The topic of gender stereotypes in American culture tends to provoke interesting conversations. Virginia Postrel writes about “princess culture” and why this has such staying power in a culture and country that has never had real princesses:
Yet among today’s educated urbanites, “princess culture” is the subject of raging debate. What some parents consider innocent make-believe, others deem character-eroding indoctrination. Calling your daughter a princess fosters “a sense of entitlement and undeserved superiority,” declares one mother, commenting on a CafeMom post called, “Is the Princess Fantasy Dangerous?” Others fear that princess stories teach girls to be pretty and helpless, waiting for a prince to rescue them instead of acting on their own behalf. Should liberated women let their daughters play Cinderella? It’s a topic with which mommy blogs never seem to tire…
Neither of these need entail narcissistic entitlement or female passivity. Even that old-fashioned children’s classic, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1904 novel “A Little Princess,” portrays an imaginative, individualistic young heroine. Suddenly orphaned and destitute, Sara Crewe imagines herself a princess not only to escape her miserable circumstances but to maintain her good manners and self-control. “If you were a princess,” she reminds herself, “you did not fly into rages.” When unfairly abused, “you can’t sneer back at people like that—if you are a princess.”
For all its Victorian stoicism and sense of duty, this princess dream shares the mixture of openness and elitism that gives princesses their contemporary appeal. Like the superhero, the princess has a special identity and destiny. She is more than an ordinary girl. But her value is not determined by playground hierarchies. You don’t have to be popular to be a princess. You can be an iconoclast, even an outcast, but you must be worthy. You must be good. In this version, as my then-5-year-old niece once wrote me, “Anyone can be a PRINCESS.”
Postrel suggests that princess should be a broader term than referring to a girl who is just pretty or just acts in a dignified manner. Perhaps this is the key to the whole debate: simply change the definition of what a princess looks and acts like. Could we have a brainy princess? Could we have a devious or curious princess rather than just submissive princesses?
Thinking about it from another angle, what powerful alternatives to being a princess are there that would appeal to young girls? Wanting to be a princess seems to be powerfully shaped by being raised in a particular cultural milieu. While I’m sure there are lots of people who would say that there are all sorts of alternatives, are these commonly presented in the media (movies, TV) or in popular culture at large? Do we have and want heroines who kick butt and don’t take no for an answer? And can’t we push for alternatives by buying and consuming different goods?