"If we don't like princess traits when we see them in adults, then why would we want to encourage them in girls?" Photo: Rob Campbell
My daughter was called names three times on Saturday. Actually, she was called one name by three different people. And that name was ‘Princess’.
Every time I hear the term I cringe — and not just because I’m a republican and the idea of inherited titles strikes me as absurd and offensive. I don’t call my daughter princess because once you get beyond the tiara, big hair and the sparkly dresses, there’s not much left.
Princesses rarely act, but are acted upon. Their lives are scripted out before them and their identity is permanently linked to a man or, at the very least, patriarchal institutions. They lack spontaneity and are confined to a life of being looked at from within a gilded cage.
Princesses in popular culture are either boringly passive or have an overbearing sense of entitlement.
Of course when people call my daughter a ‘Princess’, they mean it as a term of endearment. It’s supposed to send the message that she’s special or ought to be treated in a special way. But once girls hit puberty, the term loses its gloss.
It’s not for nothing that the phrase ‘Suck it up princess’ is thrown at anyone — woman or man —who’s perceived to be work-shy or weak. It’s a rather unsubtle way of telling someone to get over themselves.
If we don’t like princess traits when we see them in adults, then why would we want to encourage them in girls?
Referring to girls as ‘Princess’ is a form of benevolent sexism: sexism that appears on the surface to be positive, and is often done out of good intentions, but ends up restricting women within narrow confines of traditional gender models.
Putting girls on a pedestal reinforces traditionally gendered behaviour and conforms to cultural norms about how girls and women are ‘supposed’ to act: passive, lacking agency or autonomy, and always well groomed.
Just look at real-life princesses such as Kate Middleton and Mary Donaldson. They’re lauded for their looks and the fact that they were ‘chosen’ by a posh bloke who owns property and palaces. One of the only ways they can express themselves is through their selection of frocks. Even then, this can apparently be overruled by their mother-in-law.
As Hilary Mantel observed of Kate Middleton in the London Review of Books, ‘Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character.’
Mantel went on to distinguish Kate from Diana, who, up to a point, broke the mould of what a princess should and should not be and, before her death, was alternately praised and punished for her troubles.
And who cares about Mary Donaldson’s achievements in business or life anymore? In the media and the popular imagination, she’s a baby machine with a nice wardrobe.
My daughter will have to contend with enough social, cultural and economic pressures to conform to stereotypes, so why would I add to them?
And there are so many alternatives roles for girls to explore without going near a pink frou-frou dress, such as warrior, detective or explorer. All of these appeal to girls. Katniss Everdeen has captured girls’ hearts and imaginations with her warrior ways while Dora the Explorer has made Nickelodeon a packet with her curiosity and sense of adventure. Or you can simply opt for other adjectives compiled by others, such as smart, curious, a leader, or strong.
That’s not to say that you can shut out the princess programming altogether. My daughter, for example, dresses as a princess whenever she gets the chance. And she re-enacts the scene in Disney’s Frozen — the story of two princesses who are sisters — on a regular basis.
When it’s her preference, I don’t have a problem with my daughter playing at being a princess. In fact, when she’s acting out her own fantasies, I encourage it — especially when this involves singing Queen Elsa’s ‘Let it Go’ at the top of her voice while dancing around a shopping centre as she did last weekend.
But I want it to be playtime and clearly fantasy. I don’t want her to think that this is something to seriously aspire to or to reinforce the identity. I don’t want my daughter to think that she doesn’t have to work hard for what she wants or to think that a life of thwarted ambition and financial dependency is the best she can hope for.
As the first man in her life who loves her, it’s my job to make sure she knows that she’s worth more than a transaction where she makes herself pretty and compliant in exchange for compliments and a meal ticket.