What exactly makes the idea of being a princess so alluring? One would assume that the rigid rules and harsh expectations of being the ultimate figure of femininity would ward them off. You might assume the idea of a future full of baby-making, extensive politeness, and being professional arm-candy would send young girls running for the swords and armory to become warriors. In an article written by Kira Cochrane for the New Statesman, she states that the life of a princess is, “…so fricking boring that I wouldn’t blame any such princess for ditching her prince, taking up smoking (possibly crack), getting a tattoo and becoming… I don’t know – say, a bounty hunter or a pirate.” In our society, though, princesses are not marketed as heir producers and obedient wives. In a culture of romanticized stories of royalty and Disneyfied fantasies of damsels in distress, the lure of princess-dom seems to stem simply from the notion that all princesses are the epitome of “pretty.” And who doesn’t want to be pretty?
Before going any further, let us get a few things defined and my purpose clear. Webster’s dictionary defines “princess” as either 1) a female member of a royal family; especially : a daughter or granddaughter of a sovereign or 2) the consort of a prince. What I find interesting about these definitions is how, after a close look, they are revolve around the male members of the family. Although the first definition does not explicitly say the “daughter of a king”, it is almost implied. Let me explain; the definition of “Queen” is the “the wife or widow of a king”, not a sovereign. The definition of a princess was stated as the daughter of a sovereign. Through a process of elimination, Webster’s dictionary has defined a princess as the daughter of a king. Therefore, a princess is only labeled so if her father is a king or she is the arm-candy of a prince. So much for independent women of power.
For the purposes of this study we will define a princess as the daughter of a royal family. I will begin this study by exploring stereotypes of princesses in the media; more specifically in the film The Princess Diaries and other Disney princess stories. Expanding on this, I will highlight a study done by Janet Evans regarding gender stereotypes in children’s picture books. Lastly, I will indulge in the popular children’s board game Pretty, Pretty Princess and how it enforces the idea that all princesses are beautiful and loved.
The Princess Diaries; Never Good Enough
There is no way to count the amount of girls in this world who have dreamt of waking up one day to find out they were a princess. Well, that is exactly what happened to Amelia (Mia) Thermopolis. Raised by her single mother, she discovers that her recently deceased father is in fact the Crown Prince of the fictional country of Genovia. Due to his untimely death, Mia must take the thrown or her family will forever lose reign of their country.
Mia is an awkward fifteen year old girl who is ridiculed and disliked for her appearance and fear of speaking in public. After her grandmother, the Queen of Genovia, reveals that Mia is in fact the heir to the royal throne, Mia exclaims that, “[her] expectation in life is to be invisible, and [she’s] pretty good at it.” At first, she refuses the idea of being royalty and wishes only to survive the tenth grade unscathed.
Mia eventually, albeit reluctantly, agrees to begin taking princess training classes with her grandmother. During these lessons she is expected to improve her bad posture, bad nails, clothing choices, manners, eating habits, dancing skills, among many other things. During her makeover, Mia is rid of her bushy eyebrows, frizzy hair, nerdy glasses, and caked with make-up. After all, you must be able to stop traffic with your smile to run a country, right?
Of course, after her princess lessons, Mia is noticed and liked by her peers. She even gets a date with the resident “prince” of the high school. She is actually ridiculed by her best friend for betraying their awkwardness, until Mia reveals that she is in fact a princess, thus enforcing the notion that Mia is only likeable if she is both attractive and a princess.
The whole movie, it seems that Mia will never be good enough to be Princess of Genovia. No matter how hard she tries, she will never be feminine enough, pretty enough, polite enough, quite enough, or obedient enough to fulfill her duties. Never once, however, in her princess training was she truly prepared for the “job” that her grandmother claimed she would have as Princess of Genovia, “You know, people think princesses are supposed to wear tiaras, marry the prince, always look pretty, and live happily ever after. But it's so much more than that. It's a real job.” Not once is Mia told what her job of running the country will entail. All the viewer sees is her etiquette and beauty training. This just instigates the notion that princesses simply need to be appealing to the eye and polite to succeed in life.
In the sequel, Mia is faced with another trail of her tumultuous life as a princess; she must get married. There really is no sugar coating the fact that this movie perpetuates the unsaid rule that a woman cannot amount to anything in life unless she is by her husband’s side. Although by the end of the movie, it is ruled that Mia can be crowned as Queen of Genovia without being married, she still wins the heart of her prince and lives happily ever after. Way to go, social construction.
Disney Princesses: Of Evil Queens and Daft Princes
When one thinks of a princess, typically one of the several Disney Princesses will be the one that comes to mind. The stories of Cinderella, Belle, Ariel, and Sleeping Beauty will forever live on as classic princess stories. They will also live on to perpetuate stereotypical gender roles and beauty ideals. Let us discuss, shall we?
First and foremost, the majority of the Disney Princesses are Caucasian. This enables the myth that ideal beauty is that of western Caucasian females. Ethnicity is exotic and mysterious. The few princesses that are not white, Mulan and Pocahontas in particular, are not depicted in the traditional manner of Disney Princesses. They are rebellious and disobedient. The only other princess that is shown as being hard-headed and wayward is Ariel, the Mermaid Princess. However, Ariel is the only princess with ginger hair, which can be seen as a symbol of her being “hot-headed” and feisty.
Another common theme among these princesses is the fact that they are all tremendously gorgeous to the point of being threatening. Snow White was so striking that the evil witch attempted to kill her. Cinderella was so stunning that her step-family locked her in a remote room. Belle’s own name actually means “beautiful” in her native French language. None of these princesses were overweight or plain looking. Also, despite the fact that most of the princesses were teenagers, they did not suffer one bit from the horrors of acne, greasy hair, body odor, and overall awkwardness that comes with puberty. As a princess should be, they are flawless and perfect in all areas of beauty: thin waists, perky breasts, and dazzling smiles.
What is frightening about this is how young girls are the ones who want to emulate these characters more than anyone else. These films are marketed for “all ages” but really seem to appeal to girls in elementary school. These children are being hounded with expectations of beauty they will never be able to achieve even before they know what breasts are. They develop the idea that princesses are frail girls who need to be saved from their evil step-mother by a bo-hunky prince. Not once do they see that these young women may have to rise up and rule over an entire country some day. Unfaithful kings and pressures to produce heirs are never mentioned either.
The Paper Bag Princess; Bending Gender Norms
There is one flickering light of hope in the world of children’s story telling. Two writers by the name of Robert Muncsh and Michael Martchenko wrote a story entitled The Paper Bag Princess for children. In the story, the prince is hauled away by the evil dragon after the princess’s castle and clothes are torched by the monster’s firey breath. Ergo, she puts on a paper bag (the only thing she could find to wear) and sets off to save the prince. After beating the dragon with wit and cunning rather than brute force, the prince exclaims that she smells and is not acting like a princess. She tells him he is a coward. They do not get married and there is no happily ever after.
Janet Evans conducted a survey of thirty six, eight and nine year old children about this story. For the most part, the children were upset and confused as to why the story did not follow the typical norms of princess stories. They did not understand why prince charming did not have any weapons. They thought the princess should have run away from the dragon. Most of all, though, they could not for the life of them figure out why the paper bag never burned around the dragon’s fire. It seemed that although the gender-bending was a concern, other smaller details were of top-priority for the children.
While it was interesting to see adhering to gender norms were not of the most important to the children, it is key to take into consideration their ability to be swayed and conditioned to expect certain things. They did expect the princess to be the one abducted and saved. They were so sure that the prince was going to come barreling in with his sword and steed. These expectations were already engrained into their small, developing mind and they had not even lived a full decade yet.
The capability of young children to absorb and consume information is incredible. With princess stories like the Disney movies, we have to be concerned about what it is the future of the world is learning to be expected of them. If these expectations include unattainable beauty standards and unrealistic expectations of happiness, we have more to worry about than our paper bags burning up.
Pretty, Pretty Princess: Perpetuating Preposterous Principles of Perfection
Board games used to be a staple of a child’s playtime. With the emergence of video games and computer programs they have died out a bit, but still find their way into children’s toy cupboards. One game that has always been fascinating is Pretty, Pretty Princess. It is a game in which the players collect pieces of jewelry of the color corresponding to their play piece. Once you collect them all (as well as the crown) you win and become the Pretty, Pretty Princess. Of course, you must avoid the black ring. This particular piece of jewelry will prevent you from becoming the Pretty, Pretty Princess regardless of what you have already gathered.
So apparently all it takes is a few pieces of plastic to become royalty. This game is just another jewel on the crown of unrealistic princess definitions. The game does not address knowledge of government policy, proper manners and etiquette, or child bearing tips. All one must do is collect the pieces, put them on, and you are a princess. Seeing as how fashion and jewelry typically relates to ideals of beauty (or lack thereof), the game of Pretty, Pretty Princess enables the suggestion that princesses are all beautiful and desirable.
As a part of this study, I will be developing a different version of the Pretty, Pretty Princess board game. Rather than collecting jewelry pieces, the players will collect items to represent the expectations one must reach to become a princess: A book to wear upon your head to work on your terrible posture. A teacup which you must hold with only two fingers. After all, table manners are top priority when you are dining with prime ministers and other dignitaries. Tights for your dancing lessons. A ribbon of lace to silence yourself. Lastly, you all will be competing for the prince’s engagement ring. You cannot rule your country without him! Keep in mind, though, to be sure to steer clear of the Queen of Hearts. After all, you cannot be the delicate and pristine princess if you are the haggard, jealous old queen.