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Monday, February 17, 2014

The Princess Paradox

With the recent release of Disney's latest princess offering 'Frozen' the debate has once again been thrown open on the influence of these fairy tale women and their actions (or lack thereof) on our daughters. Elsa, one of the two heroines of Frozen is most noted for the fact that at no point in the movie does she have any kind of love interest, that Anna, her sister, has a somewhat realistic brush with first love gone sour and that the high point of the movie is not the romantic climax, but rather the sacrifice of one sister for another and the idea of familial true love being a primary motivating factor. And it's exciting. It's a sure sign that Disney is moving away from its old school mentality of to be of worth a princess needs a prince (Cinderella, The Little Mermaid) or that women are fundamentally helpless (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty). There has been signs that Disney has been starting to wake up slowly to the idea that a woman, even a fairly tale princess should have at least something of her own agency, Belle in Beauty and the Beast was highly intelligent and well read, Mulan is brave and honourable, Tiana, the protagonist in 'The Princess and the Frog' had an admirable worth ethic, ambition and common sense, Rapunzel in Tangled is feisty and single minded in her pursuit of her goal. Even more recently we had Merida, the strong and able princess in 'Brave' who's primary motivation is the desire to not be married off.  Now, don't get me wrong, none of these princess are paragons of feminist virtue and there are many points in all these movies which do not bear any real feminist analysis, but the intent is there. In these movies, the female characters are not mere foils for the heroic action of their male counterparts, nor driven solely by their desire to bag themselves a prince or be rescued from their circumstances. They show a willing to have a say in the making of their own destinies.

However, despite these shifts in perceptions, subtle as they are in some cases (let's face it for all her intellect we're all pretty certain that Belle had Stockholm's Syndrome), the 'princess debate' rages on. As a woman and particularly as the mother of a daughter, I find myself constantly in the position where the desires of my little girl, who is four and therefore fully in the grip of the Disney marketing machine despite my best intentions, and my own as a mother wanting to empower her daughter, meet. And here in lies the princess paradox. For a while I did my best to avoid our posse of fairy tale princesses, passionately disavowed Barbie and her buddies and threw some serious shade at the new and not all improved My Little Pony range (just so you know, Hasbro, you have totally destroyed my childhood, especially with those hideous high school ones, thanks for that). I kept our colour scheme primary. And then I thought about it. I don't admire these 'women', and yes as an adult woman their lack of agency makes me sad, particularly when you bear in mind they are marketed directly at girls.  But I grew up with the cadre of 'old school' princess. Ariel was probably the last princess film I saw until I had children of my own. And let's face it Ariel is the worst of the bunch, she is willing to sacrifice her talent for a man she had seen only once, was happy to be silent and admired only for what was on the outside, and the least said about Eric the better, willing to move a woman in with him that he couldn't speak to and then threw her over for someone else. They are the worst, the worst. So obviously, Ariel is one of my daughter's favourites, at least she was until Elsa came along. Despite growing up in the shadow of Cinderella, who got very lucky, or Aurora and Snow White who slept through major parts of their own stories (but are useful for pointing out the consequences of taking food from strangers and touching things you shouldn't if we really reach) and the aforementioned Ariel (the worst, just the worst), I did not grow up to be without agency, I did not grow up to be an example of feminine passivity, I have a very nice husband, but I did not wait around for my prince to come, I am not defined by the man in my life. I have interests, I am stubborn, I have opinions and principles which I  will defend vehemently.  I make choices for myself. And so do pretty much every other woman I know. We are not a generation that has grown up with unrealistic expectations and most of the women I know are out there making their lives happen, and where unrealistic expectations come, its certainly not the Disney ladies that are to blame. Ultimately, these women did me no harm, other than to possibly influencing  my choice of  of wedding dress more that I like to admit. Which all in all, isn't so bad really.

So I let my daughter embrace the princesses. I particularly encourage her to watch the newer ones (I personally am Tiana girl, it's a whole working for what you want thing), they are just more relatable than the anachronistic Old school. We talk about their personalities, the things that they do and why they do them. I point out the things that maybe aren't a great idea and we applaud their strengths. I get passive aggressive remarks from other mums sometimes, usually with a nice subtext of parental superiority that their daughter don't watch or dress as princesses and I'm ok with that. Ultimately, these princesses, their evolution from Cinderella's passivity to Elsa's embrace of the things that make her different have encouraged conversations with my daughter about what it means to be a woman that we might not have had otherwise. And whilst I'd rather live I a world where I didn't need to have these conversations at all, we don't. My children, my daughter in particular will encounter far more pernicious influences both in her real life dealings and in pop culture and the media than these massively frocked misses. If nothing else these early forays into gender politics will hopefully prepare her to be a strong,  assertive and empowered woman who is happy to tread her own path.

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