Princesses are an interesting subject. I have come to realise that there are apparently two distinct camps in real life and not just in fairytales: the adoring subjects and the hostile opponents. In the first camp are the parents and their little girls who relish the stories, the images, the songs, the dresses - indeed any kind of product stamped with a princess - and are attracted to them like magpies to jewels. They are loyal adherents to princesses, and certainly see nothing harmful in them. And in the second are the parents who battle this imagery on a daily basis and cultivate a strong contempt for all things 'princess'. These are the parents who wince at princesses on cereal boxes and at birthday parties, and believe that these sylph-like figures stand for all the wrong things.
I used to sit confidently in the second camp, but am now wondering why. What is it about princesses that creates such a following or aversion? Is it even about princesses per se, or more about what they have come to symbolise and how this image has been exploited? The stereotypical Disney princess with certain physical features and attributes is plastered everywhere and has become an unchallenged, unconscious brand associated with fun and girlhood. In fairness, these princesses have recently become a little more representative of an advancing society - they are increasingly of different races, strong, independent, outspoken, questioning of the norm, etc etc. In fact, if they remained at the level of characters in stories, there is not so much that is harmful about them. But the stories these princesses come from are rarely the focus. Because of the constant over-exposure, princesses are inflated like balloons into images filed with air; character isn't what's important.
The extent to which princesses saturate the world around them, then, is surely what creates such a reaction. If the image of a princess is everywhere, it is bound to imprint itself on little minds that vigorously absorb their environment. Children become attached to something that is familiar, colourful and cosmetically appealing; the industries that use the princess image know this. And so our little ones are sucked into consumerism, and become the playthings of their own toys. This is surely what the 'hostile opponent' camp notices. On top of this, the aesthetic of the princess image is generally narrow and prescriptive - pink, shiny, slender, luxurious, exaggerated. For a parent who prefers different things, it is all too easy to dislike princesses en masse.
But is there more to it? Many images are manipulated and overexposed by the media; are princesses particularly worse? We cannot avoid the important issue of gender. Princesses are marketed at girls, not boys, and their image is undeniably bound up with restrictive definitions of femininity and beauty. Whether this image is really shaping a little girl's ideas about life is another question - and one that leads us back into the home, into family life, values and conversations that I believe have far more influence on growing minds. But perhaps the greatest worry is this: that a child's aspirations become entwined with those of a princess. Her story invariably involves a romantic dynamic with a man; she is fairly self-absorbed; she is unrealistically beautiful; and she is somehow superior to others, or earns her place to be superior by the end of the adventure. When explored, these are not exactly the highest aspirations for a young child. They are powerful messages, and a lot of parents simply don't agree with them.
For parents who wish their children to possess certain qualities - to be humble, to be of service to the world, to be selfless - the princess isn't really a substantial role model. But nor is any fictional character - not really. Children need a lot more than that. We all need many more wholesome examples of how to be than what the world currently, generally, offers. So while there is a great deal that is questionable about the princess culture, perhaps we need to think about occupying another camp that is less extreme. Surely it is preferable to raise children to be discerning, than contemptuous; to enjoy stories without becoming enslaved to them; to understand that princesses are not role models, but nor are they intrinsically bad. I'm not trying to white-wash this whole discussion with 'everything in moderation'. But I do feel that it's our responsibility to help children to understand what's important in life, rather than assume that this guidance comes primarily from what toys they play with or what films they watch.
This post first appeared on A Searching Eye http://asearchingeye.weebly.com