When I was little I loved Cinderella and Snow White: the helpful mice, the pumpkin coach, Sneezy and Grumpy, even the harsh but appropriate punishment for the wicked witch after Snow White is revived… these fairy tales were magical and the far away land where they took place was very real to me. But now as a parent I find myself in the anti-princess camp. I get annoyed when Katherine admires all the Cinderella costumes at Halloween and excitedly points out the Little Mermaid stickers at the doctor’s office. What is it about the princesses, who were a wonderful part of my childhood, that now irritates me to the point of not wanting to share them with my children?
Maybe you’ve seen on Facebook the picture of the princesses with the mocking statements identifying each story’s anti-feminist message. If you missed it, here it is:
That’s why they irritate me.
But I don’t really believe these messages characterize the true fairy tales. Rather, they are an unfortunate consequence of the commercialization of the princesses. The original fairy tales are complex and reflect the inner qualities of human nature. They are a great way for kids to process and explore good and evil. For example, the characters in Snow White symbolize the pure (Snow White), the evil (Wicked Witch), and the will (Dwarfs) that reside in all of us. The story presents a struggle between them and in the end, a resolution. But somehow the richness of the story has been lost to an obsession with the princess. The focus on the struggle within the self has been shifted to a focus on a two-dimensional character in a pretty dress.
How did this happen?
The fairy tale books I had as a child offered beautiful artwork of a few selected scenes, the rest I had to fill in with my imagination. Today, children watch the Disney movies in which the entire story is presented visually, leaving nothing to the imagination. Furthermore, we are bombarded with the commercialized princess images: we see them on backpacks, children’s clothing, bedding, lunch boxes, notebooks, etc. Despite having never seen a Disney movie or owned any Disney paraphernalia, Katherine knows all the princesses* and she’s only five! Even worse, she only identifies with the princesses who resemble her. Just today she noticed the picture above on my computer screen and proceeded to tell me, “I can be Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty because I have yellow hair like they do. But Clara has to be Belle because she has brown hair.” Katherine has no chance to create a picture of Belle that she can relate to.
The lack of a child’s imagination when it comes to Disney princesses is probably pretty common these days. I remember hearing of a teacher who conducted a mini-experiment in her class. She told her grade school students a story in which one of the characters was an old woman. At the end of the story she asked the children to draw the old woman. Each child came up with a unique and detailed picture. The teacher then told the children the story of Cinderella. At the end, she asked them to draw Cinderella. Each child drew the exact same image.
If children don’t need to do any imaginative work, are they able to process the story deeply and in a way that allows them to relate it to their own world? Or are they stuck on the pre-made, shallow (and unrealistic!) imagery of mass media? What is lost when we don’t engage a child’s imagination in a story?
I will read the princess stories to my children. But I wonder if they’ll have the opportunity to make the stories their own, or if in Katherine’s mind, Snow White already wears a blue and yellow dress and a red hairband in her brown hair.
*When I asked her how she knows who they are, she replied in her snarky ‘duh’ tone, “I just do, mom.”