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What it Means to be a Princess

Sabrina James

I have never been a fan of the whole Disney Princess thing. Sure I saw the movies as a child, but I wasn’t enamored with the sparkly dresses and glass slippers. I was more of an “Annie” girl. I related to her. She was scrappy, strong, and sweet all at the same time. She followed her heart, looked after the other kids in the orphanage, and was a leader. She wasn’t typically pretty or stylish, she was just Annie, and people fell in love with her because she was totally and completely herself. In retrospect, Annie was my first glimpse at the kind of girl I wanted to be.

You can imagine my surprise when Kaia became a Disney Princess fan girl. She coveted her friends’ fancy dress-up clothes. She begged for a princess party. She wanted to be a princess. I don’t know how it happened, but everyone told me it was a phase, so I gave in. She had a Snow White birthday party. I took her to Cinderella’s castle at the Magic Kingdom. She lunched with the princesses wearing a sparkly gown and even posed for a photo with Belle that’s still proudly displayed in her room.

Honestly, it always bothered me. I wondered what kind of message the princesses were sending to my daughter, but if you saw the smile on her face when she twirled around in her polyester gown, you’d give in, too.

She’s 6 now, and has outgrown that dress and the phase in general. This past weekend our friends invited us to see the play “The Paper Bag Princess” at a local theatre. I hadn’t read the Robert N. Munsch-penned book that the play was based on, although it’s touted on several anti-princess, feminist book lists, but the description alone was intriguing:

“A dangerous dragon kidnaps the handsome prince on his wedding day and its fiery breath burns up all the clothes in the palace. The brave princess finds a paper bag to wear and off she goes to rescue her love. Cleverly tricking the dragon, she enters the cave where the prince, still beautifully dressed, is held captive. When he questions her attire, she quickly realizes that maybe she should find someone else who appreciates her bravery and intelligence, rather than outward appearance.”

Score! I couldn’t believe my luck! It was time for Kaia to see what a real princess looked like: Someone who doesn’t need a prince to rescue her, who doesn’t have to wear sparkles and glass slippers, who’s brave and scrappy (and fashions a cool dress from a paper bag to boot!). The play was fantastic. I cheered when the Princess told the narcissistic Prince he was a bum after he looked down on her for rescuing him wearing a ratty paper bag. The play’s message came through loud and clear: Princesses don’t need egomaniac princes. They can be themselves and live happily ever after without having to deal with people like that.

When we got home, I asked Kaia what she learned from watching the play. She looked at me with excited eyes and said proudly, “I learned that if you try hard, and you’re brave, and you love someone enough, you’ll do anything to save them––even fight a dragon! And you can win!” Um, maybe she didn’t get it, so I pushed harder, “But Kaia, the prince wasn’t very nice to the Paper Bag Princess.” “Yeah, but that doesn’t matter,” she explained in a soft voice. “He wasn’t very nice, but the princess loved him. And sometimes people who aren’t nice still need you. That’s what made the princess special. She had a big heart. She didn’t care what he thought about her. He needed her and she was there, even when no one else was. She saved him!”

And that’s when I realized that maybe I had the princess thing all wrong. Maybe it wasn’t the sparkly dresses, glass slippers and doe-eyed helplessness that drew Kaia to those Disney Princesses. Maybe she saw a bit of herself in each of them. I may be more of a scrappy, headstrong Annie type, but she’s not me. That doesn't mean she's waiting around to be saved, she just believes that everyone is worth saving. She believes in the goodness of others, the power of love, and doing the right thing.

Last night before I went to sleep, I thought about Kaia’s favorite princess movies. I looked at them through her eyes and saw the characters, maybe for the first time, for who they were:

  • Snow White, tormented and hunted by a jealous queen, was forced out of her castle and into a humble existence in a shack with seven people who were very different from her. She was happy living a simple life because she was surrounded by true friends. 
  • Cinderella was a girl who was treated poorly by her family. Even though she was a servant, she remained optimistic. She was kind to others. She triumphed over oppression by working hard and not giving up on her dreams.
  • Belle was an outcast in her town because she liked to read books. She didn’t care what others thought of her. When she went to live with the Beast to give her father his freedom, she treated him kindly. She wasn’t frightened by his appearance. She fell in love with him based solely on who he was on the inside.

Sure, in the end, all three of these ladies found their “Happily Ever After” with a man, but you know what? So did Annie. Annie won over cold, workaholic Daddy Warbucks with her feisty and fun personality, while the princesses’ pure, gentle hearts are what made the princes fall in love.

All too often we take let preconceived notions and our own personalities influence the way we raise our children (for better or worse). Sometimes it takes a princess with a heart of gold to teach us tolerance and understanding, to remind us that everyone is different, to show us that it’s not what a person wears (sparkly dresses included) that makes them who they are, it’s inner beauty and how they treat others that counts.

Kaia was lucky to have Cinderella, Belle, and Snow White in her life in the same way that I’m lucky to have a little princess named Kaia in mine. 


What are your thoughts? Are princesses awful role models? Or do they have something good to teach our kids? Leave a comment and let's discuss.