Like most girls, I was exposed to a fair few stories about princesses while I was growing up. Many of them were awful. I’ve been thinking about the messages in those stories and how they impacted on my sense of self.
First and foremost a princess had to be beautiful. I was exposed to a lot of stories where beauty was defined as blonde with blue eyes. There was a memorably awful one in which the princess who needed rescue turned out to be a big disappointment because she was a bit plump and had dark hair. That one haunted me. Dark haired, dark eyed and regularly fat shamed, it was clear that I wasn’t going to cut it.
Princess stories taught me that the ideal quality in a young woman was fragility. People are more likely to fall in love with you if they have to rescue you first and you function as some sort of beautiful prize. Being good, kind and lovely clearly matters, but that should manifest in a passive, domestic sort of way. You shouldn’t do anything. You should be so delicate and entitled that you complain about a pea under the mattress. I didn’t get much in the way of warrior princess stories until I was a lot older.
I also remember as a child having a moment of working out what life might be like with servants following you round, and not being able to do anything privately or for yourself, and I didn’t much fancy it. I had a fledgling feeling that to be doing nothing in a glamorous way while other people did the work wasn’t something to aspire to.
Princess stories are a key part of how western culture tells girls who they are supposed to be. I think it’s a lot better than it used to be – that the princesses are more diverse, more active, self rescuing. Child me could have done with the dark haired and highly capable Princess Leia, with Shrek’s Princess Fiona, and Nausica from Valley of the Wind. Child me would have been much happier in a reality where being a princess was something anyone, me included, could play with.
This summer, for the first time in my life, someone called me ‘princess’ as a term of affection. I was shocked by what this did to my inner child, who was never a princess. Stories are powerful things, and the ones that were told to us as children do a lot to inform who we think we are allowed to be.