I’m not sure how it happened, but I had the girl obsessed with princesses. If I was lucky, it might be nearly Halloween and I could explain to anyone giving us a sideways glance that she was wearing her Disney store dress in preparation for the holiday, only a month or two away. Or, if I wanted to risk a longer discussion, I let them know that Penny wore her Cinderella gown more often than not.
On days it wasn’t Cinderella, it was probably Rapunzel, Snow White, or Aurora (that’s Sleeping Beauty, for those of you fortunate enough not to know). Penny picked her own outfits.
As long as she chose something weather-appropriate, she could put on whatever she wanted. So, was I giving in to dangerously stereotyping, gender-norming princess culture, or was I helping foster my daughter’s independence?
It’s easy to criticize Disney princesses — like a recent study that found princess culture magnifies gender stereotypes in girls. It’s easy, especially for dads, to push superheroes and sci fi on their daughters. Of course I wanted Penny to prefer Princess Leia to Princess Ariel, because Star Wars is awesome and I didn’t want to watch the Little Mermaid for the thousandth time. But that’s not the girl I got. And that’s okay.
It’s okay because Disney isn’t raising my daughter. I am. And my wife is. And all the princesses, no matter how flawed they may be, can be used as teaching tools. As Luke might say, there is good in them. I can feel it.
Maybe I’m retroactively making justifications. Truth is: I had less choice in what she was passionate about than I had in what she wore.
My wife and I aren’t big fans of Disney. In fact, when Penny was a baby, we did our best to keep her out of pink and to subtly push sci fi on her, hoping it would stick. We bought her tee-shirts from the boys section of the store and decorated her room with robots.
At a time when she had never watched an entire movie from beginning to end, probably when she was 2 or 3, Snow White was on TV. It was a cinematic classic, so we figured why not? Compared to today’s children’s movies, it was dark and slow. Penny was completely captivated.
That was the end of not having princesses in our lives. They stormed the damn castle. She was obsessed. She went from wearing out tutus, tee-shirts, and mismatched socks to made-in-China royal regalia.
I had to come to terms with the fact that Disney body-snatched my baby girl. I actively watched the movies and played princesses with Penny. It wasn’t always easy.
Snow White is so dumb that even though she knew the Queen was trying to kill her, and the Seven Dwarfs had warned her not to let anyone or anything into the house, she still thought it’d be a fine idea to eat strange food from a strange woman. She was so helpless that she just lay there comatose in a glass case, waiting for someone she met once to give her a smooch that would bring her back to life. She was so sweet, innocent, and subservient that if I raised my daughter to be like her, I would know I failed as a father. But she was kind. To animals and people. She didn’t judge others based on their looks and accepted everyone as they were, even if they were a little Grumpy.
Okay, on the whole, Snow White kind of sucks. Have a dialogue. Make her not suck. Make sure your daughter holds on to her admirable attributes and forgets the rest. Let her learn from Snow White’s mistakes.
Like, if some rando offers you an apple, don’t eat it! Don’t wait for someone else to save you; save yourself. Teach your daughters to be strong, so they don’t have to lie there helplessly hoping some guy (who apparently likes kissing dead chicks) will rescue them.
Cinderella, waiting for Prince Charming to scoop her up out of servitude isn’t much better than Snow White. Again, she is subservient to the point of insanity. You’d like to tell yourself, if that were me I’d tell those stepsisters to f*%k off. They could scrub their own floors and turn down their own damn beds.
But Cinderella was just surviving. She was the Sansa Stark of a tiny kingdom in a faraway land and she did what she had to do. How dare you judge her. Without succumbing to their demands, she would have been penniless on the streets. Dealing with crap as it comes and making the best of a bad situation isn’t a bad lesson to learn.
Cinderella had a spark of fire in her belly. She wasn’t allowed to go to the ball, but she made a Clark Kent-to-Superman transformation in a magically spun gown and had a blast. Yes, she was rescued by Prince Charming, but only because she put herself in the right place at the right time. Make your own luck. Time is everyone’s kryptonite; if something is important, do it now.
I prefer most of the newer princesses to the classic variety. (Yes, I have my favorite princesses. How could I not?)
Merida, from Brave, is fierce and strong, good with a bow and arrow, refusing to be forced into marriage. Tiana, from the woefully underrated Princess and the Frog, works hard and saves the slacker prince’s ass on multiple occasions. Her only problem is that she doesn’t know how to loosen up and have fun, but — spoiler alert — she figures that out by the end, too. Of course, the plucky gals from Frozen taught us that they didn’t need a man to rescue them. Sisters were literally doing it for themselves.
These movies are a backlash to the damsels in distress of old. They show why love at first sight is bull and you can’t count on a man to do things for you. They’re not perfect, but, again, they offer the chance to have a dialogue.
If you’re the parent of a girl, you know that princesses are pretty much unavoidable. My wife and I succumbed to princess culture, but also introduced Penny to other varied interests. We never forced anything on her or told her that what she liked was bad or wrong.
If you’re the parent of a girl, you also know that princesses only last so long. These days, Penny yells at me that she HATES THAT SONG when I start belting out Let it Go (which I do, just to mess with her because it’s funny). She loves science and reading Captain Underpants books. Her last birthday was an American Ninja Warrior-themed party. She still loves donning fancy dresses, though definitely nothing purchased at the Disney store. I still have virtually no say in what she wears.
All the Disney princesses, from Snow White to Elsa, allowed Penny to discover who she wanted to be and is still becoming. Whether she admits it now or not, she took the strong traits of each of these characters and made them her own. Then she got older, found new interests and left the princesses themselves behind.
And we all lived happily ever after.
Doing dumb stuff to amuse my kids and myself. Contributor to TIME Ideas, HuffPost Parents, GoodMenProject, NYC Dads.