Pretty Pretty Princess

Posted by on April 23, 2011 in body image, feminism, Gender roles, women, world news | 15 comments

We are one week away from a huge cultural event…the inauguration of a new princess. The major news networks have a countdown to the royal wedding and are gleefully reporting any trivial detail they can get their hands on.  It is estimated that two billion people worldwide will tune in to see Will and Kate take their vows. And there is no doubt that every aspect of the celebration will be dissected, analyzed and copied. As a Mormon aside, royal wedding dresses tend to be modest so be prepared to see replicas of Kate’s dress on temple grounds around the world.

The interest in Kate Middleton borders on the hysterical. She is watched and judged for every clothing choice, every word uttered, every movement she makes. The reviews of the new princess have been overwhelmingly positive but we also see exhibits of the worst aspects of our voyeuristic and sexist culture on display. For example, the media has begun to speculate that Middleton has developed “brideorexia” which, if true, is not surprising considering the amount of public scrutiny she is dealing with. Her decision not to engage with the media has been explained not as a desire to keep some modicum of normalcy or privacy but as a ploy on her part to capture Prince William.

I have mostly rolled my eyes at this mania, this is so far away from the day to day reality of my life that it seems silly to get caught up in it. But it is an appealing story, a commoner catches the eye of a prince and they fall deeply in love. Sigh. Who among us didn’t have that daydream as a little girl?

I was eight the year Disney’s Little Mermaid came out and I spent hours and hours pretending to be Ariel. This horrifies the feminist in me now, here’s a story of a woman who literally gives up her voice in order to catch a man, but as a young girl I found it comforting. Well, not the story so much but the fact that Ariel was a redhead. Having red hair made me a target for teasing, seeing it represented as beautiful helped me become more confident about this particular feature.

My own experience with princesses as a girl were positive which makes how I feel about them now complicated. I cannot deny that princesses, specifically Disney’s version of Ariel, helped me develop confidence and identity as a redhead and eventually a woman. And there is evidence that girls are drawn to all thing pink, sparkly and princess-y as a way to assert their girlness. I would argue that this, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. But the princess landscape is so different than it was when I was a girl twenty years ago. Princess culture is everywhere, from pull-ups to bed sheets. If you are a girl, you cannot escape it. And as the Kate Middleton phenomenon shows, this culture doesn’t just affect little girls.

As far as princesses go, Kate Middleton seems to be as good as it gets. She’s beautiful, thin, dignified and looks great in a hat. But all we know about her is the way she looks and behaves in public. And this is the problem with the princess narrative, it strips the individual woman of her individuality and makes her instead an object to be consumed and looked at. Not to mention that princess narratives also dictate how all women should look and behave.

Princesses are not a benign image. Indeed, they present a very certain and not unattractive view of femininity and the role of women. But make no mistake, this image contributes to a culture that separates men and women and makes it harder for women to participate on equal terms in systems still designed for and by men.

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15 Comments

  1. Before I got married, the thought of becoming a princess might have been enviable but now that I’ve experienced the whole in-law thing and trying to fit it, I really feel sorry for her. I can’t image what it would feel like trying to live up to the royal families’ expectations!

    • Lol! Yeah, the reality of marriage is a pretty big wake up call to how hard this institution is even in the best of circumstances. I’m with you, marrying into a royal family doesn’t sound like best of circumstances and apparently 86% of British women agree with us. Thanks for the comment!

  2. It doesn’t just separate men and women. It separates women from women as well. One thing about the princess marketing that is really chilling to me is this :

    To ensure the sanctity of what Mooney called their individual “mythologies,” the princesses never make eye contact when they’re grouped: each stares off in a slightly different direction as if unaware of the others’ presence.

    I can’t think of a traditional ‘princess’ story where the princess has peers who are her friends. Servants, pets, and caretakers, yes. But few of them are female and none are her peers. In that world other women and girls are, almost always threats and competition.

    • Thanks for the link, Starfoxy. When I get a chance I’m going to read Peggy Orenstein’s new book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter”, I really like what I’ve read from her so far on this topic.

      I agree with you, the lack of female companionship and downright antagonism between women in Disney princess movies is incredibly troubling. The natural consequence of encouraging competition between women for male attention is the “mean girl” phenomenon that the media has been wringing its hands over for the past couple of years. It’s no surprise that this is becoming more of a problem when from toddlerhood girls are given the message that they should be obsessed with their look and be wary of other females. This is an excellent point, Starfoxy!

    • This point is right on, and makes me really, really sad.

  3. I just have to give a brief shout out to my girl Ariel – while if you just look at the “girl gives up her voice for a guy” angle, it pretty horrifying. But I’m going to give Disney credit on this one — Ariel doesn’t want to give up her voice, she’s manipulated into the decision by an older relative who preys on her insecurities, and the decision causes her nothing but trouble. She can’t get Eric to fall in love with her until she gets her voice back. Sure, he likes mute Ariel, but it almost seems to be like sympathy for the fact that she was this poor little shipwrecked mute girl he found on the beach — he keeps looking for his dream girl even though she’s right there.

    All the princess stories can give pretty bad messages to both boys and girls, but they also have good messages that can be pointed out.

    • Thanks for the competing interpretation, Ru! I actually don’t have a problem with princess stories per say, I grew up being told fairytales and watching all of the princess movies and they didn’t stop me from becoming a feminist. :) I also read a book once that argued the European fairytales were really just myths developed to discuss the forbidden female divine, an interpretation I quite like. I guess my problem with princesses stem from the endless marketing directed at little girls who do not have the ability to read complexity into their stories. But rest assured, yours is the interpretation I will give my own redheaded daughter when she starts watching The Little Mermaid. Thanks for the great comment.

  4. I have a similarly complex relationship with the Disney princesses, Mraynes. I still love Aurora and Cinderella, my two childhood favorites. And I have a soft spot for both Ariel and Belle mostly as nostalgia for my teenage years. But they’re all deeply problematic. In some ways they can be read to find more powerful messages (I like Ru’s effort with Ariel, though I’d have to watch the movie again to really see how fully the text supports that interpretation. One problem is that the voiced Ariel that Eric longs for is one with the sexualized voice of a siren, rather than the opinionated Ariel we see interacting with her father/family). But pretty much all of them strip the original fairy tales of much of their power. My biggest complaint is that they almost across the board remove internal struggles between good and bad and turn those struggles into external ones. For instance, in the original French fairy tale represented in _Beauty and the Beast_, there is no evil Gaston who locks Belle up, thus preventing her from keeping her promise and returning to the Beast. Instead, once she’s gone away from the Beast, she forgets her promise to return. The struggle between good and evil in the original is an internal struggle and as such represents a vital aspect of what it means to be human. Disney instead makes the princesses of their tales pure goodness with external evil enemies they must overcome with that goodness. It’s a deeply troubling misrepresentation of the original fairy tales.

  5. “And this is the problem with the princess narrative, it strips the individual woman of her individuality and makes her instead an object to be consumed and looked at.”

    Great analysis of the real problem with the princess narrative. I’m a bit disturbed at how much my granddaughters are caught up with the spangles and glitter of princess trappings in contemporary culture–but it may be perfect practice for the princess for a day wedding we hold up as the ultimate goal for young Mormon girls.

    • Course Correction I totally agree that there’s an enormous connection between the princess obsession and the wedding day obsession. It’s not a coincidence that the princess movies all end on the wedding day.

  6. I’ve been following the royal wedding because of the fun coincidence that it will be on our anniversary. When it comes up in family or church group conversations, I’ve noticed much Mormon disgust at the fact that the royal couple has been living together already. However, I’m feeling like we are just about the only culture that disapproves of that anymore. True?

  7. I just want to give a shout out to Princess Mary http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary,_Crown_Princess_of_Denmark
    Mary grew up in my home town, and we actually did classes together at college. She was always very beautiful, clever, friendly, but slightly remote. I love the fact that when telling stories about princesses by request at bedtime, I can tell the story of my friend Mary. She met a guy in a pub, and began a long distance relationship, only later discovering her boyfriend was actually a handsome prince. She’s given up her Australian citizenship, Left her country, and her brother and sister’s homes, learned a very difficult language, and a foreign culture. She deals with immense public scrutiny and does it all with so much grace. I hope Kate has learned from Mary’s example, and I wish them both (Kate & Mary) much joy living out the fairy tale, and joy in the real adventure, which as we all know begins after the wedding!

  8. As much of a Disney addict I was as a kid, I never wanted to be a princess. My favorite Disney “princess” was Pocahontas, because she had that special connection to nature. I guess it’s really Disney’s fault I went from hardcore Catholic to practically a goddess-worshipping pagan.

    I agree, the princess image definitely supports the cultural norms that put women in narrowly-defined societal roles. But instead of hating on the princess image, I think we’d do better to examine our patterns in fighting the stereotyped gender roles as I saw in Letters From A Broad blog: “For every role/trait that is seen as feminine and bad, some women will argue “Stop seeing this bad thing as feminine!” and others will argue “Stop seeing this feminine thing as bad!” And often both positions have merit.” (http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/2011/04/free-to-be-homemaker.html)

    So I don’t know if I think we need to downplay princesses as an oppressive motif in children’s literature or just open it up to little boys, making it a free choice unconnected, or not directly connected, to sex or gender.

  9. I recently worked in Europe helping women overcome severe anorexia. One of the families I worked with *were* royalty. The day the daughter married the prince, villages far and wide (in Austria) closed down as the royal couple went through the streets in their carriage. It all seemed very beautiful and wistful and enviable to us commoners.

    The realities of the life behind the “fairytale” are worse than any could possibly imagine–and ended with one of the girls weighing about 40 pounds. The pressures to meet a certain standard were compounded in ways that my brain hadn’t even fathomed before.

    Skip to Sunday dinner with my family and my 4 year old niece wears her “Belle” dress over her regular clothes most every day. We played tea party and we talked of the upcoming marriage of the princess in England. Her eyes grew misty and she said how romantic it all was. I lived for those stories as a young girl–and now, I don’t ALWAYS want to be the aunt who tears down the dream–but then again I do.

    How do you navigate what to tell your daughters at that age?

  10. I love Mulan, who knows if she is a princess or not. The Disney films aren’t the best, but I much prefer the active princesses than the passive.

    I have not shielded my daughter from some of the princess culture. I felt it was inevitable, but I could present options. As it is, American culture is princess oriented for young women. But with so many other images and choices for women my hope is that the princess stuff is simply a part of what young women see.

    Finally, I was amazed this morning by how thin Kate and her sister are. That concerns me. Yes, some people are naturally thin, but most of us are larger than size 2 or whatever size they are.

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