I have loved fairy tales for as long as I can remember. German and English and French and Haitian and Japanese – I was an insatiable reader as a child, and I raided the 390s of my local library for every story from every culture I could find. These stories gave me insights into cultures, and I played anthropologist while I read. The frequent presence of step-mothers in western European stories hinted at high death rates for women when those stories were born. Tsunamis in story after story from Japan gave me a peek into the awesome terror of a natural disaster I’d never seen.
But I loved fairy tales the most. I loved stories of poor girls and boys who were honorable and kind to strangers and were repaid for that with true love and a kingdom of riches. I loved the morals – be kind, especially to those weaker than you. The adventurer who stops to share his meal with an widow or help her draw water from a well is always rewarded, and the callous adventurer who rides past without helping is not. I love a world where good always wins, kindness is always rewarded, and magic exists.
Princess stories and fairy tales are hugely popular and there are millions of girls today who love them just as much as I did. But girls today face a lot more scorn and cynicism for their choice of wish fulfillment stories. People conflate issues of capitalism and advertising directly to children with the fairy tales themselves, conflate Disney Inc. with childish aspiration. We wring our hands over the color pink and “princess culture”. We tell little girls to be girly, to be different from boys, and the movies and offerings that leaves them with our princess based. What can little girls even have in such a bind?
If your child loves princesses, that’s a tremendous opportunity to talk about women rulers and leaders throughout history. Queen Hatsheput ruled Egypt as the first female Pharaoh, establishing important trade routes and bringing economic prosperity. Empress Dowager Cixi ruled China for 47 years, rising from the rank of concubine to do so. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh of India lived with her exiled father in the United Kingdom, where she worked tirelessly as a suffragist and women’s rights advocate. Queen Victoria defied church and custom to have pain relief during the births of her children, creating the possibility for countless women since.
Princesses are people, and therefore multifaceted. Princesses aren’t just beautiful or just popular. They aren’t just wives and mothers. They are rulers and thinkers and schemers and battle maidens. I’ll close with a recommendation for some of the best princess books I read growing up, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia Wrede starring Princess Cimorene. Like all the princesses I admired most, Cimorene has a variety of interests and talents and she’s a character I’d be happy for any child of mine to aspire to be like.