My Problem With Princesses

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Image By Rebecca Angel.

50 Shades of Grey goes back to Twilight, which goes back to the bodice-ripper romance novels, which goes back to our fairy tales of young, beautiful princesses who need to be taken care of by a powerful man. The song “I Will Save Myself” refers to princesses in fairy tales who annoy me as much as Bella. My two children are teens and I can only hope I instilled a strong sense of self and independence. Now that I have two nieces of elementary age, I’m still worried about our culture and the lure of being the sparkly “princess.”

I wasn’t really into princesses growing up. I loved Star Wars, and yes, Princess Leia was cool, but I really wanted to be Luke. I wanted to be the one who everyone counted on to save the day. I like that there are powerful women in stories, girls who are main characters; my problem is that it’s considered odd or there’s only one cool girl character to every 10 cool boys.

I wanted to be awesome and not singled out because I’m an awesome girl. If the continual challenge of a girl in stories is to prove she is as good as any man, that’s not high enough for me.

My favorite book growing up was A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Except the main character isn’t a princess. It was what her father called her; it became a part of who she was, who she wanted to be. She defined a princess as someone who had the privilege to be generous. Even when her resources were gone, she acted like her father’s definition of a princess. Although this is certainly a “Cinderella” story, the main character is active in fixing her situation. Sarah in that book was another character I wanted to be, much more than any princesses in fairy tales.

In Disney, which has its hands in every facet of media aimed at children, the princess factor is still going strong. In every princess story I know, they are very pretty (and if they are not, that’s the point of the story). I found it annoying as a child. As an adult in the entertainment biz, I completely understand the need for pretty visuals, but I was never a pretty girl, and so I couldn’t relate.

I had a pretty sister who became embarrassed and neurotic about people commenting on her beauty. I felt bad for her, and I was glad to fly under the radar and do my own thing. (This, of course, wasn’t how I felt as a teenager, but that’s a different topic.) So these princesses were pretty (not me), were considered the top of their social heap (not me), and had a lot of money (not me, again). I had more in common with boy characters than any princesses in books and movies.

I know the point of these kind of tales is to fantasize about being someone completely different from yourself. But I liked myself. I had a very healthy self-esteem as a young girl and had no desire to be someone else. I wanted to be me—just more awesome. I liked books and movies that gave me the tools to help me become what I could envision would be the best Becca. Or at least, pretend to be, if I had superpowers. So I needed characters that I could see myself in.

Somewhere in my later childhood years, mainstream media (Disney) did start to reflect different cultures and attitudes towards women, but I think the whole thing became even more ridiculous. Now, they weren’t just pretty, kind, and rich (by the end), but were also clever, strong-willed, and sometimes could fight. And they were princesses?

Does being a princess help the character achieve a goal?

Maybe the definition of a princess has changed. From the press coverage, modern-day royalty hardly live a fairy tale life. Princesses, then and now, are tied to convention, their social class, their money. Their stories have to involve breaking girl stereotypes because the princess one is so ingrained in our culture. Maybe there needs to be some other role our little girls can live up to. There are fantastic stories out there, traditional and new; stories that involve girl protagonists who are both intelligent and kick-ass. They don’t have to be a princess to succeed.

Maybe the entertainment world can learn from A Little Princess: it’s not the title, money, or looks that makes someone a princess, but your character, integrity, and strength.

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16 thoughts on “My Problem With Princesses

  1. I am a strong, independent woman excelling in field dominated by men. Anyone who knows me knows that calling me “princess” is an insult to me. That being said – I’m super bummed about Disney no longer making ANY princess movies! I love the way they’ve evolved and have become strong women with wit and attitude. Even the originals still had good lessons at heart, and these latest women as princess’ are so great! They are warriors and self built women, and they can figure it out and do it in style. (I might eye roll at the hair and clothes that stay perfectly primped amidst all the chaos – but really, Im just jealous that my hair wont do that!) 🙂

  2. I am torn by the Disney models. Mulan is one of my favorites and I really enjoyed the new Rapunzel in Tangled. I loved Cinderella and Snow White as a girl, but I think it was the music in the movies I liked the most. I knew even at that tender age that life wasn’t like a fairy tale, but I appreciated the escape away from reality.

    As as adult I have gotten addicted to Tamora Pierce’s YA books set in Tortall. She has wonderful, strong, girl to woman characters from noble to commoner status. My most favorite is the series featuring Kel, a girl who wants to be the first female knight in a century or so. Great story, all four books!

    Jenni

  3. I’m interested to know your source indicating there are not going to be any more Disney produced princess movies. It seems really hard to believe since they make so much money.

  4. the last princess movie called the princess and the frog were nothing like that at all. it was a about a girl growing up poor and a time when woman were not allowed to own property and she was black. she worked very hard for a living against all odds and even though people put her down and tried to bribe her into doing wrong, she did not give up and worked for her dream. in the end she achieved it. i think that is a good moral. as i kid i loved princess movies but i never thought i wanted to be like them or that life was like that in real life. i just liked the story. and they were cartoons… i never thought i should look like that. they were unrealistic and impossible to look like. they did not set any standards for me besides being a nice story.

    1. My point was more: was being or becoming a princess the main help to this girl? It sounds like it was her strength of character that brought her though the journey, not being a princess.

  5. I actually have always loved Disney movies and think they are/can be great. like jessica said, The Princess and the Frog was a good story with good morals. LOVED IT!! and even in Cinderella, she wasnt a princess until the end when she feel in love (and in Beauty and the Beast). yes, she was priviliged before her father dies but then was a slave for 10 yrs but still had an amazing attitude towards her life and kept her dreams. I understand princess’s are not for every girl, but i think the movies really can bring a good message. and A Little Princess is one of my favorite stories EVER!! to me, thats what a real princess is 🙂

  6. It seems that many of us geek girls (now geek mums) had Sarah from A little princess as role model ! Even me, in France.

    Anyway, rewritings of fairytales are now one of my favorite themes. Many of them are written by women and offer very different figures of princesses. You might enjoy by example all the Datlow & Windling collections (with both male and female authors) : http://www.amazon.com/Black-Thorn-White-Ellen-Datlow/dp/0809557754/ref=pd_sim_b_2

  7. I share the news about royals with my kids (they think princesses never do chores? as IF!) in fact sometimes they’re a perfect learning tool to put the emphasis in hard work and kindness right back onto kids who take the princess thing too far, real or imagined. Why after all Cinderella did nothing but chores, and Snow White chose to live with 7 dirty little men and clean their house in exchange for lodging. Not exactly something fabulous in that. Although she was a great leader and even managed a nap while the animals worked. I love the whole Frozen’s Anna/Kristoff conversation of ‘you’re marrying someone you just met TODAY?!?’ and how those crazy storylines are undone by one dialogue in a modern flick. I don’t think there’s so much a problem with princesses as a problem with parents not challenging everything their kids watch and read as a way to learn and think critically. I have a problem with nearly every cartoon character out there- yes they’re probably deliberate flaws (Princess Amber of Sophia the First is chronically stuck on herself, for example)– and my kids know their issues too- because I point them out and I say ‘hey how could she have done this better?’ or ‘wow I like how Sophia included the shy kid in the group, that was really nice’ — it’s up to parents to be involved and look for teachable moments. No book, movie or cartoon is perfect. That’s when the Geek Moms and Geek Dads become the knights on white horses with the perfect question to bring the whole thing back to reality.

    1. Agree, Jill. As for real-life princesses (and princes), the best examples I can think of to point out to a young child (girl or boy) are Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton–both of them have managed to be as “ordinary” as possible in their lives…

    2. Good points about having conversations with kids- critical thinking! And I enjoyed the Frozen storyline that revolved more on sisterhood issues than romance ones, but my point would be: why did they have to be princesses for the storyline to work?

      1. That’s a good question, there are a few Disney things coming up that are NOT princess, and I think that’s great. I guess with Frozen there wouldn’t be any impetus to ‘take back the kingdom’ and ‘unfreeze your subjects’ if there was no princess back story. Elsa probably would have created an ice cottage instead of a castle. Not to mention if she was a ‘regular’ person, people finding out about it would not have been as traumatic, either. They probably would have just killed her outright, as a ‘queen’ she had at least a little bit of protection as she perfected her craft and figured out that love was the true answer after all. Just like celebrity gets a ‘pass’ when they get in trouble in ‘real life’… I use quotes because quite frankly, celebrity culture is entirely a facade created by Hollywood, and some people just soak up the benefits (and curses) of it…. I don’t think my kids are big enough to handle the ‘how would this be different if she wasn’t a princess’ story… but maybe some people with older kids will find this a fun exploration!

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