The problem with princesses: Teaching little girls the difference between reality and fairy talesWritten by Kathryn Sorrells
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The folks in the marketing department at Disney are evil geniuses. When anyone asks my four-year-old daughter, Cedar, what she wants to be when she grows up, she replies matter-of-factly, “A princess.”
Recently, Cedar informed a friend of mine of her intended "career." My clever friend nodded and told Cedar that princesses do a lot of important work, like helping take care of sick people and representing their countries abroad. Cedar considered this for a moment, then, to my horror, announced that she was not interested in those aspects of princessing – only the fancy dresses.
We all grow up swimming in a narrative soup where an array of stories shape the way we understand the world and who we are in it. Although I keep adding Biblical stories to Cedar’s pot of soup, sometimes it seems like they just can’t compete with the glitz and glamour of the princess stories. These ladies have become my daughter’s heroes, and their only claims to that honour are their pretty faces, impossibly buxom physiques and beautiful dresses.
Are the princesses a harmless phase that little girls outgrow? Or are they an insidious cultural force that promotes impossible beauty and a sweetness that is out of touch with reality? (Cinderella makes clothing for mice, for Pete’s sake!) I suspect the answer lies somewhere in between, but it’s a grey area that can be hard to navigate.
My friends tell me Cedar will grow out of this stage. I’m sure she will, but in the meantime, I want to ensure that the princesses don’t leave behind a residue of unhealthy attitudes and values.
Is there really a problem?
I see three possible negative consequences of the "Princess Phenomenon." First, the princesses have the potential to cause low self-esteem in young girls. As in the adult world of glamour magazines, the flawless beauty of the princesses can make a girl feel ugly in comparison. It pains me to hear one of Cedar’s friends frequently ask her mother, "Am I pretty? Am I as pretty as Ariel?"
Second, the princess stories may lead to shallowness and vanity. When my daughter says she wants to be a princess when she grows up, what she really means is that she wants to be wealthy and beautiful. This does not jive well with the Biblical assertion that "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised" (Proverbs 31:30).
Sure, the princesses have some redeeming character qualities: Belle loves books; Cinderella is a hard worker; most of them are sweet, gentle and kind. I try to emphasize these positive traits, but what truly captivates my daughter is the princesses’ beauty and wardrobes.
Finally, I have concerns about what the princess stories tell my daughter about romantic relationships. They make her want to be rescued. They make her want to be swept up in a fairy-tale romance. They make her want a lavish wedding. I know she is decades away from real courtship, but these particular romantic desires are often a recipe for disaster in marriage.
You might expect that there are no princesses allowed in my house. Au contraire. My daughter has seen many of the princess movies; I even bought her several princess costumes at the local thrift store.
Even if you somehow manage to banish princesses from your home, your daughter will likely see them, hear about them and admire them when she encounters other children at school, the park or in friends’ homes. Their trademark faces appear on everything from toothpaste to Band-Aids to chicken noodle soup. It’s particularly a challenge these days to find a children’s school bag that doesn’t have a licensed character on it.
So what can you do to fight the "Princess Effect"? For starters, in our home we quietly put the princess movies away. (Shh, don’t tell Cedar! She hasn’t noticed yet.) We still have movie time at our house, but we pick movies that don’t feature royalty. If she wants to sing an Ariel song or pretend-play the Sleeping Beauty story, I don’t make a fuss about it; I don’t want to give it the power of forbidden fruit. But at the same time, I don’t allow her to regularly feed on these stories through the powerful medium of the movies.
If your daughter is a rabid princess fan, a great place to start is by simply asking her what she likes about a certain princess, why bad things happen in the story, even why good things happen. Under your guidance, she will examine the princess’s character, as well as the story’s causes and effects. Ask her what she would do in the princess’s situation if a prince didn’t show up to help. This will help boost her self-reliance and problem-solving skills.
You can also ask questions to help her understand whether this is a true or fairy-tale type of story. For example, you might ask, "Do people really live this way?" Kids are smart. When they stop to examine these things, they realize that, in fact, they don’t see beautiful women whisking down the street in ball gowns.
When kids are preoccupied with princesses (or any other questionable narrative), we need to keep feeding them stories that harmonize with our Christian world view. In our house, we faithfully and continually use Bible stories to do this – even though they’re not always as captivating as the princess stories and even though they often elicit hard questions.
When it comes to teaching God’s world view to our kids, we get (and need!) a lot of help. Our kids hear Bible stories in Sunday school, through Christian movies like VeggieTales and through a wonderful Jesus storybook that we read to them most nights at bedtime.
Let’s face it: there’s nothing more adorable than a little girl in a princess dress – her face is beaming, her eyes are shining, her dress is dusty from playing in the backyard. We haven’t completely banned princesses from Cedar’s life, but we’re taking steps to teach her that "princessing" is not a viable approach to life.
More importantly, we are trying very hard to instill God’s sweeping narrative as the base story of our lives. And it seems to be slowly working. Cedar knows and likes Jesus – maybe not in the breathless, bedazzled way that she adores Cinderella, but in a steady, quiet, sure-of-Him kind of way. So even though I have not confiscated her princess backpack, I am confident Jesus will win out in the end.
Kathryn Sorrells and her husband lived in in Vancouver, B.C., with their two children at the time of publication.
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