BLOGS: Of sparkles, superheroes and raising a feminist princess

Julie Maclellan


If you had asked me, before I had children, what kind of girl I would like to end up raising, I would probably have said a lot of things. I’d like one who’s independent, who knows her own mind, who’s intelligent, who thinks for herself, who’s adventurous, who’s strong, who loves people, who’s good to those around her and to the world at large but who doesn’t let herself get steamrolled by it.

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I’d probably have painted you the picture of a little girl in overalls, with messy hair, playing in the dirt or creating roleplaying adventures with her non-blonde, non-Barbie dolls in their non-pink, non-sparkly outfits. A little girl who wants to dress up as a dinosaur for Halloween, or maybe a dragon, and whose favourite stories and shows involve girls who kick butt.

Four years after the birth of my child, and here I am facing this reality: I am raising a sparkle princess. Her favourite colours are pink, purple, fuchsia and magenta (her words, not mine). Her favourite movies and storybooks involve princesses. She loves sparkly nail polish. And, yes, that was her you saw wearing a tiara when she left for daycare this morning.

The whole experience has gotten me thinking what a bad rap “princesses” have gotten from the rest of us.

Just say the word “princess” and it immediately calls to mind an unflattering stereotype of a high-maintenance type who’s pampered and spoiled and who expects to be looked after.

It’s pretty easy to find feminist critiques of all things “princess.” And rightly so, what with the Disneyfication of the whole princess persona and the resultant marketing that spreads its insidious sparkliness to small girls everywhere. If you can watch Disney princess movies – especially early Disney movies, like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella – without a shudder or two, then you probably don’t identify as a feminist.

So what’s a mother to do when her daughter turns out to have an inner princess streak a mile wide?

Go with it, that’s what.

Sure, we can debate for hours over how my daughter got this princess streak. Was it innate? Was it socialized? Was she simply picking up on the messaging she’s been getting since birth – not necessarily from her parents, but from the world around her - that she’s pretty, that her blonde hair and blue eyes make strangers respond to her, that “little girl” equals “adorable”? All I can tell you is, I’m no princess, and this daughter of mine started loving sparkles, pink and princessy things long before I ever broke down and showed her a Disney movie. In fact, I showed her a Disney movie because she loved princesses, and not the other way around.

Frozen was our first one – a princess movie I can easily get behind thanks to its two strong-willed female heroines and the fact that the “act of true love” that saves one of them is a sister’s love, not a kiss from some random dude she barely knows.

We have since branched out into many others, including the early ones that make me shudder. We’ve also watched many other things – she loves WALL-E, too, for the record – but nothing has ever captured her imagination the way princesses have.

I’ve stopped resisting. Fact is, she enjoys princess movies. She likes the singing, the cute little animals, the fact that the princess always wins in the end, that “good” always beats “bad” and that evil always gets its comeuppance.  Thus far, she’s pretty take-it-or-leave-it about the whole Prince Charming thing – because, let’s face it, the princes aren’t really a factor in many of the Disney movies.

Which, I think, is the fact that has won me over, one reluctant and skeptical step at a time, to Team Princess: the stories, however flawed they may be (and believe me, I can find flaws all over the place) always centre around the girl.

My small human can see that girls are the centre of their own story. That, by being true to themselves, girls can navigate their own path through a world that is sometimes scary, sometimes dangerous, sometimes filled with people who don’t like us and who try to hurt us – and that we can win, in the end.

Sure, there’s lots of other less-positive messaging. Ariel gives up her voice to win a man? Belle falls in love with her captor? Yes, I could write (and, come to think of it, probably have written) diatribes against the anti-feminist messages in a lot of these plots.

But I can also take these movies, flawed as they are, and use them to help my daughter embrace her own identity.

Aurora and Cinderella may be somewhat passive, by today’s standards. So don’t dwell on that. Dwell on the fact that they are kind and loving and giving and optimistic in the face of hardship, and that things work out for them because they remain true to themselves – and that, in the end, the world helps them because of their good qualities.

Ariel may give up her voice for a cute guy she doesn’t even know. But she’s spunky, independent, adventurous, free-spirited and brave. Focus on that.

Belle? Yes, that one’s got Stockholm Syndrome written all over it. But she’s intelligent, well-read, open-minded and rejects the narrow confines of the role society has written for her. She doesn’t want to marry the handsomest, most sought-after guy in town because he clearly isn’t her intellectual equal, and he’s a brute to boot. (“Gaston isn’t handsome,” said my tiny sage after seeing the movie. “He looks handsome, but he isn’t really.” As messages go, I figure it’s not the worst one she could take out of that film.)

And on it goes. Tiana works hard towards her goal of running her own business. Mulan joins the army and turns back the invading hordes. Merida is strong-willed and refuses to cave in to convention, and she comes to her own rescue – and the rescue of her mother – when things go bad.

And so on, and so on. For every negative message, I can find a positive – and my daughter can be entertained by the fun, the songs and the stories, and revel in wearing her own sparkly princess dresses and fancy shoes and tiaras because that’s what she likes best of all.

Of course, as she grows older, I’ll remain tuned in to the messaging. I will make sure my kid isn’t going to sit back and wait for Prince Charming to come and rescue her from the big bad world. But you know what? There’s zero chance of that, as far as I can see. She’s too bloody stubborn and independent to wait around for anyone else to make things happen for her. She wants to do it all herself.

She just wants to do it wearing a sparkly dress and a tiara instead of jeans and sensible shoes like her mother.

Who am I to tell her that’s wrong? That’s who she is. That’s what she loves. For me, as a mother, to suggest that her preferred colours and fashion choices are somehow less desirable because they are “too feminine” or “too princessy” is just as bad as the reverse would be. If I were in fact raising the overall-wearing type, most women I know would be horrified by me trying to force her into a princess dress – and rightly so.  So why wouldn't it be just as horrifying for me to try to force her into the overalls instead?

That kind of message would be worse. It would say that it’s okay to be who you are, unless “who you are” doesn’t conform to how I think you should be. That’s the whole message that feminism has been trying to counter from the get-go, and it's not the message I want to send to my child.

Sure, there’s a lot I can do to combat the sparkle-princess message. My daughter can – and does - read cool books that redefine “princess” – like The Paper Bag Princess and Interstellar Cinderella, a new favourite. I can make sure she has toys and activities to appeal to all sides of her – Lego, train sets, art supplies, puzzles, animals, cars, and, yes, Barbies and a dollhouse.

And, out there in the world, she can continue to do what she does already – splash in puddles, play in the mud, pick up snails and worms, and go on all manner of adventures (fairy wings and tiaras optional).

In fact, most of the things I envisioned my daughter being are true.

She’s independent, she knows her own mind, she’s intelligent, she thinks for herself, she’s adventurous, she’s strong, she loves people, she’s (mostly) good to those around her and to the world at large but she doesn’t let herself get steamrolled by it. She has messy hair, she plays in the dirt, and she loves roleplaying adventures with her dolls.

All of those things are no less true because she wears sparkly dresses and not overalls.

Last week, I was fine with the fact that she wanted to be Rapunzel for Halloween. We had the dress, the wig, the tiara, the sparkly shoes, the whole shebang. And you know what? She decided to be WonderWoman instead.

I’m not sure what that means, really. Or if it means anything at all.

But my daughter is who she is. And whether she’s in full princess regalia or superhero gear, her fundamental self doesn’t change.

She’s still kick-ass awesome either way. And I’m going to make sure she knows that, sparkles and all.


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