critical literacy · NCTE

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.

8 thoughts on “Rethinking and Rewriting Princess Stories

  1. What bothers me is the attitude that some “princesses” get: that they are to be treated differently. This sense of entitlement is so annoying to me, and I think more destructive than the girls who think boys need to “save them”. Rather, they think someone else needs to tie their shoes, pack their lunch, sharpen their pencil, and in general become an entourage to a very spoiled girl who thinks she is a princess. (Boys get the same attitude, by the way.) Because we haven’t chosen a baby name yet, my mother has taken to calling my child “Miss Princess” and it makes me want to scream.
    I would agree that the commercial side of this attitude is bothersome, just as it bothers me that some boys think they need all the merchandising related to a certain video game, or children of either gender think they need all the stuff related to a certain cartoon. There have been many years when sometime in January I tell the kids they need to expand their repetoire and start writing about other things, and I show them mentor text that proves that Melanie Watt, for example, doesn’t just write about a neurotic squirrel. Last year, I banned stories with animals as the characters. Cats who saved the world were driving me crazy! 🙂 A story about a princess would have been a welcome change.


  2. I think it is difficult to confront and deconstruct this princess mythology when many of my students are bombarded with 15th birthday celebrations that create fairy tale experiences and expectations.


  3. I enjoyed your post. As the Father of two daughters we spent many a playtime as princesses. I agree that not every Princess needs to get saved and many a afternoon we had the princes saving the day. Sometimes on their own, and sometimes along side of the prince. My favorite memory was the day the neighbor’s daughter insisted on being the princess so my daughters put her in the play house and went off to save the chickens from the dragon ( a good natured dog) after a short while the neighbor decided no one needed to be the princess.

    A great third/fourth grade book for a strong princess is Dealing with Dragons.


  4. Thanks for this post…truly made me think and I thought of one girl in my class especially who writes princess stories ALL OF THE TIME!

    However, the only point that I thought of that they didn’t address, and while it may not be all viewpoints, please at least consider it.

    When I think of princess, I think of royalty and the biblical love that is given. If God is our King, that makes us His royalty. If I ever have a daughter, I would want her to be treated like a princess…meaning deserving of love, respect, and honor. Granted, all people should receive love, respect, and honor.

    I am excited for the arrival of your daughter and hope you and your husband can truly bask in the love now, and when she is in your arms.


  5. I had nothing against the color pink.. As a matter of fact I’ve always loved the color pink and now that I have two girls I love it even more and they do too. However, since my first pregnancy, I declared I would never, ever let my daughter see “those silly princess” movies where all they teach is that the girls need to be rescued from the man and that you cannot live happily everafter until the princess finally meets her prince. I had enough examples in my own family of very dependent women and I didn’t want that for my daughters.

    But you know what? I recently caved and took my daugthers to go see Tangled and I have to say it was a great movie because of its twist in the story. Repunzel was very well all on her own. She defended herself extremely well with her fancy frying pan weapon. So, I am all for reconstructing the princess story!


  6. Hello Stacey, Glad to hear that all is well with you and your baby girl. Reading your post today reminded me of a news clip I saw this AM about William and Kate. It made me think: Is being a princess all it’s cracked-up-to-be? Watching the media critique every move she makes is saddening. I hope and pray she shows all young girls what a true princess can be: strong, confident, direct, passionate and, of all things HUMAN.


  7. I agree wholeheartedly. Fairy tales with princesses used to be just that; fairy tale stories. Now our culture has embraced everything princess. I told my best friend that if I ever see my goddaughter with the word “princess” on her clothing I would be disappointed. After all these years of fighting for equality in so many areas, why would we send the message that girls should be enamored with the concept of princesses and all that brings along with it today? And while I know that the princess culture didn’t CREATE the sense of entitlement that so many people currently have, it does nothing to dissuade it.
    P.S. One of the first books my mom bought me for my classroom library? Paper Bag Princess. I paid that gift forward and bought it for everyone who has had a baby girl. 🙂


  8. Being the mother of two girls I can’t say I resisted the urge of all things pink however I do believe our culture does believe in gender roles. When I see my eldest who loves cars, art and sponge bob and my youngest who loves to put on her princess dress and play in the dirt I often wonder what role I played in thier choice of play activities. I also think the age of information has brought on a type of motherhood. I think asking ourselves these questions is just like we operate in our classrooms. Questioning making sure our choices are what is best for kids. In a case such as this it’s your own. Good luck on your motherhood journey. It’s the best part of life!!!


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