As a girl, I was obsessed with princesses. Or rather, I suppose, I was obsessed with adventure, and being a princess seemed a perfect way to find a good one. Disney was my main supplier for princess-consumption, although I also rented The Swan Princess every time we went to Blockbuster. Some of my earliest memories are watching Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty under a fort in the living room, while inspired by a Pocahontas nightgown I owned, I would spread pillows on the floor and jump from one to the other, re-enacting the moment John Smith first lays eyes on the chief’s daughter. I loved the gorgeous dresses and beautiful music, but even more than that I loved the stories that surrounded these princesses. Princess stories had all that I wanted: Adventure! Romance! Death! Excitement! Villains! Happy Endings! Dramatic Musical Numbers! BIG GLORIOUS BALLGOWNS!
To me, princesses symbolize femininity, elegance, wisdom, strength, and responsibility.
But as I grew older, I noticed that not everyone had this same love that I did. Today books with titles like “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” or commercials for popular cartoons disdaining the “princess mentality” show a growing number of people who find the idea of women being princesses weak or demeaning, and claim that all this mindset does is sexualize young girls. (Personally, I wonder how being royal sexualizes someone, but maybe that’s just me) Is there sexualization and “diva-fication” of girls going on? Of course. But that’s not necessarily connected to princesses. To be a princess in the truest sense of the word is to be another thing entirely. In fact, I think to be a princess is to be gracious, strong, wise, and kind but firm.To people who say that the “princess-obsession” most little girls go through is harmful, sexist, and problematic, I have one thing to say:
Actually, I would probably word my opinion on the subject a little more strongly, but, you know, have courage and be kind.
Perhaps this comes from being a history major. Surrounded by stories of princesses (many who became queens) there is a slew of role models to found among the ranks of real-life princesses. These were women who oftentimes were sorts of ambassadors after marriage, representing a link to their home country while living in the land of their husband. These were women who served as intercessors for the people, who could sway the opinions of their king, and beg for mercy on behalf of their subjects. These were women who became queens and co-ruled with their husbands, or in some cases ruled without one. A queen could make or break her country. So, perhaps that’s why it offends me so much when I hear people lumping all princesses together in disdain, as if they all represent some materialistic, “let-them-eat-cake” attitude. Not all princesses are like that, I assure you. And having just written a final research paper on medieval Scandinavian queens, I think I’ll tell you about a couple of them….
…like Margaret I of Denmark. Daughter of one king and wife of another, after her husband’s death she united the kingdoms of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden (and by extension Iceland, Greenland, and Finland) into the Kalmar Union. And ruled, uncontestedly, until her death.
Then there was Philippa of England, daughter of Henry IV and sister of Henry V (yes, those Shakespearean Henrys) who married a Kalmar King. In her husband’s absence she defended Copenhagen from the Hanseatic League. Hans Christian Andersen even wrote about her in his Godfather’s Picture Book:
“The Hanseatic merchants came,” continued Godfather, “from warehouse and counter, the rich traders of Rostock, Lübeck, and Bremen. They wanted to seize more than the golden goose from Valdemar’s Tower; they had more power in the town of the Danish King than the Danish King himself. They came in armed ships, and no one was prepared. And King Eric had no desire to fight with his German kinsfolk; they were too many and too strong. So King Eric and all his courtiers escaped through the west port to the town of Sorö, to the quiet lake and green forests, to the song of love and the clang of goblets.
“But there was one left behind in Copenhagen, a kingly heart and a kingly mind. Do you see this picture here, this young woman, so fine and tender, with sea-blue eyes and yellow hair? It is the Queen of Denmark, Philippa, the English princess. She stayed in the distracted city, where the townspeople swarmed in panic in the narrow lanes and streets with steep stairs, sheds, and shops of lath and plaster. With the courage of a man, she summoned townspeople and peasants, to inspire and encourage them. They fitted out the ships and garrisoned the blockhouses; they fired with their carbines; there were fire and smoke and lightness of spirit – our Lord will never forsake Denmark! The sun shone into all hearts, and in all eyes was the bright gladness of victory. Blessed be Philippa! Blessed she was in hut and in house; and blessed she was in the King’s castle, where she nursed the wounded and the sick. I have clipped a wreath and laid it around this picture,” said Godfather. “Blessed be Queen Philippa!”
I don’t know, if my future daughter wanted Queen Philippa as a role model, I wouldn’t complain. And that’s not to mention other princesses, too: Elizabeth I, Nefertiti, Kaiulani, Victoria. One of the most fascinating facts I learned in my Modern Britain class this semester was that during World War Two, Queen Elizabeth II (then princess, of course) served as a driver and mechanic! It’s not that these princesses are perfect role models. They could be difficult and make bad choices. But there is such variety in their lives and responsibilities. These were women with the world on their shoulders, not women who sat around doing nothing but looking pretty.
But what about Disney? Aren’t those what girls think of when they want princesses things? Probably. But I never found most Disney princesses problematic. Cinderella gets a terribly bad and unfair reputation, but I don’t think you’ll find kinder, more Christian-like character in animation. Despite a few hiccups in the Disney canon (*ahem* Ariel’s rebelliousness) most Disney princesses do show kindness, work ethic, self-sacrifice, and intelligence. And there is nothing wrong with dressing up in ballgowns and tiaras, so long as we also, like Snow White, know how to whistle while we work with our aprons and dishrags.There is nothing wrong, I’ll also say, in being saved by a prince–for isn’t that an allegory for the Greatest story of all, the Story of our own Prince saving us from certain death?
I can’t help but think that like the princesses of old, we are also ambassadors, sent by our Father, the King, to this earth to share the message of our True Home. So when we think of princesses, let us be reminded of that. We, too, have a duty. Let us fulfill it!
(also, apparently I was suddenly impassioned to write this post during #princessweek. I didn’t even know that was a thing until today.)