Should little girls be encouraged to "embrace their inner princesses" or to fight against them? Readers discuss the princess obsession.

By Salon Staff
Published November 30, 2004 1:00PM (UTC)
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[Read "A Nation of Little Princesses" by Christopher Healy.]

Take heart, Mr. Healy. Just teach your daughter that she can be anything her heart desires, and she'll turn out OK. Trust me.

I recall being a generic princess, Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty several years in a row for Halloween. My mother often drew beautiful pictures of princesses on my hand at my request. I was truly obsessed. And my younger sister -- well, we've got home movies of her traipsing around the backyard in a princess ball gown, with a little sequined crown on her head, imperiously whacking the bushes with her wand.

But at the same time my ultrafeminine mother fed our princess fantasies, she constantly told us we could be whatever we wanted. "Don't be a nurse, be a doctor. Don't be a stewardess, be a pilot," was her constant refrain. Neither of us ever questioned that college was in our future. We dreamed of diplomas first, engagement diamonds later.

By the time I was in high school, I was a staunch feminist. I refused to be a cheerleader -- I'd rather play soccer than cheer on the boys football team any day. I also wrote letters to the editor of the school paper criticizing sexist remarks I heard in class, and the mural in our school cafeteria that depicted our school's mascot, a knight, with a maiden literally lying at his feet (don't ask; this was Modesto in the early '80s).

I went on to become a newspaper reporter, delighting in beats once held only by men (cops and politics), and doing things like scuba diving with sharks for fun. My sister, who did take the cheerleading route and loved it, was recently named partner at her law firm. I dare say she makes more money than her attorney husband.

Let your daughter embrace her inner princess; but also encourage her inner president. Who says she can't be both?

-- Coleen Bondy

Three cheers for you, Bryn! May you continue to resist your parents' "progressive" impulses. I wish you luck in your upcoming battles over Barbie dolls, lip gloss, telephone use, boy bands, glitter body powder, bikinis, wine coolers, birth control and 4-inch heels. I fought those battles myself, against parents who believed that I was smart, wonderful and capable of anything. It's difficult to fight those who want the best for you.

But, no matter how well intentioned they are, your parents are wrong. There's nothing wrong with pretty things, nothing wrong with glitter, nothing wrong with the color pink. There is also nothing wrong with dolls, table manners or courtesy.

Your father knows that you are not weak (and no matter how angry you get during your struggles, princess, don't forget what a great blessing that is). But he believes that your strength should enable you to climb out of the world of the feminine. He believes that you should transcend the world of dolls, dress-up and princesses to embrace the heroic world of firefighters.

Maybe you can change his mind, maybe you can't. But I hope that you never come to believe this yourself. It's a horrible trap for those women who naturally gravitate toward the girly. It leaves you with two choices: acknowledge your love of the feminine and decide that you are unsuited for competition, struggle or independent thought; or, hide your girlieness, and let it fester deep in your heart until it forms a core of self-doubt, a suppressed need that will rise up to shame you every time you crave something pretty or yearn to have your physical beauty acknowledged.

Your dad is right about one thing: Disney sucks. And it's as tempting as candy. Just remember: No princess can live on candy alone. Tell your dad to buy a copy of the Brothers Grimm to counteract Disney's sanitized versions of classic tales. Keep playing dress-up games. Your father has no idea how varied and nuanced your pretend play will become in the next few years. Once you're a little older, spend hours on your clothes and makeup. It's important to your future. If you don't understand how to make up your face by the time you're 15 you will never learn. And remind your father that every girl and woman is beautiful and deserves to fuss in front of the mirror for as long she wants.

Good luck, darling! It's a fun, exciting time to be a girl; an amazing number of choices are open to you. Don't let anyone ruin that for you, not even those who love you best.

-- Sheila Underwood

As someone who was exposed to plenty of girlie brainwashing while growing up in the '70s, I'm in deep disagreement with the conclusion that all this princess stuff really isn't so bad.

Like many of today's little girls, I too had an early love of escapism. My sister, girlfriends and I played princesses. We played housewives. We played Charlie's Angels. None of this sounds all that damaging, except for the fact that as I got older, those fantasies never really went away. Sure, I eventually outgrew the fairy tales, but these segued easily into romance novels, all of which also featured beautifully dressed (albeit sometimes feisty) women who invariably found their happiness through hot, rich men. So convinced was I that this was the only route to self-worth and eternal bliss that at 20 I actually moved to Scotland, largely because they had castles where presumably I would be able to scrounge up a knight in shining armor.

Only through the slow passage of years have I gradually come to understand that in spending all your time waiting for a fairy tale to happen to you, you are wasting the one real life you've been given. But you know what? I think the truth is that I haven't grown up as much as I think. I believe a large part of what now allows me to be happy in reality is that I wound up, solely by chance rather than merit, securing a number of those fairy-tale elements in my actual life. I happen to be skinny and reasonably cute; I happen to have married an attractive guy I love who makes a lot of money. If I had instead grown up to be an ugly duckling who had no man, I would probably feel like crap, even if I were a rocket scientist. And everywhere you look in our society there is overwhelming evidence that millions and millions of women do indeed feel like crap -- just take the eating disorders, the obsession with looks and weight, or the fact that women are still earning less then men in every state and doing lots more than their fair share of domestic drudgery. And it all starts with those insidious messages girls receive in childhood from the likes of those innocent-looking Disney princesses.

So questioning Disney is a good start. Now we've somehow got to raise awareness in our daughters and figure out how to teach them to really fight back.

-- Helen Young

Boys and girls are different. They not only look different, but they act and even think differently. It is biological. I, too, took the gender-neutral toy approach with my children. My 2-year-old son played with Barbie as much as anything else. Once he saw a dinosaur, however, Barbie was history. He is almost 6 now, and he loves dinosaurs, Hot Wheels and video games. But he will still watch Barbie's Swan Lake from beginning to end and ask to see it again. The argument that Disney is responsible for a girl wanting to be a princess is just as ludicrous and fallacious as the belief that playing with a doll will make a boy gay. I do not worry about my son playing with "girl" toys and I would not trade the smile that Cinderella brings to my little girl's face for anything.

-- Michael Fortner

As a former little girl, I don't vibe with the transformation theory. I think the princess appeal rests in being unassailably special and important without having to earn the honor --"earning" being a kind of submission to other people's judgment from which most children find a fantasy escape. A princess is the ultimate self-esteem allegory.

Which brings me to this question: Shouldn't we be more concerned about the moment in puberty when this confidence falters, and the young girl starts to care what other people think of her? Real princess training could ease this transition, if it meant knowing that no external circumstance or opinion could detract from Her Highness's real worth.

-- Cath Gulick

There are plenty of good alternatives to Disney. What about Madeline? What about Little Bear? Nickelodeon and Noggin have great alternatives as does PBS. Even better, cut off your cable/satellite and limit the TV. We are always trying to show our daughter that more than cartoon characters exist in the world.

Let our children stay princesses as long as they can -- but only if they can recognize that being a princess is not about quick fixes and money. Every girl should strive to be a princess or goddess or superhero or whatever you deem to be good. It is up to us to show them the difference.

-- C.S.

Leave the child alone. She's not playing with matches or razor blades -- she's pretending. How can she ever develop her imagination if she's only steered in the direction her heavy-handed dad wants? Tacky as princess life may be, it's the child's choice. Allowing her to make these choices is all part of being a parent. Forcing your own taste and preferences down her throat and into her brain is a good way to ensure rejection of your values -- all of them, including the ones that have more serious impact on Bryn's life than wearing a tiara.

-- Kate Coe

When my daughter was younger, she went very quickly through the glittery-shoes-and-tiara stage straight on to mermaid, which lasted considerably longer. She grew her hair long (all mermaids have long hair, she told me), and when her hair was long enough, she would be a real mermaid. She took shiny and sparkly bits of fabric from my stash and made fins; she spent hours in the bathtub, swimming; and all of her dolls became mermaids  or the princes who married them. As a feminist with strong views on the subject of female roles in society, I had trouble with this, but hoped she would grow out of it.

My daughter was a mermaid for as long as she wanted to be. Then she became Zena, and would answer to no other name at preschool. Many roles later, she is now (going on 25) intensely interested in wolves and cats and planning to become a veterinarian and a writer. Other roles gave her the opportunity to grasp power for herself instead of waiting for it to be handed to her (or for her hair to grow long). When a girl has a chance to try on different personae and find the one that works best for her, I think she'll eventually find colors other than pink that suit her well.

-- Terri Carl

As a single adoptive mother to a very feisty and formerly blue-jeans-only daughter, I have been sideswiped by the princess syndrome. While my daughter loves the dresses, and craves hearing how beautiful she is (no lie there), what dismays me is that she seems to be most taken with the "marry a prince and live happily ever after" part of the stories. She quite swoons as the prince sweeps the princess off her feet.

I can tell her that there aren't many princes out there, and she tells me that there's a prince for every princess. I tell her that "happily ever after" just doesn't happen and she tells me that it does for princes and princesses. I pray that she has more success in love than her mother, and I tell her that she isn't getting married until she's at least 30 anyway. But ... I'm pretty sure the princesses have won.

-- Barbara Pennucci

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