The Problem with Princesses

I taught drama to a couple primary classes a year during my time as an elementary school teacher/librarian, and inevitably I had them interpret and perform at least one fairy tale as part of my curriculum. Pretty well every kid I taught knew a variety of fairy tales and some nursery rhymes when I took on that role in 2005, but by the time I left the job this past June only a few kids in any class were familiar with fairy tales and pretty well none of them knew any nursery rhymes.

It’s very sad to me that an oral tradition which spanned centuries before being compiled and set down by the Grimm brothers in 1812, and which continued right up through most of my lifetime, has pretty much come to an end in the course of the last decade. I guess these old stories can’t compete with the plethora of children’s entertainment available on tablets and phones. (There were grade 2 students in my school with their own iphones – seems a little young to me, but what do I know?) With new, exciting, and colourful stories coming on-line every day, who has time for old saws like “Rumpelstiltskin” or “The Goose Girl”?

I do lament the loss of these shared cultural touchstones, but what I don’t miss is how women are portrayed in so many of them. What’s amazing and concerning to me is that even if girls nowadays aren’t sure about any other details in “Snow White”, the one thing they do know is that a wicked older woman oppresses and enchants a younger one because she is prettier, and in the end a handsome man vanquishes the former and saves the latter.

Let’s break this trope down a little, shall we? Firstly it perpetuates the idea that older women are evil and jealous, a characterization which simultaneously demonizes and marginalizes them by casting doubt on their motives – a situation which exists to this day and which I spoke to in my first blog. This stereotype is very useful in a patriarchal society because it ensures women remain powerless as they age. It is a common experience amongst most women I know, myself included, that hitting menopause engenders the sloughing off of many pre-existing societal strictures. Without the need to please a man or your children or anyone else for that matter, women of a certain age finally land in the wonderfully freeing position of being able to stick up for themselves – of showing righteous anger and calling out bullshit. I contend that men have always been afraid of this; after all, what could be worse than oppressed people finally having the ability to rise up and avenge themselves or, heaven forfend, take control? Wicked stepmothers have insidiously disempowered women for centuries.

Secondly, and most alarmingly as far as I’m concerned, young women in fairy tales are good for keeping house but otherwise are completely helpless, and by and large miserable, until a man comes and saves them. This is particularly true of princesses. That’s why it drove me crazy that little girls were always looking for princess books in the library. Every time they asked for one I felt like saying,

“You don’t need a man, or anyone else, to save you! You are perfectly competent on your own!”

What exactly are the accomplishments of the most famous fairy tale princesses? Well, one grows her hair really long, another runs away but leaves a clue, and another simply falls asleep. That’s the ticket – lose consciousness until a man comes along and makes your life worth living. Little girls are convinced by these stories that their main function in life is to be pretty and to wear nice clothes and to wait. Also that they need to compete with other women for a rich and handsome, aka good, man (think of the step-sisters).

I’m aware of and appreciate characters like Fiona in “Shrek” who starts out as the hapless and helpless princess in a tower, but ends up turning her back on that story and falling in love with the antithesis of Prince Charming. I was also pleasantly surprised in “Frozen” when Elsa and Anna saved each other through their sisterly love, and that the handsome prince Anna thought was going to save her ends up being a power hungry cad. I applaud animation studios for reimagining and modernizing these female characters, but the number of girls who still want books about traditional princesses, and princes, makes me aware that there is still a ways to go.

So let’s bring back great stories like “The Three little Pigs” and “Jack and the Beanstalk”, along with shorter pieces like “Hey Diddle Diddle” and “Jack Sprat” – stories and rhymes that are engaging to children and harken back to a rich, shared oral history. As far as princess stories are concerned however, I think girls and women are better off without them.

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