As I write, the children are transfixed by ‘Brave’, which I persuaded them to watch having bought child 2 the audiobook for Christmas. I persuaded them not because I want them to watch television, but because left to herself, Ella would always choose ‘Cinderella’ or some other horrific princess-gets-rescued-by-prince tale that appalls me to my very feminist bones. Somehow my daughter and her love of all things princess and Disney has managed to change me from the sort of person who was beyond horrified by the whole pink and princess thing to one who comforts herself with the idea that at least if she’s watching feisty and strong princesses it might not quite as damaging as I feared. Or perhaps I wasn’t changed so much as well – worn down. Disney princesses, you see, are everywhere. They sneak in quietly when you’re not looking, insinuate themselves stealthily into your consciousness, and steal silently into your life until suddenly you realise that every single thing your daughter likes or wants to play with is a skinny, beautiful, long haired doll in a flouncy dress getting rescued by a prince or being trapped in a tower. Or has an image of the above stamped all over it. (There’s nothing Disney won’t merchandise – toothbrushes, toothpaste, hairbrushes, cups, plates – you name it, Disney has put a Rapunzel face on it and marketed it at four year olds) Perhaps all this wouldn’t be so bad if I hadn’t done absolutely everything I could to avoid pink and princesses when my daughter was little. I was horrified by the range of baby clothes available for girls and struck dumb by the difference between the clothes for boys and clothes for girls. Apparently boys wear jeans and t shirts (and a million variations on that theme) Baby girls, on the other hand, are dressed like mini adults – jeggings, skinny jeans, flouncy dresses and little skirts. Oh, and flowery headbands. Please don’t get me started on a flowery headbands on bald babies. I became, for a time, boringly obsessed by baby clothes, and not in a good way. Ruffles, lace and flounces were all banned from my daughter’s wardrobe. What, I wondered, does it say to little girls that their clothes are so much more important than their brothers’, who wander about in the same jeans and t shirt every day? How do we expect them to have any kind of a balanced attitude towards their appearance when they are teenagers if, from birth, we teach them that their clothes and looking pretty are so paramount to what others think of them? As she grew older and showed little interest in dolls, doll houses, or babies, (she had them but they lay untouched in the drawer), and happily played with the train track, lorries and cars, I breathed a sigh of relief. She wore a lot of blue, and displayed no preference for pink or for dresses; she never asked to wear anything different than the clothes I laid out for her, and her greatest passion was the Octonauts. The only princesses she knew were in the knights and soldiers games her brother wanted to play, and she took on whatever role he offered her. I began to think that – being a great believer in nurture over nature – perhaps we had managed to produce a non-girly girl, and I was proud of that. I wanted her to be strong. I wanted her to believe she could do anything. I wanted her to forge her own path. I most certainly did not want her believing that boys are brave and strong and adventurous while girls are vulnerable and in need of rescuing. A lot of people thought I was needlessly mental about the whole thing. ‘They’re only films,’ they’d say. Or, ‘all little girls want to be princesses.’ Or – my own personal favourite – ‘you can’t beat nature.’ They are not only films. Little girls want to be princesses because they’re fed a diet of Disney and pink. And nature doesn’t make little girls any different from little boys. We do. Think of all the male characters in Disney films – Buzz, Nemo, Woody; they’re brave, adventurous, courageous. They go out on adventures. They’re not especially attractive. They find solutions to their own problems and carry them through. But the female characters – Cinderella, Aurora, Snow White; they’re beautiful, sweet, caring. They find someone to rescue them. They are helpless. They get married at the end. These are the women there all ready for my daughter to look up to. And so we avoided them, and she watched a lot of Octonauts and her role models were Tweak the engineer and Dashi the scientist. And then she saw ‘Frozen.’ Now ‘Frozen’ by itself is not the worst thing in the world, although I do have some issues with Disney feting it as some kind of feminist masterpiece; at least the princesses are, after all, strong women who rescue each other rather than be rescued. They don’t exist for a romantic plot, and there is no sense – for Elsa at least – of living happily ever after through getting married. No, it’s not ‘Frozen’ itself that is the problem, but more the avalanche of Disney princesses that my daughter’s instant love for Anna and Elsa immediately released. It began with ‘Frozen’ and ended in ‘Cinderella’, which rapidly became her favourite. This was, of course, our fault. We let her watch them, seduced by her love of ‘Frozen’ and the way she bonded with children at her nursery over this shared obsession. We bought her an Anna doll, and then an Elsa one. And then one day I woke up and realised that I had a daughter who wanted to dress like a princess, play as a princess, and refused to wear brown tights because ‘they’re not a girl colour.’ So now, after a period of abject horror, I’ve managed to calm down, subdue my feminist outrage, and come up with ways in which to mitigate the damage. We discourage the old Disney classics about princesses, (hence why they’re watching ‘Brave’ this evening – Merida is my favourite Disney princess) and talk a lot about princesses rescuing themselves, or being rescued by their sisters, brothers, or parents. The princesses have roles other than the Kate-Middleton-esque hanging about and looking pretty in a dress in our games – they’re doctors, or soldiers, or explorers. And I try to stop myself telling her that she’s beautiful – not because I don’t believe that she is – but because I want her to understand that being kind, and strong, and clever, are far more important. And I hope, somewhere deep inside myself, that this princess phase is just that – a phase, and that in a year’s time they’ll be consigned to the same place as the Octonauts – a past which I can remember fondly, but would prefer we didn’t return. And in the mean time, I hope that we’ve taught her that there’s nothing wrong with being a princess, or beautiful, or caring, or sweet, or getting married to a handsome prince, but that she can also be brave and courageous and strong and adventurous, and, in the end, whatever she wants to be.
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