He tried to keep Cinderella and Rapunzel away from his daughters, but the girls found them anyway.
There's no room in my family's life for any more princesses. Despite seeming to have no princess saturation point, my three-year-old twin girls don't need any more space in their imaginations taken up by poofy gowns, sparkly slippers, dainty manners, and gilded palaces. Though I tried to protect the twins from the Princess Industrial Complex, I'm afraid that they—that we—have developed a princess problem.
Four years ago, the news that my wife and I were going to have twin girls coincided with the moment of my most fervent dedication to the notion that gender is, for the most part, socially constructed. Many academic types abandoned this attitude long ago, and regular people tend to as well, especially after being around a child of one gender or another for any length of time; but I clung to it. And sure enough, after spending most of my waking hours during the last three years with my little girls and their friends of both sexes, I had to admit that I can see some basic differences you can usually count on between even the youngest boys and girls. The degree to which those differences are innate or socially nurtured is up for debate, but there's little doubt that popular culture and the marketplace go to great lengths to emphasize and capitalize on them.
Before the twins were born, friends and family inundated us with hand-me-down "girl clothes." We had a mountain of plastic bins that took up half of the future nursery, and most of the clothing inside them was pink and frilly. I figured that it didn't really matter what the girls wore when they were babies, but that, once the flow of free clothing dried up, which should coincide with the emergence of their sartorial self-awareness, we would start buying them clothes in gender-neutral colors. When sorting the loot by size and season, however, I made sure to put anything with princess logos or imagery into the giveaway pile. The princess trope represented passivity, entitlement, materialism, and submissiveness, and no daughter of mine would wear a onesie that celebrated such loathsome values.
During the first two years of parenthood, I was able to maintain the princess blockade in our home with very few breaches. Although my wife and I never talked about princesses in front of the kids, they heard the word constantly, because it's the default term of affection total strangers use when addressing them. Because the word had no associations for the girls, however, it probably meant no more to them than "cutie pie."
Inevitably, though, Disney Princess items started appearing in the playroom. One day when the girls were primping with purple combs emblazoned with images of Cinderella, Belle, and Rapunzel—trifles from birthday party gift bags—they asked me what the glamorous figures were called.
"Um..." I sputtered, unable to think of a good euphemism for the dreaded P-word, "...little ladies."
So princesses were called "little ladies" for several months, even after an anthology of Disney Princess stories somehow made it into heavy bedtime rotation, and branded plastic trinkets started spontaneously generating and multiplying in their toy collection.
When my wife, who had never been as stridently anti-princess as I had, took advantage of an online sale of children's costumes, she succumbed to the cuteness of a sparkly yellow Belle outfit, and a shimmering blue Cinderella dress. There were other costumes—a doctor, a pirate, and a firefighter—but the girls immediately gravitated toward the frilly frocks.
As if the anemic spell I had placed to keep them from crossing over into Princess World would be broken when I spoke the magic word, I still refused to call their new favorite playthings by their real names. We called the princess costumes "ball gowns" for as long as the charade would last.
Sometime after my daughters' third birthday, I gave up. My resistance to princess culture only made me look like a crank, and an impotent one at that. And frankly, my cold, black heart melted whenever I saw my little girls in their royal finery. As long as my objections did little to stem the tide, I figured I might as well enjoy it. Anyway, how much more intense could their princess fixation become?
By Christmas Day of 2012, they had amassed nine princess costumes. Not only do they now have princess dolls in all sizes, densities, and textures; they also have princess Play-Doh sets, Legos, Band-Aids, slippers, underwear, crayons, coloring books, puzzles, and even a potty, just to name a fraction of their royal gewgaws. "Princessing" products marketed to little girls is like doping in the world of professional cycling: you don't stand a chance against the competition if you don't participate.
Other parents of girls assured me that it's just a phase, and that childhood princess thrall had had no long-term effects on their daughters. My fears were placated for a while. But when a mom of one of my girls' preschool classmates told me that her daughter, previously ignorant of princess culture, had come home from school with a thorough knowledge of Disney's royal lineage, which she had attributed to my twins, I became concerned again. They were no longer just users; they had become pushers.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a video clip from Sesame Street in which Abby Cadabby, the irrepressible fledgling fairy, talks to Sonia Sotomayor about the word "career." Abby announces her aspiration to one day have "a career as a princess," after which the Supreme Court Justice quickly convinces her that being a princess is not a career. "A career," Sotomayor explains, "is a job that you train and prepare for, and that you plan to do for a long time."
My girls love the video, and demand that I show it to them on my phone several times per day. I swell with pride when they recite the definition of "career," and I even suggest that Supreme Court Nomination Hearing might make for a fun alternative to their usual make-believe game of Princess Party.
They have plenty of non-princess related toys and books, but there is no one theme that has anywhere near the prominence and influence that Disney Princesses do. Regardless of the more recent generations of empowered princesses in Disney movies, the overall princess trope promotes traditional notions of femininity and an unhealthy focus on physical beauty. Even the most feminist-friendly princess derives her social currency, her political power, and her personal identity as "princess" from the make-believe patriarchy.
Having a breadwinner mom who is a doctor, and having many little friends whose parents don't adhere to traditional family gender roles, my kids are in less danger than most of growing up to believe that their road to success depends on being pretty and snaring a Prince Charming. But since the princess floodgates opened, they have become far more concerned with their appearances. Though they always end up having a blast when we go riding on scooters and bikes, I often have to coerce and bribe them in order to pry them away from their Princess Parties.
Yesterday morning, when I dropped the girls off at preschool, one of them, who used to say she was going to be a cowgirl when she grew up, repeated her latest dream, apropos of nothing: "I'm going to be a princess when I grow up."
"But don't you remember what Abby and the nice lady said? Is being a princess a real career?" That's what I always say when she mentions her new life goal.
"No," she said. "But I don't want to have a real career." Then she skipped off.
Tonight a new princess series premieres on the Disney Channel, Sofia the First. My girls won't be watching it. We don't need any more princesses right now.