Rethinking and Rewriting Princess Stories

My best friend and I are both expecting daughters in 2011.  We’re been friends since my freshman and her sophomore year of college.  We’ve been in each other’s weddings.  We simply cannot wait to watch our daughters grow up together!  Last Monday, when she called me to announce that her third child would be a girl (she already has two sons), she said something to me like, “I know you don’t love pink, but I want you to know, my daughter is going to be dressed head-to-toe in pink.  It’s going to look like pink threw up all over my house once she arrives.”  I laughed.  I told her that I have nothing against pink (I really don’t!).  I reminded her that it just wasn’t my favorite color and therefore my daughter wouldn’t be joining her daughter in head-to-toe pink (at least until she’s old enough to start telling me what she wants to wear).  She chuckled and we moved on.

I tell you this story before I get to the heart of what I’m writing about today as a disclaimer of sorts.  I realize that what I’m about to write might be off-putting to some people.  Not everyone is on the same page as I am with regard to pink, princesses, and other parts of little girl culture.  I realize and recognize that.  I hope you will take this piece of writing as any other piece that’s written on this site… with the intend to share, not offend.  If your views are different, then please leave a comment about why you feel differently.  I’d love to learn about other people’s thinking around this topic.

I’ve been thinking about the notion of what it means to be a princess in American Society. After all, we don’t have a monarchy here.  Therefore, princesses are usually of the Disney variety, which means they’re usually women who are dependent on a man.  In addition, princess culture is often played out amongst the youngest girls with all things pink, frilly, and sparkly.  In an effort to eradicate excessive girlie-girl behavior before it starts, I’ve told my husband, parents, and in-laws that clothes adorned with the word “princess” on it won’t be getting placed on my daughter’s body, nor will we be calling her a little “princess.”

When I was at NCTE last month, I got extremely excited about a session in the program entitled, “Princess Fever Has Gone Viral: Should We Be Concerned?”  I was 33 weeks pregnant at the time and was convinced this session was created just for me.  I knew the session would be presented with a critical literacy framework, which made me think that some suggestions about how to deal with the princess culture (at home and in the classroom) would be presented.

Farveh Ghafouri and Linda Cameron are professors at the University of Toronto who have done a lot of thinking about princess culture and its implications on young girls.  In one of their slides, they quoted Wohlwend who wrote, “Identity messages circulate through merchandise that surrounds young consumers as they dress in, sleep in, bathe in, eat from, and play with commercial goods decorated with popular culture images, print, and logos, immersing children in products that invite identification with familiar media characters and communicate gendered expectations about what children should buy, how they should play, and who they should be” (2009, p. 57).  Ghafouri and Cameron presented a slide that had a relationship chart that looked something like this (Click on the image to enlarge.):

What was it about Cinderella that made her so beloved?

In their above-referenced presentation, Ghafouri and Cameron asserted that:

  • Cinderella/Princess texts are encoding and transmitting socio-cultural and political messages that are not neutral.
  • Immersed in Cinderella/Princess texts, girls are invited to identify with familiar characters and compromise to gendered expectations about what they should buy, how they should play, and who they should be.

The message I took away from this session is that it’s important to give children a chance to explore and face the limitations of stereotypical gender roles.  We can suggest playtime activities that can offer children a space to image more empowered roles.  Not all princesses need to be rescued.  Therefore, by helping children to imagine other scenarios than the traditional Disney-type of princess role, we can help children to rethink and rewrite princess stories, both in their play and in their writing.  In addition, Ghafouri and Cameron encouraged session participants to refrain from banning princess texts.  They asserted that we need to continue to use traditional princess texts as opportunities to mediate and discuss them critically.

I spent some time talking with Ghafouri and Cameron after their session.  They reminded me that once my daughter reaches pre-school age (I can’t imagine that since she’s still inside of me!), princess fever will ensue.  Therefore, they encouraged me not to ban all princess-related stories, which I had thought about doing prior to their session.  They also told me to begin questioning some of my own assumptions and understandings about princess-related texts, which I’ve been doing a lot of since I heard them speak four weeks ago.  Further, Ghafouri and Cameron reminded me to offer my child as many opportunities as possible to construct and deconstruct the popular princess texts out there so the two of us can make sense of them together.  After all, three and four year-olds can think critically about issues like princess culture, as long as the conversation is presented in an age-appropriate way.

In terms of the writing classroom, I’m sure that you’ve had quite a few students who’ve written princess stories (I know I have).  Usually the princess is in need of rescuing and often the rescuer is the man/a prince.  We can challenge our students to reconstruct princess stories by presenting them with alternative princess stories as mentor texts.  For instance, stories like The Paper Bag Princess can be used as mentor texts for this purpose.

For more on the princess debate, here are some articles:

Ghafouri, F., & Cameron, L. (2010, 18-21 November). Princess fever has gone viral: Should we be concerned? Paper presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English Conference, Orlando, Florida.