Thursday, September 2, 2010

How to be a princess

My mother purchased a book for my daughter when she was on vacation in England and Scotland. It is called "The Usborne Princess Handbook: Your Top Secret guide to becoming a True Princess." I think she does this just to annoy me, as she was carefully watching my reaction as she began reading it.

Some of what it says is so awful that I hope it is meant as a joke, but my 7 year old daughter (who is obsessed with all things pink, sparkly, and "princess-like", definitely does not see it as anything other than explicit how-to instructions. In 6 years of trick-or-treating at halloween, she has dressed as a princess 3 times (and Hannah Montana once, which is basically the same thing). So this is serious stuff for her.

I will just type a few specific sentences and phrases that I have found in the limited reading I have done in this book.

Every girl has an inner princess - you just need to find her.
So this book applies to every girl, no exceptions. Tomboys, you aren't looking hard enough.

...there's more to being a princess than traipsing around in tiaras. You also need to know how to behave like one...
It is not about being born into a royal family of some sort... it is about behaving in specific ways. And since every girl has an inner princess, every girl (and woman, presumably) should behave in these ways.

The first step to becoming a princess is to be helpful... polite... and kind to everyone. A true princess never loses her temper... goes off in a huff... or makes a fuss.
Can you imagine a book telling boys that they have to be helpful and kind to everyone? Me neither... Boys are important. They are allowed to make a fuss on occasion. But a good princess must be groomed into taking orders from her father and husband, and giving orders (kindly) to children and servants.

Remember to keep clean! You can only sparkle if you're spotless.
Another double standard. Boys aren't only allowed to be dirty sometimes, but it is expected of them. Boys play in the mud, they play sports, grass stains on boys are an accepted part of life. Girls, however, must sparkle.

Don't cake yourself in make-up. It can be very unattractive.
But there is a limit on how feminine a girl is allowed to look before it crosses a line. We wouldn't want to be too sparkly, lest the princess be mistaken for a prostitute. The Madonna/whore dichotomy is alive and well in children's literature.

As a true princess, you need to be graceful at all times, from the turn of your head to the sweet of your curtsey. That means no tripping, no falling, no slouching, no plodding.
Great advice! It would be horrible for a princess to slouch on occasion... or trip and fall. That would be so unladylike... And again, advice that would never be given to a boy. Boys can't be graceful... that would be a little...

...try not to eat too much, or too fast.
Eating disorders. Let's start them early. Because there is nothing worse than a fat princess.

...the rule is quite simple: princesses don't run.... After all, you have to give the prince of your dreams a chance to rescue you.
Seriously?!? How are you supposed to play if you can't even run? I guess a good princess doesn't need to play sports or a good game of tag, but what does she do for fun other than kissing random frogs in the hopes that one will someday turn into a prince? And what do princesses need rescuing from, exactly? According to the book, things like hairy spiders and fire breathing dragons.

So, princesses (and by princesses I mean all women and girls out there, cause we all have inner princesses, remember), if you see a spider, don't kill it yourself, wait for a prince to come rescue you. And if you see a fire-breathing dragon, do not run away. If you run, how are you going to meet prince charming? Sure, if he isn't on time, the dragon might burn or eat you, but at least you know you died doing everything you could to meet a prince, right?

Thanks mom! (BTW, your other gifts were wonderful and very appreciated, even the purple tartan tights! Who knew I would ever wear tights?). And no, the book has not been banned in our house, we are reading it critically, and I am trying to turn it into a joke about how ridiculous these standards are, whether or not it was meant that way.


  1. Maybe you could write the gender neutral version.

    Love you too,

  2. I would consider writing that, but what exactly is the gender neutral word for princess? Royal children doesn't exactly encompass the same age range and prince and princess do...

  3. I have a different political and social outlook to my parents. They insist on giving gifts that they know will be "provocative" in the "interests" of giving my kids a "normal" upbringing.
    This included a toy gun for our four year old, which quickly got binned. For the record, I am a hunter, and try to feed my family this way, but guns are tools, not toys, and this doesn't engender respect for them.
    We get gender specific toys, and advice given to our two year old daughter on how to behave like a "lady".

    The justification is that this is how all the other kids are raised, and I wouldn't want them to feel left out would I? Damn right I would. If I have consciously rejected something that society accepts as normal, I want my kids to at least question it, and have the ability to make their own decision about it when they are old enough to.

  4. Just re-read the above, I don't think I have ever used so many quotation marks in anything I have ever written before - it is a subject that gets me more riled than I realised until now...

  5. kiwiswiss, I wish I had some kind of brilliant and insightful advice for dealing with your family here, but I really don't. In my family, I am seen as odd for trying to discourage my children from conforming to gendered stereotypes.

    Toy weapons are also banned at our house. Birthdays are rough as far as gendered toys go... I don't know how many Barbies or Bratz dolls my daughter has received, and I was very frustrated by it at first. I've given up on letting it get to me at this point, but that might be easier with a 7 year old than a 2 year old, as I can try to encourage her to think critically about these toys and the messages that go along with them... although, at this point I think she just thinks that I'm nuts and buys in to the dominant messages.

  6. When she gets older, your daughter might like this series of books. There's a princess in it! ...It's just that she's not the type of princess described here, nope, quite far from it really. Or you could read it to her!

    I don't suppose the illustrations in this princess book are at least ironic and depict the princesses' ever-increasing frustration with such rigid rules... does it?

  7. Thinking of active, positive princesses in fiction, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke are both good films (Studio Ghibli in general seems to be good for this, lots of female lead characters). Nausicaa in particular has a princess leading and saving her people. I don't have kids yet, but plan on keeping as much positive stuff around as I can when I do!

  8. Thank you... I'm going to look into those books and films. Maybe we can redefine what she thinks of when she hears the word 'Princess'

    And no, the illustrations are not particularly ironic, but that would be a simple and great solution if they were.