If I was going to be controversial and isolate myself from the few people who genuinely enjoy reading what I write about, then this, this could be the very blog to do it.
I want to talk about princesses. I debated whether or not the word should be given a capital ‘P’…but lower case. Definitely lower case. It has occurred to me that princesses are no longer a thing of fairy tales and fantasies. Princesses now walk among us every day: at school, at work, in Top Shop changing room…literally everywhere. And I don’t remember it being like that 20 years ago. The only princesses I remember 20 years ago were Lady Diana and Princess Anne. And they certainly didn’t walk among us. Even Disney princesses weren’t really a ‘thing’. But now? Now everyone is a fucking princess. Not like Princess Diana or Princess Anne though. No. Modern day ‘princesses’ would have kicked them out of the princess society for wearing floral smocks and jodhpurs, and for driving a mini metro, regardless of their credentials.
For the people who know me fairly well, they will know that I regularly refer to ‘Princess Syndrome’ (I’m copywriting and patenting it) . The belief that they don’t have to play by the rules because they are beautiful; special; different; gifted. I just don’t know when it started. I don’t ever remember my mum referring to me as a princess. I was encouraged to get dirty, ride bikes in jeans, skin my knees in roller skates and dig up worms with my hands. Dresses of taffeta and frills were a rare occurrence for Christmas parties and family gatherings. When I had my own daughter 18 years ago, she was never my Princess. She didn’t wear a dress until she was 1 – life was too short to force little legs into tights and I was 22 and definitely not displaying any sort of Queen-like,mother-of-a-princess behaviour. If I or my daughter had been a princess though, we would have been my very favourite one in the whole world: The Little Princess (Only ever to be uttered in the wonderfully northern accent of Jane Horrocks).
But I am faced with it daily now. And Something I saw the other day posted by a young person I know forced an involuntary sound of despair out of my mouth:
“My parents treated me like a princess my whole life, you think I’m expecting less from a man?”
So, this could be empowering. But I don’t see it like that – and I have thought a lot about Princesses over the last couple of years. And it is not the real, living breathing princesses that girls are brought up believing they could be – nobody really wants to be Kate Middleton, travelling the world, silently supportive of her husband, doing as she’s told by her immortal queen and the world press. Pippa? Pippa yes. Kate, no.
So who do we refer to when we tell our girls that they are princesses? The beautiful creations of Disney, with their bouncy blow-drys, perfectly clear skin, 18 inch waists and tuneful voices? Yes, I think that is exactly who we refer to. Has anyone in the history of the world ever clutched their chest at the sight of a beautiful young woman dressed for their wedding day, held their breath and tearfully declared “You are just as beautiful as Princess Michael of Kent”? Hmmmm. What about Cinderella? Belle? Snow White…?
But here’s the thing. Why do we tell them that they are princesses? What are we actually telling them? That they are beautiful; that they are special; that they deserve the best; that they sre entitled; they are better than other girls because they are a princess? Yes, it can be empowering. But also it can be limiting. Girls absolutely should believe that they are deserving, that they are worthy of the very best. But they also should believe that they are in control of their own success, their own destiny, regardless of appearance or privilege.
And I have an issue with fairy tale princesses. They are just so predictably weak. Almost always they require some sort of rescue by a man, who is both devastatingly handsome and in a position of power. A man to break a spell, a charm, a mishap that the little, tiny-brained princess couldn’t see the danger in for herself. Oh please. In the real world, while Snow White is sleeping, the football is on Sky Sports and the kids are eating jam out a jar for their dinner. He’ll give her a kiss when he feels frisky, she’ll wake up on high alert and poised to perform, while wondering how she is going to get that fucking jam off the ceiling.
Not only are princesses weak, they are defined by their beauty, as if that is the most important quality there is. As if Rapunzel would have been rescued by the ‘handsome prince’ had she heaved her giant blonde fishtail over the tower walls, only to reveal a terrible dose of acne, glasses and a flat chest. Why should our girls be defined by societies perceptions of beauty as a tool for success and achievement? And, worse than that, as a reason to look down on their sisters who don’t possess the stereotypical good looks of Disney. Why are we teaching them that their ‘prince’ will only come if they are perfectly coiffed and prom-ready 24/7?
Why are we teaching them that they need a handsome prince at all?
Because they are princesses. And princesses hold no power without a prince. And this is the fundamental mistake with Princess Syndrome. Have you ever noticed who the most powerful characters in fairy tales are? The women. Always the women. The Queens; the witches; the step-mothers. Power and magic. Too powerful, too clever and too mystical for the Kings, the princes, the wizards – the queens and witches reign. The Queens are often presented as being beautiful…but old and jealous of the youthful and more beautiful princesses, which makes them bitter and ugly at heart. No mention of how every man in the Kingdom seemed suddenly interested in fetching berries for the bouncy blonde with the bee-stung lips, while she mends your trousers on the spindle…
But I digress. Power. The queens and witches in fairy tales were always my favourite characters. I could never form any sort of attachment to the hapless princesses (or their silly fathers for making deals with witches over stealing cabbages without first discussing it with their wives). They always seemed so transparent to me. I wanted to know the back story of the witches; of the ‘wicked queens’. Who drove them to wickedness? What happened to them? Did they graduate with first class Bio-medical Chemistry degrees but they had warts and a big nose so success wasn’t an option? Because chemistry seems like a more valuable virtue than identifying a pea under 20 mattresses and 20 eider-downs…
But if you look at the history of a lot of the Disney princesses, they are often a softened version of very Grimm and gory tales of woe and of male empowerment and betrayal. Take ‘Maleficent’ for example. In the earliest versions of 17th Century ‘Snow White’ the queen is not a villain but, in fact, a queen betrayed by her husband, who leaves her for the younger (and therefore more beautiful) Talia. ‘Petty’ jealousy and vanity is the reason for her cruelty; In later versions, bitterness ensued by old age and replacement by youth and beauty in the guise of princesses are recurring themes. But when Angelina Jolie took on the role in 2014, her beauty (and ability to wear rubber while still gaining the film a child-friendly rating), her poise and grace provided a different back story; A story of a misunderstood guardian, betrayal by her love in favour of power and the literal clipping of her wings. But it is the wronged woman; the clipped, yet resourceful, woman, who defies her fate, saves the princess and lives happily ever after without her prince. The King and the Prince conspired and lied, but she survived with her dignity and regained her power and identity.
And we could all learn a lot from Maleficent (not least how to make Halloween fetish-season). Especially the Aurora’s of this world. Why would you be Aurora when you could be Maleficent? Why would you be Anna when you could be Elsa? Powerful, magical and with no desire to marry the first man who finishes your…sandwiches (that’s what I was gonna say!)
And what about our boys? How are our boys ever meant to live up to the fairy tale expectations of the princes, who will rescue beautiful damsels in distress and promise to treat them like princesses all their lives? Don’t we want to raise our boys to believe that women are their equals, that women are strong and powerful and independent and that they should ALWAYS look beyond the exterior, encouraging and supporting them to achieve their own success?
But times are changing for princesses in the world of fairy tales and Disney. No longer is the depiction of strong, powerful women such an ugly negative trait. So it is time to change the perception of princesses for the future generation of girls. Why be a princess, who requires marriage and the power of someone else to validate who you are as a person, give you what you think you deserve out of life, when you can be a Queen, holding all the power, being in control of your destiny, your own kingdom and answerable to no-one.
I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for Snow White, who was diverse, kind and accepting, but I’ll always be a little pissed off that she allowed the men, who had been shunned by every other human in society until she came along, to treat her like their own personal slave. In her favour though is her resourcefulness to convince forest creatures to help her clean. What a gal. I can’t pay people who love me to help clean a toilet, so the fact that she got Bambi, Thumper and co to hang out a washing is testament to her wavering power. The unfortunate incident of her being duped by an apple on their watch, however, suggests that maybe they weren’t as psyched about it as she thought.
Don’t raise princesses, raise Queens. Not all princesses become Queens. And nobody messes with a queen.