Forget about vanity, aristocracy, and idealized beauty - here’s what really concerns me.
Springtime is here, and with birds singing, flowers blooming and cute, fuzzy animals scampering through the yard, it’s time to broach the topic on everyone’s mind: princesses.
Perhaps I should specify that when I say “everyone” I mostly mean “little girls”. America’s under-five crowd (the female half) is in the grips of a massive princess craze, fueled especially by the Ministry of Happiness (also known as “Disney”), which has presented us with an adorable cast of plucky young heroines, perfectly balanced to provide that irresistibly charming combination of sassy and sweet. Go to a little girl’s birthday party nowadays, and the chances are excellent that you’ll be greeted with princess-themed hats and picnic-ware, along with sequins, plastic tiaras and fluffy pink gowns.
Is the princess fad sinister, or should we laugh it off as a normal developmental stage? Possibly it’s even something we should encourage? To date I myself have avoided this problem through the wonderfully effective strategy of having only boys. There is a possibility, however, that may not work indefinitely. And given my deep discomfort with “princess culture”, I figure I’d better just get to the bottom of this grave ethical question right now. Should parents indulge a daughter’s fascination with Ariel, Tinkerbelle, or Rapunzel?
Having read several other people’s takes on this subject, I think my concerns are slightly different from many people’s. I’m a low-key mom, and I don’t obsess over-much about “commercialization”. Naturally I don’t want my youngsters to be hapless pawns of a degraded culture, but I can’t see that liking Spider-Man or Lightning McQueen along with the other little boys has done them any harm. It makes birthday decorating easy and gives them something to talk about on the playground.
I know multiple parents who are far more vigilant than I about protecting their kids from themed characters and fad toys, and I think they have some reasonable concerns. But I also think that turning kids into displays of their own cultural rejectionism can itself be a point of pride for some parents, and potentially an unfair burden to foist on children. Being uncool isn’t a worthy achievement in its own right, and sometimes a toy car is just a toy car.
Part of my personal discomfort no doubt comes back to my own distaste (from childhood onwards) for hyperbolically feminine things. Nevertheless, I have some inclination to defend princesses as a positive for little girls. I think imaginative play is a wonderful thing, and it’s healthy for “let’s-pretend” fantasies to develop along aspirational lines. The aristocratic bent doesn’t bother me. I approve the invocation of fairy tales and idealized medieval times. And I don’t especially mind that the princesses are slender and pretty. Most of them do still wear ankle-length gowns, after all. There is something innocent and sweet about the princess persona, and I can understand why parents find it cute.
But here’s the problem, in a nutshell: princesses are pointless. They have no important function in the world. In fact, with occasional exceptions, they never really had one. Nowadays representative democracy has uniformly reduced royals to powerless figureheads, which is a reality that children may happily ignore in their imaginative games. But even in the heyday of monarchies, when kings could summon fleets and send armies marching across continents, princesses were still mainly decorative. They were useful for cementing political alliances through marriage, and as set-pieces to be trotted out at state dinners. That was mostly it. True, it did happen now and again that they became heads of state. This was rare, however. On the whole, princesses are as useless and inconsequential as the highly-privileged can be. My biggest worry is that this may actually a large part of their appeal.
I’m not ruthlessly utilitarian, but I still see this as a problem. Wouldn’t it be better for our girls to pretend to be mothers, or virgin martyrs? Couldn’t they play Judith or Joan of Arc, or even Our Lady herself? (She is, after all, the Queen of Heaven.) Children ought to have fantasies, but I’m just not convinced that princesses represent the best of virtuous womanhood.
It’s obvious how playing princess might fuel characteristic girlish vices such as vanity and laziness. Girls know of course that princesses are supposed to be beautiful, that everyone is expected to love and pamper them, and that even small animals rush to help them with everyday tasks such as getting dressed. Ordinarily the way to ward off vicious tendencies in imaginative play is by helping the child to appreciate the true purpose (or characteristic virtue) of whatever he or she is pretending to be. Princesses don’t offer us much to work with in this regard.
Boy fantasies are so much more promising this way. Boys pretend to be heroes, soldiers and knights in their imaginative play. They slay monsters and rescue innocents (princesses!) from danger. As a mom, I’ve been rescued from more hideous creatures than I can count. To be sure, there is vicious potential in these roles too, because they involve the exercise of power and the use of violence. I see these games as wonderful opportunities for talking to my sons about justice and courage, and what honorable manhood entails. I find it utterly endearing how small boys in footie pajamas can take such questions so totally seriously. They can’t even tie their own shoes yet and already they’re burning with righteous zeal, anxious for the day when they can stand as protectors of the weak and innocent.
Of course, they’re still small children. They can admire true heroism, but they don’t actually possess heroic discipline or a chivalric command of their emotions. At least I understand how boyish aspirational fantasies can be employed to good purpose.
Is there a way to employ princess fantasies to similarly good effect? We might use them to encourage girls to be polite and well-groomed, which is something. It might not hurt to remind girls that if they are princesses, their parents must be kings and queens, whose authority should at all costs be respected. Should I ever have a princess-obsessed daughter, I will try to impress upon her the aristocratic virtues such as good taste, a love of learning, and magnanimity towards the less fortunate. But I’d just as soon stick to the warrior fantasies.
Should God be so generous, however, I’d be just as happy for a daughter who (like my own young self) trends in a less girlish direction, and never begs for a plastic tiara or glitter nail polish.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.