I have a 5-year-old little boy, a living room filled with boxes of soldiers, swords and Matchbox cars, and a complicated relationship with fairy tales and the princes and princesses who live in them.
A part of me loves it when my son decides to play princess. It does happen from time to time — when we break out the nail polish and the sparkly eye shadow; he brushes my hair, puts on my necklaces and we watch Sophia the First. I am excited when he wants to explore a different part of himself, and I secretly enjoy this kind of activity. He is an only child and will always be an only child, and playing princess is something I know how to do without thinking. (Go figure!)
But then there are days when we sit down to play with his Playmobil figures and he announces that my princess figurine is not allowed to have a sword. “Why not?” I ask as I rebelliously attach a tiny gold sword to her hand, only for it to be ripped out again. “Because princesses don’t know how to use swords.” “So what am I going to do when the enemy attacks?” “Well, you just stay in the castle and wait for me, O.K.?”
Oh, all right.
Because clearly that is what princesses do in many movies and books: They wait for their prince to rescue them. There are many things that are wrong with this if you are the mother of a girl, but I am starting to feel like mothers of boys should be just as wary of this princess-myth.
I really don’t want my son to grow up with the perception that girls are princesses. I don’t want him to expect women to be passive, weak, waiting at home to be rescued and incapable of rescuing themselves. I don’t want him to believe that women are only interested in clothes and shoes, that they should have doe-like eyes, shiny hair and tiny, perfect bodies. I don’t want him to think for one moment that women are not as strong and smart as he is. I don’t want him to want women like that. I want him to know women who can wield swords and drive fast cars and scale castle walls. Because we can. And we do.
What also often bothers me in fairy tales is that the men — the knights, the princes — seem just as one-dimensional as the princesses. Do all of them just sort of wander around, hoping for a dragon to slay and a damsel in distress to kiss? What if they are not the rescuing type? What if they are scared of the dragon?
I don’t want my son to think that he himself can’t be a princess. I want to tell him — and I do — that it’s O.K. for boys not to be the rescuers. It’s O.K. to not know how to use a weapon, to not always be heroic and strong and to not always know what to do. It’s O.K. to cry, to be weak, to need help, to need comfort — and to seek those things out when he needs them. He might not wear the gown and the tiara, but it is O.K. to have some of that princess softness inside of him. No, it is necessary to have that softness.
I want him to know that women — real women — will not expect him to be a rescuer and so he does not need to pretend to be that if it doesn’t come naturally.
Sometimes I think that as much as I’d like to blame Disney for my princess troubles, the fault really lies with me. What does he see of me as a woman? What does he know about me? When I am at home, I am a bit like a princess, albeit a princess without a staff: I cook dinner, I play with him, I take care of my husband, I go shopping, I sew my own ball gown with the help of birds. (Oh, no, wait, that’s somebody else.) I don’t talk about my work or about my ambitions outside of my family. I let my husband deal with things that need to be fixed, with big bugs, even with the finances. I am, in a way, one-dimensional, simple — at least the parts that he can see and understand at his age. The things I do to “rescue” my family are seen as princess-jobs — or even worse, as not jobs at all, just things that happen magically around the house.
My son calls me a princess all the time — and sure, it makes me smile and makes my heart flutter a little bit. I know what he means. I am “his” princess, which is very different from being “a” princess. I hope that as he gets older he will realize that other than our shiny hair, I have nothing in common with princesses. And I hope that with time he will discover both a prince and a princess in himself.