Featured, Parenting

Parenting: Who’s afraid of the big bad… princess?

19 January, 2016

I looked across the paddock last week to see both my children standing on top of the chicken house, jumping up and down in their own revelry. I had to smile, as it looked so incongruous. They were dressed in their fanciest princess outfits – one Cinderella, one Elsa. They had smudges of poultry poo across their silky torsos, tulle caught on stray wires. They are brave climbers and dedicated builders, they are fierce in battle and verociously loud. They race the dog through puddles, slide down mud hills, ride their bikes through cow pat… and they do it all in tiny royal ball gowns.

I never, ever thought I would be parenting a princess or two. But I’ve come a long way since my ban on Barbie and my pride that we didn’t have a single dress in our daughter’s wardrobe. I now relish the royal games we play and beam with joy when I see my youngest child struggling into another princess dress to go on top of the first, and with an extra tutu tucked underneath. But I do understand that belly squirming anxiety that our children are being shaped by values that are ugly and toxic – disguised by glittering tiaras.

I’ve come to believe we have less to fear about princess culture and more to fear about rejecting something so important to our children. 

So here are some thoughts- I’m not advocating a blith acceptance a la Lego theme song Everything Is Awesome (“Allergies- they’re awesome! Pathetic female role models – they’re awesome!) but rather an analysis* that is child and relationship focused.

*if an analysis can be written on a bench outside the library using the free, slow, wifi

Why we don't need to fear princess culture

Good princess vs bad princess
Not all princesses are created equal. I admit that there are plenty of stories out there of the passive princess, the one who is forced to marry against her will and do other things that are a shocking portrayal of consent and body autonomy. Early on in my parenting I actually used to get out scissors and glue and edit tales like the Princess and the Frog, and replace “princess” with “prince” and “got married” with “became besties forever”… these days I am more likely to instigate a conversation with my children about why the father thought it was okay to make his daughter sleep with a frog.

But there are also a stack of amazing princesses! We have watched Brave about 187 times, and Frozen about 393 times, they are brilliant films with awesome female heros in them. (There is also some good feminist critique of both of those films, but how it is experienced by young girls, for me, is the most compelling. Read a cool story of that here.)

Princess doesn’t have to be a bad word.

Talk about it
Fairytales and Disney movies provide heaps of material for discussing gender roles through history and how things have changed/ are changing/ still need to change. Conversations stick in a child’s mind. They will love sharing their opinion and hearing some insight from you. That is, if you are coming from a place of connection, rather than disapproval. They will pick up on you trying manipulate their likes and likely to be saddened if they feel you deep down hate something they are getting a lot of joy out of. Which leads me on to what, for me, is the most important thing…

Let’s love what our children love
I have spoken about this before, in regard to ipads. I am big on learning to love what our children love. It isn’t hard to do, because joy is contagious, and once we learn to love something alongside our children we open SO MANY doors to connection. I read in the recently published parenting book All Joy and No Fun about how little “flow” parents experience at home with children. (Flow is that lovely state of being so completely into something that time disappears.) It made me spend some time monitoring my own experience of flow at home. One of the times I really experience it is playing Barbies with my girls – untangling their hair, sewing princess dresses for them- this was a huge shock for me, considering how much I used to HATE Barbies as a mother. I swore I would never own one, any that came into my home (usually by way of my sister who is a right stirrer) I’d find a way to get rid of it. Slowly, as I have become better at seeing my children and being with them, I’ve come to discover that there is very little we need to be afraid of, and that disconnection, rather than barbies or princesses is really the thing to fear. Imagine if I hadn’t come round to this idea – I’d be depriving my kids a lot of joy, and even myself, the experience of flow in the home.

Trust the learning
Sometimes it is hard to gather what out children are learning when they obsess like this. But be assured that they will be learning HEAPS – it is a child’s only setting! (And also, question the word “obsess” – it is pretty negative even though we tend to admire focus in adults!) The potential for your child to be learning about power and responsibility, clothing and fabric, history and culture, royalism and democracy is enormous!!

There’s a thoughtful analysis of what is going on for children going through a Princess phase here in Psychology Today. “In clinging to pink and princess culture, perhaps a girl is celebrating and acknowledging a variety of things: her gendered body, her generative capacities, her ability to captivate and mesmerize (as all children can) as well as her place in the surrounding culture.” I have read that young girls go through a massive yearning for dresses between 3 and 5 because that is when they are trying to figure out what it means to be female. They soon learn it isn’t much to do with wearing skirts, and the phase is sucesfully navigated. I believe we can support them through this by seeking out amazing skirts for them while discussing sex and gender and transgender and identity…!

A leading female role
Have you seen any of the Princess Barbie movies? You’ll know that Princess Barbie occupies a pretty important role in her society. I used to run ahead in the video shop and put all the Barbie movies on the top shelf so I could say to Ramona “Choose any film you like!” and know we wouldn’t be coming home with a Barbie. It came to a head one day when I was kneeling in the aisle of Blockbuster, my four year old clutching a Barbie dvd that I hadn’t spotted to hide, saying patiently “I know Barbie is an idiot, but I love her!” I was so scared of Barbie! But I didn’t really know her! I realised I was giving the impression that it was okay to call things we are scared of/ don’t understand idiotic. So we got that movie, and as I watched it I was impressed by Barbie’s strong, kind character and was relieved to find a bunch of movies where females had leading roles.

Almost every single kids film we had otherwise got out was filled with male-only characters, with females being very rare, and if featured at all, tending to be love interests. Of course, we also talk a lot about the characters in Barbie who were obsessed with clothing and make up who tended to nearly always be stupid and ditzy. (Noone here is saying Barbie movies are directed by feminists!) Please see Sacraparental’s excellent posts on the Maisy Test for more on non-misogynist kids films.

I recently enjoyed the argument that Princess Culture has been going on for two decades, and what we have now is a situation where women are more likely to pursue higher education, and graduate, then men and perhaps this is because they’ve grown up in a world where little girl’s likes have been catered too, where they have, as children, played leading roles.

How about reframing princess culture as being pro-women in leadership, celebrating a space that females occupy successfully?

Loving women
I can’t help but wonder if our problem with princess culture is ever so slightly sexist, with roots in a patriarchal society. Bear with me. Do people have a similar problem with their male children wanting to be knights all day? Violent, sword wielding, massacring knights? I don’t hear about it much, if it is a thing. Why are we so bothered by the princess thing? Is it because we live in a society where a woman is undermined constantly, where whole sections of society are cut off to her, that this one role she can inhabit because of her gender, one that is exclusive to men, is slammed for not being good enough?

The problem isn’t so much with princesses, pink, gowns…
For me these days it is more that things (colours, roles, clothing) are exclusive, based on gender. A dress is an amazing thing. To feel it swishing around your legs, flowing out when you dance. And who doesn’t want to wear a crown and point a sceptre and boss everything around? But let’s not allow it to be just the realm of girls. Dresses are for everyone! (Read Freedom Kids on this) Pink is for all! Trucks aren’t operated by a penis! Speak up to marketers who claim otherwise! Rant and rave against those who want to make certain colours and toys exclusive to any gender! Power to the people!

A love of clothing isn’t necessarily dooming your child to a life of oppressive objectification or materialism
I LOVE CLOTHES. Love, love, love clothes. I have loved them all my life. I wonder if this was worrying for my mum when I was a kid. I can remember being 7 and having a crush on a boy and going home to put on my neon tutu (it was 1989) and then swishing around in it in front of him and being completely delighted when he noticed it and said “nice skirt”… that should be worrying, don’t you reckon? I went through a phase when I was 21 of being so disgusted with my love of clothes that a friend and I went on a clothing fast together and for 3 months allowed ourselves only 5 items of clothing. A jumper, two pairs of trousers, and two tee shirts. I wanted to tackle what I saw as a deep set materialism in my life. It was quite a fun experiment, but if anything taught me that my love of clothes, of wild colours and different fabrics and playing with styles wasn’t inherently bad. In fact, it bought me a lot of joy. History tells us that homosapiens have always done this- it is one of the distinguishing things- that we carve beauty into objects and embroider clothing and dye furnishings. We don’t have to fear that our children’s talk of beautiful clothing and desire to change into different skirts 60 billion times a day is going to mean they will be an insecure adult who can’t leave the house without a full face of Maybelline. I hope I am a good example here – like, I LOVE CLOTHES (did I mention that?) I have a pair of sequined shorts that I sometimes where around the farm just to cheer me up, but at the same time, I care so little about other people’s opinions that the others day this conversation between my husband and I occurred:
Tim: Er, are you going into town like that?
Me: Like what?
Tim: With your henna on your hair?
Me: Yeah, cos it needs to be on for four hours and I put it on and now I want to go into town.
Tim: Okay
Me: What’s the problem?
Tim: It looks like you have poo all over your head?
Me: *drives into town*

So, y’know. Humans are complicated. I bet you a million bucks that if you are consciously building your child up and letting her know that insides count more than outsides she isn’t going to grow up with an oppressive mantle of beauty upon her.

Nurture your child’s faith in herself
The thing that will most likely make your child sway with the winds of a consumerist, objectifying society, rather than the stirrings of her heart is if she learns not to trust herself. If she feels undermined in the things she loves, if she feels your approval is conditional on what YOU like, if she gets the impression that her opinion is dubious.

So be conscious about what is in your home, talk about things, buy books with kick-ass princesses in to sit alongside the Cinderella she found at the library, ask big questions of corporations that attempt to make any one thing exclusive to girls or boys, address your own insecurities about your body shape, analyse the latest Disney flick with your parent friends, but do, do, do allow her freedom of mind and heart. Instill in her a great faith in herself.

Revel in princess culture
Have you ever dressed up as a princess? No? Get thee to a second hand shop immediately and buy up a ball gown! Nothing beats hanging about in the house looking ridiculously opulent! Buy all the tutus. Sew capes. Watch Brave and Frozen and download the soundtrack. Weave crowns of daisies. Enter into the imaginative world of your children. Whittle swords with them. (We are nearly always warrior princesses.) Keep talking about all the models of “princesses” out there.

This too shall pass
It will pass. You might even be sad to see this phase leave, because you’ve now begun having SO MUCH FUN with your kids! But trust in the fact that very few adult women actually want to be rescued by a man, and even fewer want to actually be a princess.

Trust in yourself, your model as a strong, creative mother or equality loving father. Trust in your children, that this phase is important to them. This princess thing won’t last forever with your child, so find joy and connection in it while it does.Feminist parents don't need to fear princess culture

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  • Vicki 19 January, 2016 at 9:00 pm

    This is such a huge topic and as I sit here reading and pondering a few of my own experiences as a Mum of 2 daughters come to mind. I have a 20 year old daughter. Growing up no barbie, no Disney, no make up …nothing. She made her own way in the world to become a make up artist and a super strong, independent woman. I asked her if she felt short changed by my fervent denial of these things and she said she did not because she was not completely without “girly” things and her female role models ( grandmothers, aunts, teachers and myself) were present and supportive feminists who encourage(d) personal choice. Of course I have just interrupted her as she binge watches The Kardashians..sigh, some things are out of my control.My next daughter is almost 5. She has a couple of op shop Barbies, she has seen Frozen, she has a wicked array of costumes and a totally independent sense of style. I am not as “concerned” these days as I know she too will make her way in the world as her own person and I see her developing into a girl who likes princesses but is not infatuated, has cars and trucks and a wild and wonderful, playful imagination. My biggest issue is the marketing to girls. I can deal with Frozen to a point but in our search for a pair of gum boots a few months back for our daughter, good luck. Nothing unless it was branded with Disney princesses. I have a problem with that and I refuse to buy into consumerism at that level. It is for this reason I will not get my daughter an Elsa dress. She can wear one playing with her friends , heck I will even help her put it on but I also see her spirit shine when she is among generic dress ups, no labels, no Disney, just her own imagination and no pull to heroine worship a princess someone else has imagined. As I close my partner recently told me that Frozen, a movie about two girls, was the highest grossing animated movie of all time and has made a 1 billion USD. Very insightful piece. Thank you.

    • Cress 19 January, 2016 at 9:20 pm

      i just want to say, HOOPLAH! I love your posts, they make me feel at home. Thanks for backing many of my thoughts on being a mum without actually knowing you’re backing me 🙂

  • Geraldine 19 January, 2016 at 9:04 pm

    Hi Lucy,
    Love reading your blog, Think of you all often.

  • Adele @ Beautiful Tribe 19 January, 2016 at 9:39 pm

    Have you read Cinderella Ate My Daughter? The author goes through an interesting journey with her daughter where she finally realises that by rejecting everything pink she’s communicating to her daughter that there’s something wrong with being feminine because pink is the lenss through which her child currently understands femininity. There aren’t any clear cut answers in the book, needless to say. But life and parenting are like that.

    In our home, we tackle the issue of gendering by offering lots of options. So we do have lots of princess dresses and tiaras in the dressing up box but there are also costumes for pirates, cowboys (cow people?), police officers, etc. We have a super girly doll’s palace but dinosaurs are as likely to visit as dolls. I try not to comment on any of it or make a value judgement.

    A friend left a Barbie here and said Talitha could have it, which I wasn’t thrilled about mainly because I don’t like her clothes, if I’m honest. Of course an easy way around this would be to make some! Mind you, she got a couple of Lottie dolls for Christmas which she’s now far more interested in and which I admit I’m more comfortable with. She says she likes them because they’re big kids and they can do lots of stuff (she got giving riding gear, scuba suit and a superhero costume). But she still likes Barbie too.

    I’m not sure about the idea that we reject “princess” because it’s a girl’s role because I doubt anyone has a problem with their girls playing mother and baby all day. But I do agree that how a child perceives our reaction is just as important. That’s why we’ve been praying for and entertaining my 4yo’s imaginary friend who’s actually starting to wear on my patience a bit. She’s important to her and that really has to be enough reason for me to be ok with her being around.

  • federica 19 January, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    Thank’s for sharing your thoughts!! I have two little girls and the older has already started the pricess mode period… well the first thing I said to her was: ok you are a princess, so I am the queen… trying to make her understand that it’s fun and enjoyable being part of a royal family but also hinting to importance of what is going to come and responsibility that she will bear as a future queen… 😉

  • Exsugarbabe 19 January, 2016 at 10:54 pm

    Barbie is not a crime, she is a doll and just as ludicrous as every other toy. Action man is a one trick bloke with no private parts and an over the top body, Buzz Lightyear says one thing, only has one set of clothes and a silly jaw line and yet nobody cares about boys fretting about not being them. Trust your kids and make sure the real role models are great women and if they wear pink and run a nail bar they’re still a great role model if they’re independent and enjoy life and in their own way feminists.

  • ThaliaKR 19 January, 2016 at 11:20 pm

    There’s no flow in my house just now (not for me, I mean), so just a quick comment until later when I can marshall my thoughts!

    2. Actually, I do get pretty concerned about the ‘boy’ roles of pirate, knight etc, and have not been the means of my kids discovering such things. I think gun play and other violent play needs a post just as long and thoughtful as this one. It’s bound up with gender, and also has some problematic stuff to be critiqued and some good stuff to be joined in…
    3. Yes, for me the problems with princess culture are a) if it’s gender exclusive and b) if it is too much about valuing girls (or anyone) for their appearances. Girls can be pirates and boys can be princesses, but actually, I don’t want either of my children (a boy and a girl) growing up thinking that how you look determines means much about your value or that problems can be easily solved with violence… It’s complicated, eh?

    • Cat 22 January, 2016 at 10:38 am

      Hi I’m another mum of boys, also pretty concerned about the violence I see in my 5yr old’s play. I love what you’re saying above Lucy, and like you I try to join in and allow my wee boy to work out these important things himself, but I find it really difficult to shake off a lot of fear.
      As you say, not terribly many girls grow up to be princesses – but a whole lot of boys end up in the army. Which for me is a really challenging thought in relation to my own children.
      We have 3 lightsabers in our house. The goodies use them to kill the evil baddies. Hmm. Remind you of anybody’s foreign policy in this galaxy?!
      Also, have you seen the padded “six-packs” on spiderman costumes? Apparently that’s what you need to
      Be a hero…
      Your post’s inspired me to explore girls’ roles with my son. Will Princees Leia suffice as a vehicle for this..?

      • Catherine Kilgour 4 March, 2019 at 12:11 pm

        Oh my goodness no! You need a longer list which really should start with Padmé Amidala who was elected Queen of Naboo. Her outfits, headwear and makeup was at times over the top but she still knew how to shoot a blaster. There are plenty of other strong female characters in the Star Wars francise. My favourite would have to be young Jedi Ahsoka Tano from the Clone Wars who started off as Padawan under the training of Anakin Skywalker. If you are looking to show case strong female characters then you need to delve into the books, of which there a lots, not just the movies and explore beyond Princee Leia.

        I’m mum of three boys who have watched every movie, read some of the books, loved the Clone Wars and I doubt have yet to forgive Disney for not finishing them. My eldest wasn’t even five when he started making guns out of my clothes pegs. He is 15 and doesn’t want to join the military.

  • Madeleine 20 January, 2016 at 12:43 am

    Hmm. An interesting topic. I had ALOT of princess clothes when I was a kid. But my mum also raised me to be a bad ass feminist (red stockings level) and I can’t really see why they don’t go together. My son has both superman costume and a purple princess dress in his wardrobe, my only rule really is that I am saying big no to violence.

    Love the idea of dressing up together. Shall pull my ball gown out (hope it still fits!) and play with Ossian.

    That flow thingie gave me something to think about. Shall check if I feel that when we are together.

  • Vanessa 20 January, 2016 at 1:01 am

    Great article! I have very similar views and recently came to terms with potentially having a daughter that prefers pinks and purples. I don’t have an inherent problem with pinks or dresses or princesses or tutus; my issue is with those being the /only/ acceptable values available to her gender. Why focus on a single colour when you literally have an entire rainbow of colour to choose from? Why is there a girl-section and a boy-section? Why can’t clothes, toys, accessories be divided up by size, age, and colour? Why does gender have a role at all in those aisles? I don’t want a girl tshirt. I want that cool shirt with trucks on it! Or the gorilla on a bicicyle! Or maybe I do want the purple sparkly one with cowgirls and princesses!
    Why can’t they be sword-wielding warrior princesses out to save their village? Why can’t they love a tutu just for the sake of its funness? I don’t take issue with the specifics but the fact that their are clear gender lines produced for my kid. Like you said, my kid isn’t operating the toy with their genitals (hopefully. Please gah no!).

    Thanks so much for sharing! I have enjoyed your blog for the last few years but this particular article spoke to me. Though I’m adimately against gender stereotypes and gender roles for children, this one has made me think if my kids are learning the wrong thing. Let them be children but let’s give them lots of options and see what their brains decide, what they connect with. My concern with princesses as a whole (since the only thing the female has to offer according to Disney is a title, a body to win the affections of, or beauty in general) can certainly be misinterpreted as denying my kid the chance of play. So let’s do it. Let’s get our princess on!

  • Jess @ Along Came Cherry 28 January, 2016 at 6:12 am

    It’s great to read a positive princess post! Cherry has always loved pink and spent nearly a year dressing only in princess dresses. Now at the age of 5 she’s decided her favourite colour in yellow and although she likes princesses and Barbie, she’s more into Lego and Shopkins. I can remember buying lots of unisex toys and making sure she always had cars and things that weren’t pink to play with / wear but she was never interested in them so I just let her ride it out. I think like you said, trying to stop your children from being into something they enjoy is far worse than just dealing with a bit of pink! And generally things that aren’t allowed become all the more appealing! It’s funny because Tiger has always had all toys on offer too but has only ever been interested in cars, he’s obsessed. He does like to dress up in dresses with Cherry though and has really long hair that he doesn’t want to get cut. I love watching their personalities grow and see the things they are interested in, it’s a great part of being a parent 🙂 x

  • For the Love of All Things Princess – enough. 30 January, 2016 at 9:31 am

    […] Lucy Aitken Read writes, […]

  • Lala 2 February, 2016 at 8:43 pm

    I love it Lucy, thank you for sharing your amazing ideas <3

  • Good things on the Internet – Mummy Limited 8 February, 2016 at 6:18 am

    […] about the way I parent, in a way that is both funny and completely non-judgemental. Her piece, Who’s afraid of the big, bad princess, fits perfectly with Kate’s as she writes about making the princess obesession less […]

  • Emma 18 February, 2016 at 10:13 pm

    I haven’t looked at your blog for ages and am now having a splurge read. I’m not really into the princess thing and the thing that annoys me about it most is that PRINCESS is a status you’re not into, whereas HERO is a status you earn. Aladdin was a beggar, so boys learn anyone can be a hero, yet Jasmin is just the daughter of a sultan. I don’t know why, but that just really gets my goat! It’s a status that is granted by the relationship to other people, rather than the self. But then I dressed my daughter as Elizabeth I the Virgin Queen for a “princess” themed birthday party, so I’m totally not objective on this front!

    • Emma 18 February, 2016 at 10:14 pm

      Born into, damn you autocorrect!

    • Emma 18 February, 2016 at 10:29 pm

      Born into, not not into!

  • lovely stuff #1 – Oh Wild 12 February, 2019 at 10:35 pm

    […] Daisy has entered full Princess mode, something that I was pretty adament wouldn’t be happening in our house; you all know how irate I get about trying to define kids through gender, so when I found out she was a girl, I pretty much banished pink from the house with a stubborn, ‘screw you, society!’. Almost four years later, and I’ve discovered that removing the choice from her is equally as bad as trying to shoehorn her into society’s ‘norms’ – she now wears a Tinkerbell dress and sings the songs from Frozen, while shoving her feet into monster slippers, wrestling her brother to the floor and farting on his head (true story. Sigh.) Lucy at Lulastic wrote an amazing post (as usual!) on why the Princess phase is nothing to fear – have a read over here. […]

  • Monika 4 March, 2019 at 9:28 am

    Love this post, love your honesty and how you share your journey as a parent!
    I am a mum of four year old who is in the full swing of a princess stage. Like you earlier I was not so sure about the whole thing, but recently I have been thinking about how even Disney princesses evolved. Thanks to Elsa blue became a girly colour, and her anthem song about the pressure of ‘being a good girl’- can you get anything more feminist? So I too relax into the childhood discovery of what it means to be female. And I am excited about the discussions that are starting to surface around the princesses, like why was Rapunzels hair special? Like you said, we can’t shelter children from the reality around them, as much as our protective instincts would like us to do. Navigating the world together is not easy but it does bring connection through discussions etc.
    And the thing about beauty, clothes and thing like make up. It’s a bit of a grey area that I am learning about but I like your approach to it- fashion can be a powerful way to express ourselves as long as we are not slaves to it. So as long as my daughter comes home from daycare with dirty feet and bruised knees from climbing trees I don’t see the Elsa dress is stopping her from doing anything.

  • Ella 6 March, 2019 at 5:19 am

    Yes! Thank you so much for this. Have also come to terms with my daughter loving to play princesses and wear the associated dresses. I had a personal rejection of princesses and dresses until I realised it was important to my daughter and brought her joy. I have embraced it and her desire to play princesses ebbs and flows. Although her 4th bday party was princess themed and the boys and girls alike loved it.