by Michele Yulo
Princesses can be all things to all girls. Just ask Disney or take a look at their latest attempt to strengthen their princess brand--a video that basically says if you are a girl, you are a princess first and foremost, and then you are everything else:
Descarte's "I think, therefore I am" comes to mind only according to Disney girl philosophy it is, "I am a princess, therefore I am." Don't get me wrong--I am not saying the message here is horrible nor is it going to solve the world's problems. On the surface it seems incredibly sweet and empowering with lines like, "I have heard I am beautiful, I know I am strong." Deeper analysis, however, is necessary especially when it comes to a massive corporation like Disney continuing to further their marketing agenda which is to say continuing to push their billion dollar princess empire. In so doing, they are still trying to fit all girls into a single model--even while expanding that model. I do give them some credit for trying to broaden the very definition of princess to include adjectives that go beyond the typical identifiers, but in my opinion they are still getting it wrong. Yes, a princess can be all the things described in the video, but not all girls can be a princess.
In anticipation of those who would say I'm somehow evil for not wanting girls to be princesses or that there is nothing wrong with playing dress up in a tiara, gown, and glass/plastic slippers--let me reiterate that I don't have a problem with princess in general or little girls who play dress up once in awhile. While this is the Princess Free Zone, princess is alive and well and not going anywhere. I just felt, in a world in which princess is a major force in the lives of girls, there needed to be an equal and opposite place where girls know they can be free spirits without the tiara because I have a daughter who is living proof that all girls do not fit into that mold, and there are many like her. But this video surpasses the idea of princess as simply fantasy play; instead, it takes on a much more serious tone by normalizing the idea that every girl is a princess in her everyday life.
That is the issue. This blanket assumption that every little girl is, needs, or wants to be a princess is patently false. By replacing "girl" with "princess," it's almost as if Disney would have us believe that girls are somehow biologically destined to be a princess first and a girl second, as if there is some dominant "princess gene" found in their DNA. While some girls do enjoy the princess fantasy, it is only a single expression of girlhood. Princess should not come first--being a girl should come first: a brave girl, a compassionate girl, an athletic girl, an intelligent girl, a funny girl, etc. Why does there have to be one monolithic trope that attempts to put all girls into one category? Simply put--because it sells. And this video goes even further to broaden the appeal by incorporating princess as not just a facet of girlhood, but the very essence of girl.
You might have seen this video of Sonya Sotomayor that speaks to empowering all kids through a conversation about careers with Sesame Street's Abby Cadabby.
When Abby enthusiastically proclaims she wants "a career as a princess!" Justice Sotomayor explains to her that while "pretending to be a princess is fun...it is definitely not a career" or "a job." (And the juxtaposition of Justice Sotomayor in her black robe against Abby in her princess costume is striking.) She goes on to provide Abby with a host of career options including teacher, lawyer, doctor and even a scientist. She makes it clear that princess isn't the be-all to end-all and not a realistic aspiration which it shouldn't be. As a result, Sotomayor places princess exactly where it should be: a fun thing to pretend.
Interesting to note as well is that this is not an issue for Disney with respect to boys. You won't see Disney making a video that addresses boys as a prince, for instance, or anything else for that matter. That's because boys are offered a variety of models to choose from and are represented in many imaginative ways including super heroes, warriors, ninjas, pirates, explorers, etc. There is no single one role or form of play that is pushed on boys the way that princess is pushed on girls. We need to ask ourselves why that is, as well as how princess culture affects boys in general. Also, what about boys who actually like princess themselves? How about girls who want nothing to do with princess? Why is it so difficult to accept that children are just as diverse as adults and that, by pushing princess onto girls (and boys) in this way, it either reinforces stereotypes or alienates girls who don't see themselves this way--either way, it's not good.
I believe that attempting to turn the idea of princess fantasy into reality is problematic. This is not about princess play--it is about allowing children to be free from stereotypes, to explore their identities without an identity being forced onto them. There are princesses who are real, and I'm pretty sure that real-life princesses are not all like Snow White. What I do know is that they are all girls. So, Disney--go ahead. Make a great video that tells girls that they are strong, that they are brave, that they are kind, generous...all those things. Just drop the princess so girls know they can choose to be whatever they like.