princess fad will be over and she’ll have moved on to pop stars… and there begins the lesson on the pitfalls of celebrity. A whole other can of worms!