4 Jun 2010

The Princess Paradigm

The Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique is dedicated to every True Princess who ever dreamed her sneakers were glass slippers and to girls who believe it’s better to twirl than walk, sing than talk and that everything goes better with sparkles. For now, she wants her own Fairy Godmother, a little sprinkling of Fairy Dust, and the glamorous attention every Real Disney Princess deserves. You supply the dream and we’ll supply the style and magic to help you make your fairy-tale dreams come true.

Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique brochure, Walt Disney World

Some people don't approve of princesses. Peggy Orenstein, for example, in her article for the New York Times, What’s Wrong with Cinderella?. Peggy recounts the displeasure she feels when her three year old daughter is referred to as 'Princess' by the checkout chick at the supermarket, is served a 'princess meal' at her local brekky joint, and is handed a pink balloon at Longs Drugs. When she eventually arrived at the dentist's office she, in her own words, finally became unhinged:

Dentist: Would you like to sit in my special princess throne so I can sparkle your teeth?

Peggy: Oh for (goodness or a word to that effect) sake! Do you have a princess drill too?

The dentist stared at her as if she were an evil stepmother.

Peggy: Come on! It's 2006, not 1950. this is Berkeley, Calif. Does every little girl really have to be a princess?

Daughter: Why are you so mad, Mama? What's wrong with princesses?

I'm with the three-year-old. What's wrong with princesses, indeed? Peggy, it seems, after recovering from her embarrassing diatribe at the dentists, worries about impact that the Princess paradigm might play in her daughter's future. She worries about the gender and racial stereotypes. She worries about the conventionally feminine beliefs. She worries about her need to be perfect, kind and caring, to please everyone, be very thin and dress right. She worries about her wanting to wear glass slippers and travel in a pumpkin coach. This, it seems is not what she wants for her princess daughter.

Yet, despite raising her own daughter to be a modern empowered young lady, it seems Miss Three has a mind of her own. And Miss Three likes being a princess.

More to the point, when my own girl makes her daily beeline for the dress-up corner of her preschool classroom — something I’m convinced she does largely to torture me — I worry about what playing Little Mermaid is teaching her. I’ve spent much of my career writing about experiences that undermine girls’ well-being, warning parents that a preoccupation with body and beauty (encouraged by films, TV, magazines and, yes, toys) is perilous to their daughters’ mental and physical health. Am I now supposed to shrug and forget all that? If trafficking in stereotypes doesn’t matter at 3, when does it matter? At 6? Eight? Thirteen?

On the other hand, maybe I’m still surfing a washed-out second wave of feminism in a third-wave world. Maybe princesses are in fact a sign of progress, an indication that girls can embrace their predilection for pink without compromising strength or ambition; that, at long last, they can “have it all.” Or maybe it is even less complex than that: to mangle Freud, maybe a princess is sometimes just a princess. And, as my daughter wants to know, what’s wrong with that?

Personally, I don't think there's anything wrong with Jemimah dressing up as a princess for a time. Because you see, the rest of the time she's not the Princess Jemimah at all. She's just plain, common Jemimah, Australian country schoolkid, with her chores and the drudgery of everyday life. Kinda like Cinderella before the ball, but not quite as bad. Kinda.

Peggy's daughter asks what's wrong with Cinderella:

“There’s that princess you don’t like, Mama!” she shouted.

“Um, yeah,” I said, trying not to meet the other mother’s hostile gaze.

“Don’t you like her blue dress, Mama?”

I had to admit, I did.

She thought about this. “Then don’t you like her face?”

“Her face is all right,” I said, noncommittally, though I’m not thrilled to have my Japanese-Jewish child in thrall to those Aryan features. (And what the heck are those blue things covering her ears?) “It’s just, honey, Cinderella doesn’t really do anything.”

Now I'll admit here that I'm not very up with the Disney version of fairytales. Jemimah and I rely on Daddy to tell us which princess we're actually meeting, if truth be told, but in the version of Cinderella that I know, Cinderella does quite a lot.

My Cinderella is lovely, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self controlled. (It is a fairytale, after all.) She is graceful, refined, loyal, industrious and polite. Reserved and Patient. She is chaste.

Despite her circumstances she is not angry, bitter or miserable. Rather, in contrast, she is tough and resilient.

And it is because of who she is that Cinderella becomes a princess. It is not because of what she was, but because of who she was as a person that makes her Fairy Godmother come on the night of the Ball. She makes her more beautiful, but she doesn't make her more good. She was that already.

Jane Yolen in America's Cinderella writes this:

Cinderella speaks to all of us in whatever skin we inhabit: the child mistreated, a princess or highborn lady in disguise bearing her trials with patience and fortitude. She makes intelligent decisions for she knows that wishing solves nothing without concomitant action. We have each of us been that child. It is the longing of any youngster sent supperless to bed or given less than a full share at Christmas. It is the adolescent dream. (299-99)

This is the dream that Disney picks up on in their Disney merchandise - not just through Cinderella, but through all their Princess Merchandise. This is the dream that they refer to in their Bibbidi Bobbidi mission statement at the top of this post. Disney helps your little girl to become Princess for a day, and Jemimah, for one loves being a princess more than almost anything else.

What's wrong with girls wanting to be princesses? To me, absolutely nothing. I will continue to help my daughter to be the best that she can be. I will help her to be the woman that God wants her to be. And if she wants to be a princess for a few days along the way then so be it. I'll just be there to document the experience:

Bibbidi Bobbidy Boo!


  1. What delightful pictures and a very special day for a special young lady! Such wonderful experiences and memories to store up! xxx

  2. Oh, she just looks gorgeous! That would have been so much fun!

  3. Looks like a lot of fun! I never cared if EITHER of my kids dressed up as anything--it was imaginative! Reminds me of our long-ago trip to the American Girl Store in Chicago!

  4. Well-written post, Jeanne. Both of my daughters went through a multi-year princess phase, and, while Disney Princesses (should I type a TM after that, I wonder?) were not the rage when I was a child, my sisters and I still dressed up in my mother's old elegant dresses and hats. Frankly, it seems to me that Disney is merely profiting (and how!) off something little girls have always loved to do: dress up and be fancy.

    And what's wrong with that?

  5. Yes, this is an interesting post. I have my reservations about Disney and Hollywood propaganda but I don't mind my girls being called 'princesses', or pretending they are princesses, and they love fairy tales. I just think that if they don't watch TV commercials, and are not drawn into the material world we are sold all the time around us, they'll be better off, but as far as their imagination, they can pretend as much as they want.

  6. Ah, and I second Ellen's thoughts, well said Ellen.

  7. I can imagine that was so much fun for your daughter.

  8. She looks beautiful!

  9. How fun does that look!!! Madison is going to do it as her birthday treat on the 18th at Disney World in Orlando. I am so excited for her . Jemimah looks fab although I don't think I spelled her name right! lol I love princesses.

  10. She looks beautiful, and so happy!!

    My daughter was never into princesses at all, so it was never an issue around here. I do have some concern over the newer Disney princesses because of their outfits (particularly Jasmine from Aladdin - too much skin!), but who can resist a Cinderella dress? I think it's good and right for little girls to be feminine, with modesty, of course. :o)

  11. Ooh, how about Song of Solomon, the original Cinderella story? John & Stasi Eldredge's books talk a lot about why we love these stories in relationship to God's design and plan.

    Having two boys that love having me play with them, I've only recently begun to get in touch with my princess-side. Having read fairy tales from all over the world, princesses, for the most part, are portrayed as adventurous & wise (or become wise).

    I agree with Sue, nothing wrong with a princess unless she's dressed as a you know what.

    Well, HRH Jeanne, your Jemimah is a lovely princess - how was she ever able to choose her gown?

  12. Nothing wrong with a little girl wanting to be a princess and a beautiful one she is too!
    We are very much into princesses and much to my chagrin - Barbies!


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