I walked into the toy store with three of my little girls in tow, there to pick out a birthday gift for an upcoming party. We arrived at the section for children their ages, and I saw a display of lovely educational toys. “Look, girls!” I exclaimed, “Hand-crafted wooden puzzles! A children’s binocular set—it even comes with a birdwatching guide!” They admired the items, making polite comments as they peered into the packaging.
And then someone spotted it. “PRINCESSES!” my four-year-old exclaimed, and they stampeded toward a shelf covered in pink and glitter, almost knocking over the educational toys display in the process. They spent the next half hour oohing and ahhing over frilly dresses and silky gloves, begging for princess gear for themselves in addition to what we’d get for the birthday party.
I know, I know. I’m supposed to be discouraging this. Those cartoon princess are bad role models who will leave my little girls thinking that they have to be rail thin and perfectly pretty in order to be fulfilled. I’m supposed to give them a rousing talk about how they’re already perfect and don’t need to be like Snow White or Jasmine or Ariel the Mermaid, and gently steer them to the My First Semiconductor kit. But I just can’t get on board with the anti-princess movement.
When I was a kid, I was not what you’d call “pretty.” “Graceful” or “elegant” are also not words that would come to mind. I was perpetually a few inches taller than any other kids in my class—and this was back before designers caught up to the trend of increasing height among young women, which left me wearing highwater pants for the entirety of my childhood. My hair was flat and mousy; in a flash of 1980s wisdom, I decided I would remedy this by getting a perm. I was determined to do that poofy bang thing that made all the other girls look so cool, but never quite got it down, and I often walked around looking like I had a failed taxidermy experiment attached to my forehead. My shoe size and awkward gait inspired my classmates to come up with the nickname “Bigfoot”...and it kinda fit.
I was a prime candidate for a girl whose self esteem would be hurt by pop culture princess fairy tales, especially since I grew up back when cartoonists were utterly unconcerned with portraying realistic images of women. These fictional ladies had tiny waists, slender necks, dainty noses, thick, flowing hair, and they always ended up with a handsome prince in the end. In other words, they were the exact opposite of those of us whose physical appearances inspired nicknames based on giant woodland ape-men. So you would think that Cinderella and her ilk would have taken any sense of self worth I had, shattered it into a thousand pieces, and stomped on it with a glass slipper. But that’s not what happened.
I recall coming home from a screening of the 1950s version of Sleeping Beauty, so excited I felt like I could burst. I ran to my room and danced and sung like that pretty lady I’d seen on the screen, unaware and unconcerned that I could neither dance nor sing and was lurching back and forth making a noise like a malfunctioning carburetor. Rarely had I felt so full of hope, so aware of the great potential my life held. Far from making me feel bad about myself, Sleeping Beauty taught me to dream.
So how did that work? How did Miss Beauty avoid turning me into a neurotic mess? I think a big part of it has to do with the way children understand fantasy.
Sleeping Beauty was a cartoon, and, as such, it was very clear to my child’s mind that this was not real life. By watching the movie I was peeking into a dreamy realm of imagination, where the images on the screen were symbolic of esoteric truths about the human experience that were hard for me to articulate. When a cartoon princess would go from poverty to riches, I didn’t take that to mean that I would have to have a couple million in the bank in order to be complete; I simply received the message that it’s possible to end up with a good and happy life, even if you start out in bad circumstances. When the princess donned a glittering ball gown for her marriage to the prince, I didn’t despair at the fact that I’d never look that gorgeous or that my chances for ever snagging a prince were looking slim; rather, I thrilled at seeing the triumph of the underdog, and took courage in the reminder that even people who have all the odds stacked against them can prevail.
We adults are more literal about the connections between cartoons and real life. We think of Cinderella as the representation of a female who is about 5’ 6”, blonde, and wears a size 4 Tudor-style dress. But as a child I did not make that connection as clearly as I do now that I’m a few decades older. It would never have occurred to me to compare the colorful lines on the movie screen to the fleshy, three-dimensional people of the real world whose hair was subject to the laws of gravity. Interestingly, when I watched live action movies that featured ridiculously beautiful young girls, that did cause me some pain. When I saw actresses who were my age and were super thin with perfect skin and perfect hair, I would compare what I saw in the mirror and go console myself with a bag of potato chips. But no so with cartoons. I didn’t view Sleeping Beauty as an avatar of a real woman who might live down the street; rather, to me she was a work of art that inspired me to seek grace and beauty as general concepts, to hope for the triumph of good over bad. After I watched Beauty and the Beast, I was no more disappointed that I couldn’t have Belle’s 18-inch waist than I was that my candlesticks didn’t talk to me.
You’ll see proof of this concept if you watch little girls play princess. After we went to the toy store that day, my daughters pulled out their tattered princess dresses and magic wands and ran around singing and dancing. Their polyester gowns have rips and fraying hems, their scepters are missing rhinestones, and their tiaras are held together by scotch tape. On top of that, they seem to have inherited their mother’s inability to carry a tune. They were a long, long way from the idealized images they’d seen in their fairy tale cartoons. And yet they radiated joy, dancing through the house with the certainty that they were beautiful. For them, to want to be a “pwincess” is not about concrete things like money or body type or hair color; it’s about exploring weighty aspects of the human experience like beauty and hope and fear and goodness, encapsulated in a way that’s understandable to their young minds. It brought back fond memories of my own childhood to watch them twirl around the living room, utterly unselfconscious as they sung off-key and danced out of rhythm. As they beamed with happiness and confidence under their plastic crowns, I was delighted to see that princess fairy tales have inspired another generation of young women to dream.