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.