Princesses: you either love ’em or you hate ’em. Some say that they promote the class
system, dependence on men and passivity in young women…and others just
really, really love fantasizing about balls and poofy dresses. As a fantasy
writer, I find this debate fascinating, both because it impacts how we see
fantasy as a genre, and because it tends to place a lot of cultural
significance on princesses that I’m not sure we can universally pin on them.

So for those of you just tuning in,who don’t read a lot of literature on women’s issues or have little girls, I’ll
just spend a moment re-capping the debate, as I understand it. In the
anti-princess camp, we have a lot of very well-meaning people who want to stick
up for women and teach young girls to be independent and not rely on men or
marriage to achieve success (a worthy goal in and of itself), and so they
attack much of ‘princess culture’ as they have dubbed it, as just another brainwashing
tool of our society to make girls fit into a pink plastic mold. And I get it. I
don’t really like the sea of pink in the ‘girls” toy aisle either. It is
limiting that boys have a world of colors and activities thrown at them and
marketed to them, and girls have one color only.

And that brings me to the other (extreme) side of the debate… people who use the word princess as a term that
only gives worth to women and girls who behave a certain way, conform to
societal expectations and act in a passive manner, waiting for a man to come
and save them. Since this is usually a PG blog, I won’t get too much into
purity balls here, but you’ll get pretty much all you need with a Google
search. The word princess is thrown around a lot in these circles, too, which,
I believe, is really more of an attempt to cash in on Disney culture for their
own ends rather than Disney or fantasy works really promoting this view.
Naturally, I don’t condone these types of views. In all relationships, it takes
two to tango, and if the people running these events are so concerned about the
behaviour of their daughters, shouldn’t they have a similar event for their
sons?

As is often the case, I think that the truth about princesses and what they mean to us lies somewhere in the
middle of these two polarizations.  I don’t agree that being a princess or playing princess or writing princesses
always has to be limiting. After all, princesses eventually become Queens,
don’t they? I think, in some ways, little girls play princess because they’re
trying to own their own power as a woman. They’re trying to negotiate just what
makes them special, and how their femininity intersects with power. They’re
trying to learn how to be who they are (a young woman) and be powerful and
strong. That’s what I think girls playing princess are searching for.

And, I suppose where you stand in the debate depends on how you see princesses and their narratives. Some people
would look at, say, Disney’s Cinderella, and say that she never does anything
for herself, she always submits to the abuse that is heaped upon her, and in
the end her reward is getting married to a rich man that she doesn’t know,
which is supposed to solve all of her problems. I can see where people are
coming from with this argument, it’s just that… well, like most other fairy
tales, I have always seen them more as unrealistic metaphors that serve to
teach people about virtue and vice, rather than something we should be directly
emulating. What I always got from Cinderella, even as a kid, was that she is a
really, really nice person who dreams of the freedom to choose her own
relationships and get out of her abusive family situation. I think the point of
her being as sweet, kind and longsuffering as she is, is to point out that she
hasn’t been tainted by the cruelty that’s been shown to her, but rather lives
in the memory of her kind father and the hope of something better in
future.  Her story is more about the divine reward of virtue and eventual punishment of vanity and cruelty rather
than a brainwashing text about how I need a husband. In fact, I would say that
the villains of the piece are the ones who are desperate for a husband at any
cost. Because Cinderella is kind and unblemished by the world, she deserves the
best things in life and divine help (in the person of the fairy godmother) even
if she never stops being a servant girl. Yes, the fact that she gets this
through marriage is dated. But this story was written in… what, the
seventeenth century? And at least the Disney version shows Cinderella talking
to the Prince all night and hitting it off with him… it’s not like he just
appears as a random stranger and wants to whisk her away to his palace. They
meet, they talk, they fall in love. I guess, as far as the ‘classic’ Disney
movies go, I think we should leave the debate where it is. They were made fifty
plus years ago, and for the time they were made, they really weren’t all that
horrible with the gender stereotypes. As long as we contextualize the movies
for our daughters, and explain that society has changed since then, what’s the
harm? Most of the message is about being a good person, not about being
dependent on a man. And. let’s face it: they’re well made and fun to watch.

That being said, there are obviously many new movies and products being produced now with the ‘princess’ label
which, I believe, are far more pertinent to critique, as they reflect how
society feels now about princesses and the agency of girls and young
women. There are many products out there that I just can’t stand with the
super-pink labeling, and I won’t lie about that (those horrible Barbie
direct-to-video movies, anyone?), but there are also subversive things going on
in the world of princesses that I think are worth looking at and pursuing. The latest
two Disney princess movies, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled, in my
opinion, provide great role models for young women. Tiana is a hard-working
African-American woman who is determined to open her own restaurant, even in
the face of racism and poverty, and she is not impressed by the overtures of
the lazy ‘prince’ until he learns to do things for himself and grows some
character. At the end of the movie, instead of ascending to some lofty perch as
an ornamental figurehead, the prince joins Tiana in starting an exciting
upscale restaurant on the waterfront using his inheritance as the start-up
cash. Rapunzel of Tangled  is a strong-willed young woman with the hereditary creativity and strength to rule a
nation, but who must first overcome something many, many young girls must deal
with: a belittling, selfish parent who wants to lock them away rather than let
them spread their wings. I not only enjoyed these movies, but I identified with
these characters as people, real women, not just a stereotype in a pink dress.
They’re princesses too.

In the world of books, I was also inspired by Rob St. Martin’s Princess Smith and the Clockwork Knight. What
makes this book great is that the lead character, Britt, comes into her own as
a princess not by being graceful or beautiful or well-mannered, but by being a
rough-and-tumble smith’s daughter who can pilot a mech suit with ease and forge
her own iron crown. These traits serve her better as a ruler than being
mannerly or pretty, but she is still very much a princess. I think the key here
is that good princess stories look at the title of princess as being about
power and responsibility, about using what you’ve got to fight for your people,
rather than being (all) about the manners and dresses and tea. If we run with
these themes of princess-hood, I don’t see why princess stories can’t be all
that we want them to be for our girls, and much, much more.

So, in conclusion, by all means, let’s not fall prey to tacky marketing campaigns that want to define our daughters
by the colour pink. Let’s encourage them to be their own people, and not be
defined by societal expectations of who they are. But, conversely, let’s not
blame all of these problems and pressures that they face on princesses as a
whole. Princesses are only as flexible as we, as active participants in the
art-making process and engaged citizens, make them, and I don’t think we’re
done with them yet. I’m still going to write princesses into my stories, and,
like many of the young women and girls I admire, they’re going to be as bad (or
as good) as they want to be.