Athena, daughter of Zeus
and goddess of wisdom
My daughter is three and has, without prompting from her parents, and like so many other little girls in 21st century America, enthusiastically embraced the quasi-medieval imagery and fairy-tale identity of the "princess". This is far from being her only interest—she is also, much to her father's delight, fascinated by dinosaurs and space, enjoys watching my old Superfriends and Planet of the Apes cartoons on DVD, likes scary things, and loves books (most of them having nothing to do with princesses)—but princesses are nevertheless a major preoccupation at this early stage of her life.
I am of course aware of the socially and politically charged debate surrounding the popularity of the princess motif among young girls today, and, being a father who wants to see my daughter grow up to be all that she can be, without any artificial and unnecessary limitations, I sympathize with the concerns of those who see the entire princess notion as instilling unhealthy conceptions about femininity, love, and life in the still tender and forming minds of these glitter-eyed little girls.
I, too, am a little put off by the kitschy and overly sentimentalized Disney image of a princess, and, at the very least, as my daughter grows in years and understanding (and assuming the fascination lasts, which it may not), I will want to guide her toward a healthy and realistic understanding about the meaning of the princess symbolism and how it relates (or does not relate) to herself as a girl and future woman who lives in, well, 21st century America, rather than a fantasy version of medieval Europe that never existed outside of fairy tales and romances.
But, despite whatever cautions my mind might throw up, at base I have no problem with my daughter—the daughter who I very much want to grow up into an intelligent, independent, and strong woman—being fascinated by and identifying with the image of the fairy tale princess.
Why not? Why am I not concerned that continued identification with and influence by the Disney princess myth will permanently warp my daughter's sense of who she is as a female, of the way life and relationships work, and of what a woman can be?
Well, the answer boils down to one word, a quality in which children almost invariably surpass their grown-up counterparts: imagination.
I think it is crucial to understand that children are not adults. This may seem obvious, but it is a fact that adults so often seem to forget. Children do not think like us. They do not carry with them our concepts, particularly our social and political ideas, and they do not share our adult understanding of the world. Children do not see the world with the same eyes by which grown-ups see the world.
Because of this, children, and especially young children who have as yet received relatively little in the way of socialization and enculturation, do not see princesses, for example, the way adults see princesses. It is important to understand this, because it helps to illuminate the fact that a little girl is not necessarily seeing in a princess what we might see in a princess.
In other words, while you, the sophisticated grown-up, may see the princess as a fragile, infantilized, and impossibly idealized distortion of a woman, that little girl, watching Cinderella in wide-eyed delight, is seeing something entirely different—and something infinitely more interesting.
That is because, unlike most adults, the child has imagination. The child has not yet been indoctrinated to think that such things as fragile, infantilized, impossibly idealized distortions of women might even possibly exist. Therefore, the child's imagination is free and empowered to see that very same princess as something wondrous, beautiful, and extraordinary—a true ideal to which a little girl's heart might aspire. The ideal is not what you think it is, because you are thinking with the mind of an adult. The child is thinking with the far richer mind of a child.
It would be impossible, and perhaps even undesirable, to attempt to explain exactly what that ideal is, or what exactly my daughter is seeing when she sees Cinderella, or Ariel, or Aurora, or Snow White, or Jasmine (who, despite obvious differences in skin tone, is one of my Anglo daughter's favorites), or any of the other princesses who populate the Disney princess pantheon. That is because I do not know what she is seeing, and I do not pretend to know. I am an adult, and, even as much as I might pride myself on my imaginative powers as a poet, I do not claim to have quite the Promethean power of imagination that is the natural and rightful possession of children—especially the youngest among them.
But I do know—partly from my own infrequent, fleeting, but powerful moments of remembering the way I saw the world as a child (memories that remain one of the sources of whatever poetic power I might possess), and partly from an intuitive intimation, though only a hint, of my daughter's way of experiencing the world—that this little girl is seeing something far more wonderful, magical, and glorious when she sees a princess than anything most adults are capable of comprehending.
The adult urge to control and resist the princess mythology—even if understandable from an adult point of view—can all too easily devolve into just another version of Victorian moralistic repression. When premised on adult perceptions and conceptions, and based on misunderstanding of the child and of child psychology, it becomes, in fact, a well-intended effort that is actually detrimental to the child's development—or, to put it in plainer and more meaningful language: it is damaging to the child's soul.
If you think this sounds too harsh, allow me to explain. When my daughter sees Cinderella, I do not know exactly what she sees. But I know enough to know that she is not seeing what I am seeing. A 43-year-old man, no matter how imaginative, cannot possibly see a princess the same way that a 3-year-old girl sees a princess. And, from my daughter's fascination and joy, I know that she is seeing something that makes her happy, something beautiful and good and true, something wonderful and magical and alive.
My daughter's mind has not yet been corrupted by the boring adult modes of thought that would read political and social significance into the princess image. However true and valid those critiques might be, they do not exist for her. She is too busy seeing glitter and magic and wonder. She is seeing something that inspires and uplifts her sweet and beautiful heart and that opens her young and tender mind to new realms of possibility and hope. And it would be cruel, blind, and selfish for any grown-up to attempt to stamp that out in the name of a misguided and myopic moralism.
As she gets older, assuming the princess fascination endures, I will do my best to place alongside that fascination other experiences and ideas that will help provide her with a broad, full, rich spectrum of all the possibilities that are open to her as a young woman. I will teach her to think critically and to ask healthy and productive questions about the values her society teaches her, to value and respect herself, to believe in herself as a woman and as a human being, and to instill in her the faith that she is capable of doing and being whatever she wants to do and to be, according to her own natural talents and native interests, not according to someone else's stereotypes or false limitations. I will accept, support, and love her whoever she is, whatever she does, whoever she loves, whatever she believes.
But I will never tell my daughter she cannot be a princess.
Of course, as she grows older, she will come to have a more realistic understanding of what a princess is, in both fiction and reality. And, as an American woman of the 21st century, it is exceedingly unlikely that she will become a real-life princess, literally speaking.
That may sound ridiculously obvious, but it should underscore my point. Little girls today are not in danger of becoming actual princesses. (I would dare say that the looming possibility of becoming a fairy tale princess is the least problem confronting young women today.) Yes, it is true that they may be in danger of adopting self-images and expectations about life and relationships that are neither realistic nor healthy, and that this is the real threat posed by the ubiquitous princess mythology.
But, at least at this early stage of my daughter's life, the princess image is more likely—far more likely—to instill in her tender young mind ideas, aspirations, and dreams that are nothing but healthy and productive, and I would never want to stand in the way of that.
I will certainly not quash the bright-eyed vision of my daughter's heart because of some completely distorted and prejudiced (and entirely adult) concept of what it is that she is so attracted to in the princess mythology. I may not be able to say exactly what that little girl is imagining in her mind when she watches a princess movie, or what she imagines herself to be when she wears a princess dress, but I can tell you this: it is not what we are imagining a princess to be.
If we see in the princess a fragile, disempowered, and dumbed-down being, she sees something more like a goddess. As adults, we may not be able to share the child's vision of the princess, but we can at least acknowledge our own ignorance and the child's innate genius for perceiving the world, including princesses, through the eyes of wonder.
The ancient philosophers believed that philosophy begins in wonder. So do science and art. Each of these are avenues of knowing and understanding the world, life, and ourselves, and of finding our way toward truth and, ultimately, wisdom. To repress a child's sense of wonder because we mistakenly believe the object of that wonder to be somehow morally corrupting even when it is having precisely the opposite effect is to harm the child's development as a fully realized human being.
Perhaps, instead of complacently accepting our own narrow ideas about what a princess is—instead of passively accepting what Disney tells us a princess is—it would be more productive, more helpful to little girls, to let them teach us what a princess is. Perhaps if we could find the means to turn off the noise of our own political, intellectual, and moral sensibilities for just a moment, and really sit quietly and watch and listen while our daughters and nieces and granddaughters beam with delight at a princess movie, or witness the way they feel themselves to be—how, in their own mind, they are—a magical being when they put on a chintzy princess costume, we might learn something. Perhaps we might learn to expand our own horizons, to stretch our own imaginations, to consider that a princess—just possibly, just maybe—might be an intelligent, wise, powerful, creative, generous, and noble human being. Who just happens to be female. Perhaps, if we cannot conceive of a princess who matches a "prince" in all of the latter's admirable qualities and connotations, it is we who have the problem.
I for one would rather expose my daughter, over the years, to a wide variety of narratives, from many cultures and time periods, both fictional and historical, and thereby help her develop a broad, open-minded, and well-rounded view of what it means to be a woman—and, even more importantly, what it means to be a human. I will not just thoughtlessly accept the dominant 21st century American narrative about princesses (which, for better or worse, has become almost synonymous with the Disney version), either to unquestioningly accept it or to confusedly and misguidedly reject it outright.
I will instead, to the best of my ability, attempt to understand what it is that my beautiful daughter loves so much about princesses. I will not assume that I know more than she does in areas where she, as a child, is the expert. I will not impose my own adult ideas and perceptions onto her bright new mind, still unfettered in imagination and unprejudiced by anyone's politics, right or left. I will allow her to be a princess—whatever that is, whatever that means to her.
Because, although I don't really know what my daughter thinks a princess is, I know this much: it is something wonderful, and beautiful, and good—just like her.