Monday, 25 March 2013

The Problem with Princesses

I’ve seen a number of articles recently by worried parents lamenting the all-pervasive power of the princess phenomenon. Thanks to the commercial juggernaut that is the Disney Corporation, no little girl can escape the glittering allure of puffy dresses, sparkling headgear and impractical glass footwear. The authors of these articles worry that princesses are poor role models for their children, teaching them that their appearances are their most important asset, and that servility and grace are more desirable traits than intelligence and strength.

To a certain extent, I agree with a lot of what the authors are saying. I was very distressed recently when my four-year-old niece explained to me that princes are necessary because princesses can’t kill dragons. But I think the anxiety expressed by the authors in these articles is somewhat misplaced; the problem is not princesses, but our society’s perception of what characteristics princesses are supposed to possess.

There is nothing inherent with the position of princess that makes women docile and passive. A woman born to, or marrying into, royal lineage is not naturally gentle and retiring, innately lacking both intelligence and wit; our society has just decided to present her as such.

Even a brief foray into the history books shows that princesses are just as capable of being badasses as any other section of society, if only we gave their stories the recognition they deserve.

What about Rani Lakshmi Bai, born in India in 1828 and married to the Maharaja of Jhansi, who spent her childhood studying swordsmanship and archery? After her husband died, she became a freedom fighter, leading an army against the British colonialists.

Or what about Isabella, the ‘she-wolf of France’? When her husband, King Edward II of England, confiscated her lands, took over her house and gave custody of her children to her political enemies, she travelled to France and raised an army. Isabella returned to England, deposed Edward and became regent. Depressingly, the most well-known portrayal of Isabella, Braveheart, does not depict Isabella as the intelligent and proactive woman that she was. Instead she is a passive victim, suffering under her domineering husband while providing essential eye-candy for Mel Gibson.

Criticising princesses for being passive and vapid, labeling them undesirable role models for our children, does a disservice to all the strong and intelligent women who throughout history have led armies and ruled empires. You can’t shade your child from the Disney Corporation and their perfectly polished princesses, the culture of the princess is too ubiquitous. But you can teach your daughter that she can wear a dress, sing to woodland creatures and still be an ass-whooping warrior-woman.

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