My two-year-old daughter, Elke, and I came home from Target with a pair of glitter shoes, and if that wasn’t enough to trounce my reputation as an edgy suburban mom, I also bought a Disney princess coloring book adorned with even more glitter. It went down like this: Elke spotted Cinderella in multi-colored metallic and said, “That one.”
Until this day, the only idols I’ve worshipped in my house are enlightened, and I don’t mean by the seven dwarfs or fairy godmothers; we’ve got Buddha, Ganesh, and the Hindu god Shiva. I’ve engrained a feminist philosophy in my superhero-loving son that girls don’t need saving. When we’re watching Star Wars, I have made him repeat this mantra about Princess Leia: “Don’t mess with the princess.”
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I swore she would never wear pink. (I’ve since changed my tune.) I ranted about Disney marketing their royal court and quoted magazine articles about princess costume-wearing girls developing grandiosity issues. Princesses were girls with deservedly bad raps—Princess Stephanie, Heather one, two and three, and Sleeping Beauty (what did she do?).
But then I saw the glitter shoes. And the Cinderella coloring book. And I wondered, is my anti-princess stance really necessary? After all, what’s the harm in being a princess. It’s pretend. It’s playful. It’s fluffy. Girls grow out of the princess phase by the time they’re 6, studies say. And besides, the fun in being a girl is about being a girl. Yet still, I felt that my feminist stance was somehow telling me to dismiss all those girly-girl feelings. That sparkle shoes were out of the question. That pink should be put on the back burner. I wrestled with this. So sue me.
Then I read a column by Cinderella Ate My Daughter author Peggy Ornstein in which she pointed out a Target ad that follows triplets walking to school together with the Marlo Thomas’ hippie mantra, “Free To Be… You And Me” blaring behind them. The girls start out dressed alike and then morph into individual styles: a soccer player dressed in yellow, a girlie-girl in a fuchsia tutu, and a nerdy type with baby blue glasses.
I used to think Annie Oakley’s declarative song, “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” was the most empowering motto for girls. But after seeing this Target ad and experiencing my own unexplainable magnetic attraction to all things sparkly, I think Frank Sinatra’s assertive “I Did It My Way,” is more fitting.
If I’m gung-ho for my son to look beyond gender stereotypes, then isn’t it true that I need to allow my daughter to be the person she wants to be—even if it means dressing up like a Jasmine or Snow White? But what does it matter if my little girl dresses like a princess as long as she doesn’t act like one?
So I talked to friend and poetry goddess, Nicole Cooley, author of poetry/parenting book Milk Dress, and who literally handfed feminist versions of princesses to her daughter early on. Her husband read princess books with new endings, “one that were all about agency and female control.” Despite their efforts, Arcadia became deeply drawn to the Disney princesses by three.
“Our opposition to Disney princesses fueled her to desire them more,” Cooley says. They finally succumbed to her daughter’s desire—one that included a Disney princess-themed birthday party. “This is in part, for me, a mother-daughter lesson,” she says. “How to let your girls go, how to allow them not to be you, how to let them be their own person, even if it is not what you envisioned.”
Autonomy is part of the developmental process that parents love and dread. Their desires. Our values. Somewhere, there’s a middle ground. In that regards—the Target ad has it right. But Shauna Pomerantz, author of Girl Power, and a mother of a two-year-old girl, doesn’t believe girls really have a choice. Marketers bombard us with such severity that it’s difficult to distinguish what you like and what you think you like. While Pomerantz doesn’t think princesses suggest individuality, she does believe a girl can take a princess and make it into something different.
“Princesses in and of themselves are problematic if they stay within that one stereotype,’” she says. “If it’s one representation of girlhood then we’re in trouble, but if the parents, teachers, or our culture, are willing to introduce different versions of what a girl can be,” she continues, “that’s girl empowerment.”
This led me to Disney Princess Recovery, a blog written by Mary Finucane who set out to “reclaim” her daughters’ imagination. The number one reason she made her daughters kick the Disney princess habit was because “Putting on a Disney princess dress, my often running/jumping child became stiff and kept her hands at her side stating, ‘Princesses don’t run or jump.’” But Finucane didn’t abandon all princesses—her daughter continues to dress up in generic forms—the difference now is that she’s creating her own storyline.
We should probably give a few princesses some credit; there are a handful who break the mold. There’s the aforementioned Princess Leia. There’s Robert Munsch’s book The Paper Bag Princess where the princess fights the dragon and saves the castle, only to be criticized by her prince because she’s a mess. She responds as a strong-minded, secure princess should: “Your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat. You look like a real prince, but you are a bum.” There’s Mulan with her Kung Fu moves and sword. There’s Princess Fiona, the chubby, tough cookie from Shrek. And there’s my daughter’s new favorite: Rapunzel from Tangled. She stands up for her beliefs, looks gorgeous and frilly and gets the handsome guy in the end.
I thought about these strong princesses the other day when my son’s friend declared, “boys are stronger than girls.” I clarified to the boys that I was a girl and currently stronger and taller than both of them. (I did not mention that I could kick their skinny tushies as well, but I was close.) Later, I asked my son: “What do you think about girls who dress up in princess costumes?”
“You know that boys and girls can dress however they want,” I said. “If a boy wanted to be a princess he could be, just like a girl can,” I said. “And a girl can be a princess, or she can be a baseball player, or look like a boy if she wants.
“I know, Mom,” he said.
“And if your sister wore a princess costume, it wouldn’t make her weak.”
“I know,” he said, “but it’s still a little silly.”
Maybe he has a point. But at least it’ll be her choice.