“Well-meaning members of your own families may have even called you young ladies “princess” and never realized how deeply problematic that sort of thing is for moral, conscientious people.”
--My Professor, Winter Term 2012
Is it? Is it really, though? Because trust me, I understand how problematic the focus on princess toys for young girls and the exclusion of other types of toys can be, and I understand how the gender gap is expanded when “girly” toys are relegated exclusively to girls and “boyish” toys exclusively to boys from infancy to adulthood. I understand how problematic it is to teach a young girl that the ideal woman is a damsel-in-distress type, thus setting a precedent for the thought/expectation that a woman should put aside her own abilities, confidence, and even individuality in favor of relying on a man to create her happiness. I understand that the sort of mentality set up by such thoughts and expectations provides what is essentially a blueprint for abusive relationships, dangerously dependent relationships, negative stereotypes, and, of course, a situation which is ultimately self-perpetuating. I’m one class away from a Women and Gender Studies minor, so trust me, I understand this.
But my parents called me princess. In fact, my mother still calls me princess. My parents called me babydoll. My parents painted my room pink and gave me Barbies and American Girl dolls and princess dresses and let me play at cooking and cleaning and never questioned the way, when my brother and I played house, that my brother would go off to work in his “inventor’s workshop” under the piano bench while I stayed in the blanket fort with our large brood of dolls and stuffed animals and played housewife. They let me pick all the petals off all our geraniums so I could make ink because I was playing princess and needed to keep up correspondence with the royal families of nearby countries. My parents enrolled me in dance lessons and piano lessons and the most pointless Girl Scout troop ever and let me read princess books and watch Disney movies and thought my obsession with fairies was cute. They humored me. They attended my tea parties. My mother taught me to sew and my grandmother taught me to make biscuits from scratch. My brothers were taught to change a car’s oil and whittle while I burned my fingers with a hot iron and polished the candlesticks with harsh-smelling Brasso and experimented with scrapbooking and planned sleepovers. And my parents put me in dresses and hair ribbons and twisted up my straight hair into foam rollers from time to time when I asked. They let me have a terrifically messy kiddie makeup set. Oh yes, I was the princess. My bed had a canopy and my grandfather built my dolls a wardrobe, and, as the only girl in the family (for twenty years, anyway, although that’s no longer the case) I was thoroughly spoiled. On the surface, it sounds like a feminist’s nightmare.
But you know what? This princess has done all right. This princess loved learning how to clean and cook and sew, and she appreciates those skills today when her friends (who were tomboys as children) are squicked out by cleaning the drains and scrubbing the showers and carting out the trash, and she appreciates those skills when they come to her for such simple questions as “how do I know if I’ve overcooked the pasta?” and “how much water should I boil for rice?” and she appreciates those skills when they sheepishly approach her with popped-off buttons and torn-out seams and a sort of desperate plea for help, because, for all of their drive and intelligence, she has this weird practical advantage sometimes. This princess? Yeah, she learned how to sew and not how to fix tires. But the patience and persistence she used teaching herself how to crochet, how to knit, how to embroider, how to spin, how to weave, how to follow a pattern, and how to sew without a pattern have served her well in figuring out the instructions for the Fix-a-Flat, in figuring out the road system in central North Carolina, in figuring out how to plan and enjoy a two-week solo expedition around the UK. Know who babysat for ten years and is more comfortable with little children than any of her friends? Yeah, that’s this girl. There’s definitely a relationship to be drawn there between being comfortable with girly childhood activities and taking care of little girls. Know who learned a tremendous amount of American History from her dolls? Yep, you guessed who.
And this princess, the one whose mama called her babydoll, yeah, she played for hours and hours with baby dolls and Barbies and AG dolls and Polly Pockets. For the record, though, although there were plenty of marriages and births among my Barbie colony, my dolls were all smart and strong and adventurous, and liked fairytale adventures in which they carried swords and wielded magic and pioneering tales in which they dealt with hunger and illness and social problems every bit as much as they liked the galas and tea parties I also routinely threw.
Maybe this princess here is just special because, sure, her parents treated her like a princess, but they also gave her every educational opportunity and nurtured her interests and encouraged her to read and write so that it was years before she realized that not everyone considered the translation of words on a page into beautiful images in a mind to be an effortless miracle. So that she thought tests were fun and loved projects and assumed that everyone was horrified by anything less than a 95% on a paper and took getting into college as a junior with a scholarship as a simple matter of fact. Maybe. This girl’s parents, after all, gave her the gift of intelligence and, more importantly, the gift of loving to learn.
Additionally, she was blessed with two younger brothers who taught her how difficult it can be to live with other people but also how very worth it compromise can be. Those brothers of hers used to play house with her and dress up with her and bring her fairy-spy-princess-warrior-house-castle games to life. They wrestled with her. They cheated at games and called her out when she cheated and messed with the stuff in her room and told on her even when they’d made deals to not tattle. They whined about attending her dance recitals, but they came anyway, and gave her flowers. They didn’t hate her even though she sometimes beat them up, and she brought them their stuffed dogs and bears and lions when they cried. And, in fact, they still do these same things, just dressed up in more adult disguises. So these brothers and she, they’re close. That counts for a lot in a woman’s positive self-image and all, I know. I’ve read the books and the articles that talk about how it’s important for male family members to have solid relationships with their sisters and mothers.
Have I lost my train of thought here? Because what I’m trying to say is that yes, maybe this princess wasn’t harmed too badly by her pink-and-purple upbringing because the upbringing also included a loving family and an emphasis on education and imagination. (The complete aversion to sexuality when she was in her formative years probably helped too. No popular television, Bratz dolls, PG-13 movies until the age of sixteen, R-rated movies until college, understanding of makeup extending beyond the concept of mascara, negative body image based on anything beyond ballet capabilities, revealing clothes, or any interest at all in grinding on other people at school dances. In fact, the majority of these disinterests hold true today despite the prevailing opinion that she is technically an adult and that the formative years are more or less over. She has figured out eyeliner and television.) Perhaps that’s true. But really, I don’t think it’s the pink and the girly toys and the dressing up that messes girls up and has to be negated with other things. It’s when parents teach that you can’t be anything but the glittery supermodel, that your worth is based on looks, and that your interests aren’t worthwhile. That’s when girls get messed up. It does a lot more damage to tell your child she can’t read something she picked out because it’s “above her reading level” or “too long” (heard both of those before while babysitting, and they broke my heart) than to forbid her reading a book about sparkly unicorns or writing stories about the Disney princesses meeting each other (not that I ever did that. *Cough.* Early fanfiction experience for the win?) because they’re “too girly.” I believe that firmly. Yet I know a lot of people who would hate for their daughter to do such things because it “sets them on the wrong track” towards a big slap in the face of feminism.
It doesn’t set them on the wrong track. Deciding that that’s not the track for them—that you know the right track for them—is what sets them on the wrong track.
And yeah, sure, this princess has spent the past three weeks in a terrible funk of sleep, internet surfing, homework, and pacing fretfully while panicking about the future, but I can guarantee that none of that is related to her parents’ decision to call her a princess when she was growing up. If they’d called me grasshopper or cupcake or slugger or, heck, anything else, I would still be pacing fretfully and chipping the polish off my nails because graduation is approaching so rapidly and it freaks me out.
So people? Lay off the pink-bashing. It’s just a color, and nobody’s freaking out about blue. Quit acting like Barbies are responsible for every eating disorder in the world. That’s ridiculous. Call your daughters whatever you want, including princess, so long as they like it. I promise, it’s not going to ruin them any more than it ruined me.
And I'm not very ruined.