Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Princess Creep: All Tiara and No Power

Is it more intellectually dishonest to present a make-up kit as "Diva" or to present a "Princess" without any power or responsibility? Female rulers are important models for little girls who seek to make a difference around them, and when female rulers are presented as vapid and superficial and that being a woman in power is only about dress, politeness and backbiting social situations... well THAT is a problem that needs solving.


There are a lot of princess products aimed at little girls. Lots of Little girls love dressing up in costumes, they love sparkly, grown-up seeming things. Beyond any distaste for marabou feathers or excessive glitter, teaching girls that there isn't anything more than politeness and talking to magical animals dismisses female rulers throughout history as mere baubles.

In a variety of television shows aimed at girls there are princesses and queens, obviously, Sofia the First, but also My Little Pony, Super Why, Dora The Explorer has princess adventures, there is a sense that if you have a female character, princesses are inevitable.

Unfortunately, while princesses creep their way into TV shows over time, most princess articulations is that largely they ignore actual elements of what a real princess does as part of her job.

These princesses that creep into our kids TV shows are often imperiled, trapped, magical deus ex machinas, hidden as normal girls, and frankly, we don't often see them ruling over the land. Which is actually part of royal life,  you know, ruling.

While I enjoyed the Abby Cadaby/Sonya Sotomayor Sesame Street sketch about careers, Stephen Colbert brings up a very important point at 3:27 of this clip.

We have diminished the meaning of princesses in a way that is totally unhelpful. The idea that princesses exist as window dressing, are only expected to be pretty and wear fancy clothes is a dreadful oversimplification of female royalty.

Kate, Dutchess of Cambridge as a Brownie at age 8
The problem with princess creep, the constant princessing of girls media and toys is an issue for several reasons, not just that it makes all feminine products generic; but that over time that limitation applies not just in aesthetics but in underlying meaning.

I'm not a monarchist by any means but pretending that "Princess" isn't a career, with expectations, responsibilities and power that needs to be used smartly is simply terrible and a huge dis-service to our girls. The modern meaning of princesshood has changed somewhat as democracy has profoundly overtaken the once total power of royal families.

That said, Princessess and Queens hold more power than ever before in many ways. England is finally changing laws of gendered succession so that the first-born, boy or girl, will become the country's King or Queen. Queens rule over both England and The Netherlands and control vast fortunes.

The stories of actual princesses are stories that are compelling because they are nuanced portraits of real women, privileged, wealthy, often glamorous, but they have lives and interests and most importantly: These women accomplish things, and their position gives those things more attention and reach than other people have.

Princesses are people who because of their station have tremendous impact on the world around them. From Princess Diana and her work with Land Mines, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge's charitable work with kids, they impact millions of people and that's just one country. The simple fact is that they are the heads of state, or symbolic figureheads for entire countries. Why are we ignoring that when we present them in media? Why are their clothes more important than their actions?

Here in this Rav4 Genie add from the super bowl, is some princess creep I can get behind, because it gives you a totally difference sense of depth.While it's simplistic, it's shockingly rare to see a different princess role depicted in advertising.

But beyond simple swordplay, or Sofia the First joining the boys flying horse race team, the actual meaning of being a member of a ruling family and it's associated responsibilities are rarely part of the character package.

Sofia, which is ostensibly about a fish out of water everygirl learning what it means to become royalty, most of the screen time of the introductory movie and the first 4 aired episodes are about mean girls and clothes, rather than actual outreach and compassion, what she can do as a princess and the insights that her non-royal origins actually give her. It's early yet, there's a lot of time for her to grow, but I'd love to see stronger references to the woman the girl with become. I want that, and am disappointed because I expect it because other shows do this well, they show strong female characters on a pathway to rulership that echo all the way from episode 1.

Which brings me to My Little Pony,

My Little Pony's Fictional Universe is lush with Princessess, Princess Celestia is the absolute ruler of Equestria (note, not Queen). Her sister, Princess Luna rules over the night, and they have complimentary powers although Luna is the minor of the two.

Seen here in a healthy relationship with her husband, who she works with to protect the kingdom.
Princess Miamore Cadenza aka Princess Cadence, regularly helps the core cast defeat powerful magical enemies with her devoted husband, and shows tremendous responsibility to the ponies of Equestria even though she doesn't have a clear land of her own to rule. These ponies are magical, responsible, and have a sense of genuine concern over the fate of others.

This weekend, the show's protagonist, Twilight Sparkle, who has been studying magic at the feet of Princess Celestia for most of her life is becoming a princess herself. 

  In MLP‘s Equestria, “princess” is a designation that’s earned, not freely given — and though princesses have specific leadership roles in pony society, being one really means “being a good pony who shares the gifts that they have been given with others,” according to McCarthy. “We’re building a very unique mythology around being a princess,” she continues. “Every little girl wants to be a princess, and not everybody can get to be a princess — but you can live up to the ideals that should come along with being a princess.”
The archetypal, campbellian journey of the hero takes an initiate to a hero, and a hero to a ruler. Over time, shouldn't we want our girls to aspire to great power, great responsibility and the ability to inspire others to greatness?

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