FeminismParenting Styles

In Defense of the Princess Fantasy Or Hell Yeah We Have Tiaras in Our Closet

My daughter’s very favorite color is pink. Not green like her favorite living room chair or blue to match her eyes. The pinkest pink you can possibly imagine. Pink so pink red just shrugs in despair. She drapes herself in the color as if it were an essential part of her being. I’m going to paint her room pink this summer at her request to go along with her roughly ten pairs of pink pants and ten pink shirts and the two pairs of pink sneakers and the pink puffer coat I bought her a garage sale.

We were sitting here the other day watching the National Ladies Figure Skating championship. Not the snowboarding or the skiing but the stuff with the sequins, the pleats and the little skirts. She likes the princessy aspect of it. She wants to wear long dresses and pleads with me to coax her curls into an elaborate updo. We’ll be glued to the screen next month when they do the big Olympics Competition.

I’ve been told this is supposed to be bad. We live a world where mothers of daughters are now expected to tell their daughters that the princess is a shallow invention not worthy of her attention. We’re supposed to encourage our daughters to watch hockey instead of figure skating, basketball instead of artistic gymnastics.

Call me a bad mom but I think I’ll take a pass. She doesn’t like hockey. She has no desire to throw a football or become a firefighter. And I’m okay with it. I don’t plan to teach my daughters that power should be heredity or that she ought to plan her life around marrying one of the inbred Germans who currently make up the British royals. I watch Downton Abbey mostly to be grateful that way of life is no longer much of an option in today’s world.

I plan to teach my girls that the dresses they like so much were created by people with imagination and skill. I plan to teach her that the effortless triple loop she so admired from the girl only slightly older than she is probably came to the skater after about twenty million falls and a dozen years of early morning skating lessons.

We go ice skating every so often. As I did when I was young and spent my winters at the Coney Island rink, she loves it. She puts on her skates and she’s someone else. I don’t know if that someone else is a princess or a member of the current US ice dance team that will probably win gold next month. It might be just plain old wonderful Serena who can feel the gloriously promising ice below her feet and her growing power above it.

Let’s do all we can to encourage girls to plan a career as a plumber or an engineer if that’s where their hearts lie. My husband’s an engineer by training and he has an wonderful mind. Let’s tell our boys they can become labor and delivery nurses and stay at home dads. But let’s all let our girls become elementary school teachers or ballerinas if they like.

Real freedom must come with the right to put on tutu and a tiara as well as a doctor’s stethoscope. I want my daughter to out earn her husband if she wants or stay at home if that’s where her calling is. I want her to attend ballet classes or just sit back and enjoy a glorious performance of Giselle.

Most of all I want those choices to be hers and hers alone.


Gadfly lives and writes in the USA.

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  1. I think it is wonderful that your daughter loves pink and princesses. I also think it is great that my son loves pink. I think the important thing is that neither one of our children is ever told that it is not okay. After all, that is the point, not to redefine male and female, but to open options to all genders.

  2. When my daughter was in primary school I divided the laundry into three loads: lights, darks, and pinks. She did ballet and gymnastics and loved fairy tales, especially ones with resourceful women. Now she’s in high school and I divide the laundry into three loads: lights, darks and absolute black. She does fencing and marksmanship and loves fairy tales, especially ones with resourceful women.

  3. I think there are several things at pla at once.
    1.) There are parts of current girl-culture that are inherently problematic and the princess fatasy is one of them. The fixation on a very narrow range of beauty. The equivocation of beautiful = good. The passivity and waiting for Prince Charming. The goal of marriage. Those things are not only to be found in princess culture, but it’s a huge part of it. It leads to your 5 yo telling you that she has to be pretty so she’ll have friends. It leads to a biracial child drawing herself with white skin and straight blonde hair, because chubby brown girls with curls are apparently worthless and can never ever be a princess.
    2.) There’s a difference between a child doing something and a child playing something. Most frilly tutus aren’t worn by girls in actual ballet classes, which are hard work and mindless repetition of basic patterns. They are given to and worn by little girls who dream about being a pretty balerina. With the focus on pretty.
    3.) We might not intend to teach our children XY and Z, but it’s not as if they only learn what we consciously teach them.
    4.) I don’t buy the “they’ll grow out of it”. Sure, they’ll grow out of the pink tutus and the sparkling tiaras, but the mindset doesn’t change much. No, even not when they decide to sign up for a generally despised subculture. Because within those subcultures the rules are still the same: narrow acceptable range of beauty (quite often not that different from mainstream culture) and rigid policing of expression and style. We all carry the load of our own upbringing, the unreflected ideas and biases. Our children will not one day simply forget about sparkly pink princess and mighty brutal warrior.
    5.) It’s naive to think that our children like a certain kind of things and dislike another kind of things just because. That’s ultimately the point and problem of gender expression: Items, colours, games and behaviours get gendered and to identify with one gender or another is to endorse these things. There are actual privileges and penalties for not conforming to these narrow options. This doesn’t mean we should now police our children, because it’s not their fault and I refuse to let them pay the price, but we should be very critical and try to set a counterpoint.

    1. I agree with everything you say here, but there’s another we could add: anything that has been coded by society as female is devalued. That makes it difficult if you actually like some of those things like ballet or sewing. There are lots of ramifications of this. I’m going to leave out for the moment what happens to boys who like those things. For girls who do it becomes “you only like them because you’re a girl” and people assuming that they’re girly in all aspects or can’t possibly really like those things. AND well-meaning people (including me with my own child) pointing out all the social problems with the things that they love. That’s a burden in itself. We grow up and raise children in a stew of unspoken values and expectations. Navigating that is never, ever easy.

      1. Yep, that’s why I am careful with the messages I send out and really try to stick with my criticism to those things that are inherently problematic.
        Hell, I beat myself over the head long enough for being an enthusiastic dressmaker and loving embroidery
        I had an epiphany when I bought my eldest a beads set for her 5th birthday. I was like “why can’t you like pirates like your mum???”
        And then we did beads together and I noticed not only how much fun it was, but also how very educational. Their fine motor skills got do much training, colour perception, symetry, all that stuff. So we got more beads. It’s a plus that in the end we have nice stuff.

    2. As someone who danced for decades, I might quibble with the mindlessness of the repetition involved in mastering movement. There’s a lot of thought involved in perfecting something. If you’re not keen on ballet then you’re probably not putting that kind of thought in it, which is fair. I’m not wild about basketball, but I’d hesitate to say that it involves mindless repetition of ball bouncing and throwing.

      1. The “mindless” was not meant to demean it, just to indicate that it’s not glamorously dancing away on your toes. It was the wrong word to use. My eldest does ballet, so I’ve seen lots of demi plies so far 🙂

  4. Yes, so much of what Giliell said! It would be nice if we could just embrace what our children love as just what they happen to love, but there’s so much pull and push that shapes their choices. There’s the soft comments that adults throw away without thinking about the fact that children hear them like when people will say right in front of my daughter “trucks? So she likes boy toys?” (no, she likes toys that are fun, a category that includes both trucks and baby dolls. And also, she understands English so thank you so much for planting the seed that there are girl and boy toys in my daughter’s head) There are the explicit statements from other kids about what girls are allowed to do versus what boys are allowed to do, which in too many daycare and preschool rooms go unchecked. On top of that, there are also all of the images in books, TV shows, and movies that show girls that they can be pink and a princess while boys can be everything else. And sure, a lot of modern princesses are not damsels in distress and a lot of them are pretty awesome, but the stats on children’s media are pretty damning. What girls and boys are generally exposed to is that girls are princesses or fairies or aren’t part of the story at all.

    Of course, recognizing this doesn’t do much to address this. As parents, we absolutely can’t make our children feel shamed for what they like–wherever they understand themselves on our off the gender binary (plus, I think the stuff coded girl is genuinely awesome–I like sparkly and fairies and poofy princess dresses, too!). But I think we do have to consciously seek out alternate images and models and opportunities to make sure that our children are at least exposed to the full spectrum of possibilities for them. It makes me really mad, honestly, because I don’t think I, or anyone else, should have to work so hard. Things were supposed to be better now.

  5. Oh my, yes, the things people say as if children are deaf. When my daughter was in fifth grade a grocery store clerk asked me what her favorite subject was. I deferred to her, and she said “math”. He turned to me and said “but girls aren’t good at math.” And the thing is, yes, I told him that wasn’t true, and yes, I talked to her about where that was coming from, but darn it the seed of doubt is still planted.

  6. I appreciate this. Princess culture is a two-edged sword. It can certainly do a lot to encourage passivity and narrow definitions of beauty, but I’ve noticed that the more Princess culture grows, the more it broadens that traditional definition of princesses. Some of the more recent “princesses” fairies are inventors and small business owners and crusaders, and sure it’s annoying that they somehow have to also be princesses but it gives my kids more to work with than I had as a child. I can’t ignore the down sides to all this gender coded crap, but I can’t just force my kids to like what I like, either.

  7. Thank you Giliell for saying so much of what I was thinking as I read this post! I know I’m late to the party, but I have one more thing I want to add.

    How do you know your daughter really likes pink?

    I know this sounds like a silly question on its face, but this has been rattling around in my head as my own daughter approaches two and is starting to really soak up information like a sponge. Our culture is not showing girls a rainbow of colors and telling them to choose the one they like. A little girl’s toy aisle options are not an equal representation of doctors and warriors and princesses and scientists and stay at home moms and superheroes… you get my meaning. She gets sold pink. She gets sold princesses, and fairies, and shopping, and babies, and how important it is to be pretty.
    My problem is not with the color pink, or the princesses etc per se… my problem is that she is simultaneously being told at every turn that she can be anything that she wants to be AND that what it means to be a girl is the pink, pretty, princess, shopping, boys experience. And if, like me, you’ve managed to keep the pink culture stuff out of your house when she was a baby? Well, as she gets older and she goes out into the world to make new friends, or walks down the toy aisle, or goes shopping in the little girls clothing section… there it all is. It’s unavoidable.
    So, if (maybe when) my little girl starts demanding pink everything how do I know that it is actually HER preference and not the unending barrage of marketing telling her it’s what she SHOULD like?

    I don’t. I can’t possibly know if it’s coming from her or not.

    I love and agree with the intent of your post. Little girls should be able to choose any color they like – pink, or green, or black – whichever. They should be able to play with what they like, whether that is princesses or superheroes or babies or train sets. But my point is that right now our culture isn’t actually giving them a choice. It’s maddening.

    1. I know my 7-year-old son likes pink (and nightgowns, and My Little Ponies) because he tells me when he knows no one else is listening. I know my 4-year-old daughter likes fire trucks because she asked for one while we were shopping. I agree that society tries incredibly hard to steer boys and girls into certain paths, but in my experience so far kids still want a wide variety of things. They just feel scared to tell their friends about it. At such a young age, exposing kids to a wide variety is still really useful and gives kids freedom to decide for themselves what they like. The older they get, though, the harder it is to fight those outside influences.

  8. Jo, I think it is a safe bet that if your children are whispering what they like to you, and these are things that go AGAINST what mainstream culture tells them they should like, those likes are authentic. The troublesome part comes when (if) they start whispering that they REALLY like the marketed boy coded/girl coded stuff. At that point, how do you know that your children like these things because this is where their hearts lead them and not because it is everywhere and their friends/commercials/other adults are telling them they should?
    Knowing what we know about the effect of marketing on full grown adults, how can we honestly declare that these messages don’t impact our children and they just happen to really like the stereotypical girl/boy stuff?
    I wouldn’t ask how you know your little girl really likes firetrucks because firetrucks are not one of the things being so heavily marketed to little girls.
    The pink, on the other hand… to me that is a whole different animal.
    Until (for example) I can walk down a toy aisle with my daughter and see the full rainbow of colors and a full range of different models of what girlhood looks like, I can never be sure that my daughter just likes pink because SHE decided she does.

    I am 100% with you that exposing your kids to a wide variety of things is great for them, and also that is never right to try to control or shame them for what they like at any given time, no matter why they like it. However, I do believe that my responsibility runs even deeper than that. I am going to have to diligently try to expose my daughter to counter examples of what she will be told is the acceptable way to be a girl, and verbally question the messages she is being given day in and out in the hopes that in time she will learn to view these messages more critically. I wish someone had done that for me growing up – it could have saved me so much turmoil. In the end it doesn’t really bother me that I will have to do this – media literacy is a good thing – but it REALLY PISSES ME OFF that I will have to start doing it so young. I wish she could have more of a chance to just be a kid before she is told that she should be a princess.

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