When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a princess. I wasn’t particularly fussy about what kind of princess I might be; indeed, my definition of ‘princess’ was pretty loose, to the extent that if you asked me which princesses were my favorite, I would have listed a series of names that included Cinderella, Wonder Woman, Princess Leia, Rapunzel, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Wendy from Peter Pan, and that chick who fooled Rumpelstiltskin. Actual status as royalty, in other words, was not, in my mind, the defining characteristic of a princess. I still don’t think that it’s the defining characteristic of a princess, whether you’re talking about Disney characters or the late mother of William of Wales. Which is why I don’t have a problem with princesses, like, at all.
I know. You’d expect me to be, at best, deeply conflicted about princesses. I expected me to be deeply conflicted about princesses, before I had kids. I mean, I had fond memories of my childhood relationship to princesses, but years of women studies seminars and too many late nights reading Judith Butler and Julia Kristeva had me convinced that when or if I had a girlchild (or an eccentric boy), I would reject princess stories and princess toys and princess culture more or less outright.
But then Emilia came along (and, for that matter, Jasper, who knows his way around some tulle and sparkles), and the dusty copies of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the DVDs of Cinderella came out, and I changed my mind. For a lot of reasons – I could dig deeply into Bruno Bettelheim’s ‘The Uses Of Enchantment’ here, but will resist – which mostly reduce to this one, central reason: princesses, to the girl or boy who engages them, are more than just princesses. Pretty much always. Show me a kid who’s all gussied up in full Sleeping Beauty (or Cinderella, or Ariel, or Tiana) kit, and I’ll show you a kid who’s probably got a pretty rich and complicated storyline running through her head.
When Emilia plays ‘princess,’ she cross-references ‘princess’ with pretty much every other interesting female character that she’s ever encountered or could imagine encountering. Belle, in Emilia’s imaginative hands, becomes fused with Tinkerbell, Jessie from Toy Story and the mom from the Incredibles, and also takes on the characteristics of some skateboard-racing, pirate-ship-captaining, superhero-cape wearing characters of her own devising. It is pop-cultural pastiche in its purest and funnest form; it is imaginative play as only children can do it. Children, after all, tend not to be hardcore literalists. They have no respect for the authoritative vision of an all-powerful author. They are postmodern and poststructuralist in spirit, and they are anarchic in their play. Cinderella and Tinkerbell and Rapunzel and Ariel and Alice and Pippi and Hannah Montana (don’t ask) – aren’t fixed characters to a child. They’re suggestions.
Which is not to say that there aren’t powerful forces of cultural suggestion at play. Princesses – female characters and toys of any provenance, royal or otherwise – are packaged and marketed, and their packaging and marketing is bundled within strong narratives that are meant to hold their form once they’re appropriated by the child-as-consumer. And I’m sure that there are plenty of little girls out there who swallow their princesses whole, and color within the lines of the relevant marketed narratives when they play. Just as, I’m sure, there are plenty of little boys who stick to literal Spiderman and Batman and Buzz Lightyear and Pirates of the Caribbean narratives when they play with the toys that are packaged with those narratives. But I certainly didn’t, as a child. And my children don’t.
Which might have more to do with how I raise my children than anything else, but I doubt it: anyone who’s seen the Toy Story movies recognizes how well those movies captured the anarchic character of children’s play – space rangers in the wild west, evil pig tyrants, daredevil Barbies, tea parties with dinosaurs and unicorns – which, really, is how we all played, isn’t it? It’s how most children play.
Again: I remain uncomfortable with princess literalism, with the Toddlers & Tiaras vision of childhood that takes crowns and sequins seriously, because taking those things seriously – seriously in the adult sense (I would never contest the seriousness of my children’s devotion to play, which is another topic entirely) – destroys the spirit of fun that makes them awesome. Playing princess is wonderful; directing oneself at princesshood as a life goal is far less so. But this is true for a great many things, not just princesses. If Jasper (or Emilia, for that matter) decided to to pursue a future as a unitard-clad, spiderweb-slinging crimefighter, or pirate, or some other vigilante – if he took those playful things too seriously – I would be equally concerned. Not because they’re too gendered – this is another topic that deserves a full post, but, look: children’s play more often than not follows gender lines regardless of whether you shield them from princesses and pirates and superheros, SO – but because they are properly the domain of fantasy, and should remain there. (Emilia’s favorite recurring character/persona, Dr. Mrs. Cinderella, Dinosaur Scientist is, granted, a little complicated under these terms.)
So when Emilia peers under the Christmas tree this year, looking for a Cinderella costume and a Belle doll and her own early reader collection of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, she won’t be disappointed. And as she opens those gifts and squeals with glee and immediately sets about staging a performance of Dr. Mrs. Cinderella Sings The Holidays, neither will I.