My 5-year-old daughter, Petunia, has been wearing a tiara nonstop for the past three months. When I say nonstop, I mean she wears it to sleep, school, to soccer games, and on the toilet. She wore it in the swimming pool last weekend and only took it off in the shower when I threatened to dislodge the gems to wash them individually, thereby risking that they all fall down the drain. There’s no occasion too un-fancy for her to wear it. Breathing is a special occasion, or at least one special enough that it deserves a tiara. She’s a little past Cinderella and Snow White (although not past them enough that she didn’t threaten to throw a tantrum when the hygienist at the dentist told her recently that the only toothbrushes left were from Cars and Monsters University). But she’s crushing hard on Sofia the First these days. Thankfully (for me), Sofia is about as kind as royalty comes.
I read a lot of criticism about princess culture with a great deal of interest. Partly because Petunia is so into them, and partly because I’d like to avoid any parenting missteps. Fortunately I am keenly aware that I am in control of what my daughter consumes. She isn’t allowed unfettered access to the TV. She doesn’t have a credit card to buy Sofia socks whenever her toes get chilly. The Sofia books she has all have positive messages about friendship, honesty and generosity. Plus, she has no problem getting down and dirty in the mud (just as long as she’s wearing a tiara). I think we’re all good.
Still, I read on Jezebel (via Ad Age) about how an all-girls Catholic school in Kentucky, Mercy Academy, is advertising itself as a higher learning institution by telling girls: “You are not a princess” and “Life is not a fairytale.”
What’s unfortunate about the campaign is that there are so many princess haters out there that the message will be lost on them. They’re going to talk about the sexualization of young girls and the lack of diversity on cartoon thrones. But that’s not what this this campaign about. At least not to me.
As a mom and a woman, I have no problem with princesses. Hell, if someone handed me a tiara (with real jewels), I’d slap it on my head with Krazy Glue. I don’t enjoy the perception that girls are in need of rescuing, but that’s never been the message that my daughter has taken from fairy tales.
The fact is, Mercy Academy’s message is not just for girls, and it really has nothing to do with princesses. The notion that life can be or should be a fairytale is an important one for us to address as parents not just for our girls, but for our boys, too. Boys need to know they’re not all going to grow up to be the next Bill Gates or LeBron James without having the natural talent and doing the excruciating work it takes to get to that level. Just like girls aren’t all necessarily going to grow up to be Taylor Swift or Duchess Catherine just because they want to be or because they’re just that pretty. This isn’t to say kids can’t fantasize, it’s just that they can’t only fantasize or buy too deeply into the promise of a happy ending to the detriment of forgoing actual hard work. Kids should know that they’re special, but not any more special than anyone else. They can’t wait for Prince Charming, Oprah or some other mythical, magical being to come along and make life happen for them. They need to make it happen for themselves.
For a couple of generations now, parents have been telling their kids just how smart/talented/generally awesome they are, but it’s time kids realize just how much of those things they’re not. Which is not to say they should be emotionally abused. They just need to separate fantasy from real life, or at least from their lives.
People in my generation, for example, mostly had parents who told us to take that summer internship where we used our expensive and impressive college degrees to fetch coffee — and to have a big, bright smile on our face when we did it. We were most definitely not suing our employers for overworking and underpaying us. (Even Cinderella didn’t complain about sweeping the floors.)
Princesses, like society, have come a long way. Sofia and Merida are more about integrity, strength, friendship and being their own hero than looking dollish and acting coquettish.
The encouraging thing about the Mercy Academy campaign message is that it’s urging girls to be their own fairy godmothers. And when you get right to it — it’s a message that even princesses would approve of.
Take a look at my little princess, who will someday save the world, one tiara at a time:
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