When you meet me it takes .345 seconds to realize that I'm a feminist. And not just a casual "I guess I'm technically a feminist" kind. I'm talking the hardcore, die-hard, insistent kind. When you meed my daughter it takes .345 seconds to realize that she's what some might call a "girly girl." She loves pink and unicorns and dresses and My Little Pony. My daughter's obsessed with princesses, too, and some people assume that I have a problem with my daughter's ultra-feminine choices and gender expression because I'm an outspoken feminist. Here's the thing, though: I don't. In fact, I'm here for it. This is neither an easement of my feminist principles nor a contradiction to them. I feel perfectly feminist putting on tiaras and having a royal tea party with my little girl. And above and beyond that, I'm delighted.
Because in addition to being a staunch feminist, I am also the femme-iest femme ever to femme. I love dresses and high heels and when I travel I do so with no fewer than 15 different lipsticks in a purse that has been specially coordinated to complement my outfit, because lip color is important to me and I don't know what kind of mood I'm going to be in later, Carol, so get off my back! Jeez! Princesses and fairies and Barbies all jive nicely with my love of fashion. I am a sucker for an intricate, delicate aesthetic. Guys, I literally have a tea cup tattooed on my arm.
Of course I realize that neither my nor my daughter's sensibilities exist in a vacuum. Girls are indoctrinated toward (and rewarded for) feminine pursuits, overtly and implicitly. The extent to which anything we like can even be inborn and unaffected by outside forces is unknowable (and I'm not even going to bother trying to figure it out), but we can and do know what interests are nurtured. For girls, that's the delicate and the "pretty," and nothing embodies that more than the idea of "the princess."
The princess fantasy is not without its problems, either. There are the perpetual "damsels in distress," the physical rewards promised to the more adventurous, and the stereotypical proactive (male) heroes in fairy tales. We know nothing about their interests and little about their wits, but we always know that they're the fairest in the land. In an article for The Washington Post, author Rebecca Hains broke down the ways in which ubiquitous princess marketing harms children, and young girls in particular. "The Disney Princess brand suggests that a girl’s most valuable asset is her beauty," Hain writes. "Which encourages an unhealthy preoccupation with physical appearance. The brand also implies that girls should be sweet and submissive, and should expect a man to come to their rescue in an act of love at first sight. "
When my daughter is dressed up as Cinderella she performs elaborate dance routines to adoring (if imaginary) audiences. Or she's a karate master teaching her teddy bear to do flying kicks. Or she's on a treasure hunt.
As in all things, I believe it's important to be mindful of how a medium has been used, how it could be used, and critical of how it is used. But to say that princess stories, make-believe games, movies, and other outlets can only be negative is, to borrow a phrase from Joe Biden, malarkey. I mean, I could just point to the charming feminist-y glory of Rapunzel in Tangled and call it a day, but I'd rather not. Instead, I'll elaborate.
Have princesses (Disney or otherwise) always been the most feminist and proactive of role models for little girls (or anyone)? Not so much. They were characters in stories written by men and, moreover, men from the 17th, 19th, and early-to-mid-20th centuries. So, needless to say, creating well-rounded female characters wasn't really their strong suit. Moreover, many of these stories were first created out of European folklore which served to reinforce the social mores of their day. Unfortunately, those social mores were patriarchal and problematic. But in and of themselves, these princesses are just archetypes. Because they are so vapid, we can ascribe to them any characteristics, motivations, or adventures we please. When my daughter is dressed up as Cinderella she performs elaborate dance routines to adoring (if imaginary) audiences. Or she's a karate master teaching her teddy bear to do flying kicks. Or she's on a treasure hunt. She also wants to rock her baby to sleep or have a feast of "food" she's cooked with wooden blocks, or sing to her pet unicorn, or any number of stereotypically "girly" activities. Literally any of these options are totally fine by me.
There's a brand of "concerned feminist" out there that, not completely without reason, is disdainful of ultra-feminine culture and behavior when it comes to their daughters. After all, it's been foisted upon women and girls for so long as the only real way to be a real woman, it makes sense that it would rub people the wrong way. It's out of that concern that they actively fight against it. "No pink anything!" they'll cry. "No princesses. No Barbies. They can have a baby doll as long as it's gender neutral looking, but none of that froo-froo stuff." But not only would I say this is misguided, I think it's dangerous and, frankly, unintentional misogyny.
What does it say to a girl when you actively shun anything that is traditionally styled as being for girls? Especially if she finds herself drawn to it? What does it convey when most versions of "gender neutral" really just means "only slightly less 'masculine' than typical 'boy' things." Most people, for example, would never describe a beige skirt as "gender neutral," but why not? Because too much of the "gender neutral" movement has been focused on closing out feminine expression all together as something "less than," which was the very problem we were hoping to solve in the first place.
But rather than try to knock the princess down from her tower, why not build a palace for her to live in instead?
Yes, for a long time, putting princesses up on a pedestal as the height of feminine achievement and aspiration hurt generations of little ones, male and female. But rather than try to knock the princess down from her tower, why not build a palace for her to live in instead? And the palace can be full of books and tools and sports and entrepreneurial opportunities and an entire court telling our little girls (and, in turn, the princess herself) that they can be whatever they want. When we do that, our daughters will either become less singularly interested in princesses or the princesses themselves will become more interesting.
Yes, it's deeply problematic when you highlight traditionally feminine as the only thing a girl can be, or discourage her from expressing "non-feminine" behavior or interests. But when you present her with a world of opportunity and she still chooses princesses and pink she's making a choice. Again, it's not a choice made in a cultural vacuum, but if we're going to tell our girls, "You have agency, use it!" we can't turn right around and say, "No, not like that." Our girls need to be able to forge their own paths, and there's no saying they can't do that in a ballgown and tiara.
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