Stop telling girls they are princesses

Disney's 'princesses' through the years.

Disney's 'princesses' through the years.

Parents of girls, I have some wonderful, gender-specific news for you! Admittedly, it’s not actually my news or genuine news – I work in the media, so just about everything I write about is in fact spoon-fed to me by publicists, but nevertheless, it’s truly wonderful news for all fans of princesses.

I said, PRINCESSES!

It turns out, and brace yourselves, that Disney is holding “an exclusive Disney Princess film Festival which will take place in Event and Village Cinemas between February 9th and March 17th.” And you should definitely take your daughter if she needs a frontal lobotomy and you can’t afford the procedure.

Here’s what the press release says:
 

“Themed “I Am A Princess”, the Film Festival reinforces this proud statement of what a Disney Princess stands for. It is a celebration of the Princess inside every young girl, and champions the qualities that make her one: Kindness. Compassion. Loyalty. Bravery.”

 All of which is absolutely wonderful news for you and your child if, like Disney, you have absolutely no idea what a Princess is.

Firstly, let’s be very clear that there is not a Princess* inside every young girl. That would be weird, and probably illegal. In fact, I would advise that any young girl who thinks she has a Princess inside her be immediately treated for schizophrenia.

Secondly, I have to break some bad news. Despite the marketing slogan and the choice of the disney.com.au/iamaprincess web address, no, you are not a Princess.

In fact, there are a grand total of zero Princesses in Australia, except for the very rare occasions when one deigns to visit us, like in September last year when Princess Catherine visited Brisbane for a regal two hours while refuelling.

The Brisbane Times reported on the day that it was “described as a "very special moment for the Brisbane airport",” although without specifying by whom. Walt Disney’s cryogenically frozen corpse, perhaps?

In fact, Princesses acquire their titles either by birth or marriage, when they become inductees into a feudal system that most countries, including Disney’s beloved America, have dumped on the grounds of being archaic. But in Australia, and other Commonwealth realms, there are simple rules that establish whether you are a princess or not. For one thing, you have to be descended from Sophia, the Electress of Hanover, as provided by the Act of Settlement in 1701. And let’s be clear that per that Act, if you’re Catholic, not only are you most emphatically not a Princess per that Act, but you can never become one. And no, I’m not making this up.

Furthermore, in the UK at least, attempting to interfere with the line of succession is grounds for high treason. So if you love your daughter, you should actively discourage her from making any claim to be a Princess. In fact, Disney’s web address should have been disney.com.au/iaminnowayaprincess.

So now we have established what a Princess is, and that you definitely aren’t one. But let’s look at the characteristics that Disney thinks define Princesses: young girls who display kindness, compassion, loyalty and bravery.

Firstly, being a Princess is not age-specific. Princess Margaret was one until she died at the age of 71. (Not that it seemed to make her life much happier, seeing as she wasn’t allowed to marry the man she loved.)

But as for the other qualities – sure, they’re nice attributes to have. Certainly, America’s best-known (albeit fictional) princess, Princess Leia, has them – and is now in fact a Disney Princess, due to Walt’s company’s Borg-like assimilation of Lucasfilm as part of its ongoing quest to own every piece of intellectual property ever.

However, it is in no way necessary to have those qualities to become a princess. If you read the Daily Mail’s exhaustive history of Catherine’s relationship with Prince William – or, at least, just skim it like I did – you’ll see that in fact all it takes is to attend the same hall of residence with a Prince and then shack up with him and a few mates the following year in “a smart flat in Hope Street”.  And then, except for a brief period where he dumps you, you pretty much become a Princess.

Another proven method of attaining Princesshood is to go to a bar in Sydney during the Olympics. I tried this repeatedly in 2000, but I didn’t hook up with an heir to the Danish throne, sadly.

Because, as much as Disney pretends otherwise, the reality is that we are not all special. This Princess obsession ties in with one of the most persistent and inaccurate ideas in American popular culture – that we are all important, just like Princess Catherine. We aren’t. Our weddings aren’t watched by millions, we don’t get to spend more than $50,000 on clothes in a six month period, and our sisters’ bottoms aren’t the subject of some bizarre global fetish.

The very meaning of the word special is ‘something that is set apart, and not like everything else’, and as our daughters will soon learn from the Kardashians, the reality of the world is that some people get to be special and some don’t. It makes no sense, but that’s just how it is.

Idealising Princesses is also unhealthy in feminist terms, as Kasey Edwards recently wrote in Daily Life. It’s a point rather unsubtly made in the Sesame St video featured in that article, where US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomajor discusses career choices with a Muppet known as Abby Cadabby. I felt its point was somewhat undermined by the fact that Sotomajor was talking to a fairy puppet who is clearly the more obvious aspirational role model of the two, since she can turn herself into whatever she wants and has a recurring role on Sesame St. But regardless, it’s a much healthier message than Disney’s.

If I ever have a daughter, I will never call her Princess, even if I somehow marry into a royal family. I’ve taken this idea from Princess Anne, who requested that her children not be given titles. That’s why Zara Phillips is not a Princess, unlike, say, Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice. Not having a Princess “inside her”, or even on her exterior, did not prevent Zara from being an Olympic silver medallist. Whereas Eugenie and Beatrice are best known for ridiculous hats.

While children of both sexes should aspire to Disney’s ideals of kindness, compassion, loyalty and bravery, the world’s leading children’s entertainment company should figure out a way to promote them that doesn’t involve royalty with its inherent privilege and notions about birth. Princesses embody the opposite of the American dream that anyone can make it – which is itself a somewhat misleading notion.

By contrast, boys never play at being Princes. Our heroes tend to be ordinary guys who turn out to have extraordinary powers, or something along those lines – Harry Potter, for instance, or James Bond. Equally unattainable, admittedly, but at least it doesn’t give us silly romantic notions about royalty.

Clearly there’s no harm in watching Cinderella or Mulan. But can we please stop telling girls that they are Princesses? They aren’t, and nor should they particularly want to be.

* I wouldn’t ordinarily capitalise “princess”, but of course I defer to Disney on such matters.

 

63 comments

  • If girls stop thinking they're princesses there'll be repercussions down the line. I foretell a crash in the wedding industry when the non-princess cohort begins to reach that milestone.

    Commenter
    BC
    Date and time
    February 08, 2013, 8:31AM
    • Wife's already booked the family tickets for Mulan,
      Gotta love a cut price lobotomy, Dom.
      Just hoping we can escape without the kids seeing the merchandise stands (impossible, I know)

      Commenter
      Daddyo
      Date and time
      February 08, 2013, 8:33AM
      • I don't think there is anything wrong with calling little girls Princesses. I call my 5 year old grand daughter my Princess and she loves it. Even at the age of 5 she knows she's not a real Princess - sure she doesn't know any kind of Princess other than the ones she sees on Disney but so bloody what?
        Is it so wrong to let kids just be kids and enjoy all that silliness and frivolity before adulthood snatches the life out of them? Is it so wrong to let them have fun and pretend? LIfe is going to get pretty hard for them later so let them have fun.

        I don't know of a sinlge little girl (and I know many girls) who was called Princess that has grown up being mentally, or otherwise, scarred by this.

        It's like watching soapies or dramas on tv - the characters don't really exist but we get right into it.

        Feminists sometimes take their feminism too far - I'm a woman by the way - in that they try so hard to be independently female that they take all the fun out of being a woman.

        I will continue to call my grnaddaugher my Princess and I will continue to buy her every Princess outfit I can.

        Commenter
        Princess lover
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        February 08, 2013, 8:49AM
        • Fantasy is fun and pretending to be something you're not is part of the joy of childhood. I absolutely agree. But please, make sure that your granddaughter has some balance. I've seen so many young women whose ideals were skewed by the diet of fluff that they start to believe that life is going to be perfect for them without any effort on their part. Their only goal: find their Prince. Life's greatest achievement: living Happily Ever After. Real life entails working and striving, not dressing up and having things handed to you. Try not to make that realization too painful for the girl.

          Commenter
          TK
          Date and time
          February 08, 2013, 9:31AM
        • I am 24 and my Dad has called me Princess ever since he came with me to see the movie A little Princess when I was about 5 or 6. In the movie there is a line "every little girl is a princess" and he has always said that to me and I know he says it affectionately.

          The disney portrayal of women is definitely something that needs to be addressed given the way that women are portrayed in these films/cartoons. I think children should be treated with love and affection and if that includes a little girl being called princess by her parents or grandparents then I think that is ok because I love that my Dad has called me that for almost 20 years.

          Commenter
          kit
          Date and time
          February 08, 2013, 9:57AM
        • "Feminists sometimes take their feminism too far...in that they try so hard to be independently female that they take all the fun out of being a woman"

          Uuuhh...being independently female *is* part of the fun of being a woman!

          Commenter
          Donna Joy
          Date and time
          February 08, 2013, 10:56AM
        • "I don't know of a sinlge little girl (and I know many girls) who was called Princess that has grown up being mentally, or otherwise, scarred by this."

          ummm...you don't have to look any further than the wedding industry to see the damage being caused by the "princess ideal" The idea seems to be that "your big day!" (the brides big day of course) and "you deserve to feel special" what about the groom? never mind that a marriage about 2 people spending the rest of their lives together, not just one big day to "feel like a princess".

          Then there is the problem of so many girls thinking that a viable life plan is "to find a rich husband" ummm.... how about learning to fend for yourself and if you should happen to find a nice guy (or girl) to share your life with, then that would be nice... but if not then that's not the end of the world either is it?

          Commenter
          S
          Date and time
          February 08, 2013, 12:56PM
        • "I don't know of a sinlge little girl (and I know many girls) who was called Princess that has grown up being mentally, or otherwise, scarred by this."

          Not always "scarred" but certainly dumbed down, and with an attendant loss of natural individuality and ambition to achieve something beyond looking pretty and wearing a pretty dress and marrying a handsome, rich blank canvas of a prince. Of course, some are scarred, as they grow up and realise they will always fall short of the impossible physical ideals they have been sold as the ultimate purpose of their femininity.

          Because when we say "princess" we really mean "beautifully decorated and rich". I once showed some little girls a photo of Princess Beatrice, and was universally told by them that "she isn't a real princess" because she was dumpy and unattractive. See, real princesses are skinny, blonde and pretty.

          It's not even about the social esteem, let's not kid ourselves. It's ALL about the looks and the dresses. THAT is the ambition we sell little girls in teaching them to aspire to be "a princess".

          Commenter
          Red Pony
          Date and time
          February 08, 2013, 1:24PM
        • A couple of years back, I was chatting with a woman who was concerned that her five year old daughter was obsessed with girly pink stuff (and Disney princesses). I told her it was OK, I was like that when I was five too. I'm not sure whether she found the thought that her daughter might grow up into some sort of punk/gothic/generally anti-social creature wearing her own weight in death-themed silver jewellery entirely reassuring... but at least she walked away knowing that, for some of us at least, pink is curable :)

          Commenter
          andilee
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          February 08, 2013, 1:25PM
        • @ TK And guys grow up thinking they're the Prince to be revered for bringing in an income and screwing the top off a jar. Realistically, most women work these days TK, most still do most of the household chores, most still do most of the child caring, most still do most of the caring for elderly family. Single women who may appear to be a 'princess' to you, will shortly be the wife who does everything including bringing in half the income while also bearing children and running the house. Perhaps you should consider your own view of yourself as Prince and have a hard look at reality TK. Perhaps bringing in your half of the income and opening jars isnt so princely after all.

          Commenter
          Rachael
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          February 08, 2013, 5:38PM

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