Don't be too quick to knock sugar-pink, prince-free, Disney-style princessification

It’s not true empowerment, but if this is the only imaginative space that is on offer to young girls, perhaps we should let them play. Soon enough, they'll grow up into a world where female self-realisation is still a fairy tale.

Thirty-two years ago today, Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer. I was six at the time, and dead set on becoming a princess myself (following a brief but highly successful career as a trapeze artist). The knowledge that Charles would no longer be available distressed me. How dare that Diana woman foil my plans! My dad, ever practical, reminded me that Andrew and Edward weren’t yet taken. Phew! I crossed my fingers that at least one of them would wait until I came of age (damn you, Fergie and Sophie!).

I don’t come from an aristocratic background. I wasn’t educated privately and my plans for a circus career were unlikely to see me mixing in the upper echelons of society. And yet I thought I was in with a chance. I thought that, deep down, Andrew/Edward would see that I was real princess material because my heart was pure and true (I also tried experimenting with a pea under the mattress, but gave up; if the only peas you can get hold of are processed marrowfats, it’s not a fair test).

I’m not so sure whether six-year-old girls today hold out similar hopes for Harry, or (more creepily) have started eyeing up Baby George. While the profile of the Royal Family may be lower than in the 1980s, the princess aspirations of little girls don’t appear to have lessened. Indeed, if anything, the sugary pink “princessification” of girlhood feels more extreme than ever. As a feminist parent, I wonder how worried I should be.

When I appeared in my school nativity play, I was dressed as a horse (not a donkey – Barry Hodges got to be the donkey, not that I’m bitter, obviously). Back then there were girls playing plenty of different roles, all dressed in different costumes. By contrast, since my eldest son started primary school I’ve been to several dressing-up events and every single one -- every one -- has involved most of the girls wearing Disney Princess costumes. For the nativity play you wear one to be an angel; for World Book Day you wear one to be Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, whoever. My son’s class had a “knights and castles” day; one girl came as a knight, all the others as Disney damsels. The boys’ costumes change from event to event; my son’s been a sheep, a train driver, Sir Charlie Stinky-Socks. Girls, meanwhile, wear the same thing every time. Whatever the time or place, providing you’re a girl you’ll be a pretty princess.

While there’s been a brief burst of resistance to Disney princessification, in the form of protests against Brave heroine Merida’s makeover, by and large we parents are accepting of these gender divisions (guess it saves money on costumes, at least if you have girls). Boys’ birthday parties can be pirate-, alien- or football-themed; girls’ parties are, at best, merely pink, and at worst involve some form of terrifying glittery “princess pamper” sessions. The fashion for pseudo-scientific guides to childrearing, separating infants along strict gender lines, makes us more likely to grit our teeth and go with the flow. Princess Prep, “an alternative summer camp” set in London, claims to be channelling “girls" natural princess obsession into experiences that are fun, educational and inspirational”. I find the very idea that a princess obsession can be natural quite baffling but then again, if Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps, I guess anything’s possible.

Founded by royalty-obsessed American Jerramy Fine, Princess Prep appeals to the US market via a heavy mix of gender-based and national stereotyping. Little girls - rich little girls, since a seven-day “experience” costs $3,995 – learn to walk with books on their heads, drink afternoon tea and how to sip soup correctly. They do not learn how to cope when, one day after you’ve given birth, the nation decides you’re fat, but perhaps that comes in a follow-up course (“a true princess behaves like a princess no matter what the circumstances”, so presumably you don’t just ring up OK! HQ and call them “fucking proles”).

I’m tempted to despise Princess Prep, with its pink website scattered with self-help guide messages (“a true princess is simply the best version of yourself you can imagine”) and its guidance on, essentially, how to become a rich person who deludes themselves that their existence is a social good in itself (“you do not become a princess simply by donning a fancy gown and a tiara” - but it helps). All the same, there is a little part of me that thinks “sod it. Go for it, little princesses”. For at least here you have a princess experience that, in falling over itself in an attempt to appear empowering, gets further and further away from princes, marriage and dependency. Curiously, the whole thing gives me a little hope.

The Disney-fied commercialisation of the princess figure creates something which, due to the pressure to at least appear PC, is at least an improvement on the real-life princess experience. Sure, the Princess Prep values of “princesshood” (“philanthropy and selflessness, kindness and compassion, hard work and self-belief, generosity and gratitude, leadership and diplomacy etc.”) all sound a bit “Tony Blair”. And everyone on the website is wealthy and white (apart from Princess Fiona in Shrek). But looking at things more broadly, I wonder whether we should be quite so sneery about the pink world little girls find themselves thrust into. It’s not real, but perhaps it’s for us to help the little girls in pretty dresses make the narratives work more in their favour. 

These days we know what really happens to girls who marry princes. We know how things turned out for Diana, and we can see more clearly what’s happening to Kate. Sure, I reckon I might be willing to put up with that degree of press intrusion for the absurd level of financial security she enjoys. But I also imagine most of us would rather just be rich without the whole princess bit. Last week’s photograph of William and Kate presenting their new baby to a sea of cameras struck me as quite horrifying. I don’t want to be a princess any more. If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t want that for her.

But as for sugar-pink, prince-free, Disney-style princessification? Well, it’s not true empowerment, no. All the same, perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so quick to knock it, if this is the only imaginative space that is on offer. As girls grow older, they’ll find a world in which female self-realisation is still a fairy tale, and they’ll need huge amounts of imagination to change this, and change the minds of others. Perhaps, for now, we should let them play.  

Princess Margaret's tiara, which was auctioned in New York in 2006. Photo: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Meet the hot, funny, carefree Cool Mums – the maternal version of the Cool Girl

As new film Bad Moms reveals, what the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy.

I suppose we should all be thankful. Time was when “mum’s night off” came in the form of a KFC value bucket. Now, with the advent of films such as Bad Moms – “from the gratefully married writers of The Hangover” – it looks as though mums are finally getting permission to cut loose and party hard.

This revelation could not come a moment too soon. Fellow mums, you know all those stupid rules we’ve been following? The ones where we think “god, I must do this, or it will ruin my precious child’s life”? Turns out we can say “sod it” and get pissed instead. Jon Lucas and Scott Moore said so.

I saw the trailer for Bad Moms in the cinema with my sons, waiting for Ghostbusters to start. Much as I appreciate a female-led comedy, particularly one that suggests there is virtue in shirking one’s maternal responsibilities, I have to say there was something about it that instantly made me uneasy. It seems the media is still set on making the Mommy Wars happen, pitching what one male reviewer describes as “the condescending harpies that run the PTA” against the nice, sexy mummies who just want to have fun (while also happening to look like Mila Kunis). It’s a set up we’ve seen before and will no doubt see again, and while I’m happy some attention is being paid to the pressures modern mothers are under, I sense that another is being created: the pressure to be a cool mum.

When I say “cool mum” I’m thinking of a maternal version of the cool girl, so brilliantly described in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl:

“Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot.”

The cool girl isn’t like all the others. She isn’t weighed down by the pressures of femininity. She isn’t bothered about the rules because she knows how stupid they are (or at least, how stupid men think they are). She does what she likes, or at least gives the impression of doing so. No one has to feel guilty around the cool girl. She puts all other women, those uptight little princesses, to shame.

What the cool girl is to the diet-obsessed prom queen, the cool mum is to the PTA harpy. The cool mum doesn’t bore everyone by banging on about organic food, sleeping habits or potty training. Neither hyper-controlling nor obsessively off-grid, she’s managed to combine reproducing with remaining a well-balanced person, with interests extending far beyond CBeebies and vaccination pros and cons. She laughs in the face of those anxious mummies ferrying their kids to and from a multitude of different clubs, in between making  cupcakes for the latest bake sale and sitting on the school board. The cool mum doesn’t give a damn about dirty clothes or additives. After all, isn’t the key to happy children a happy mum? Perfection is for narcissists.

It’s great spending time with the cool mum. She doesn’t make you feel guilty about all the unpaid drudgery about which other mothers complain. She’s not one to indulge in passive aggression, expecting gratitude for all those sacrifices that no one even asked her to make. She’s entertaining and funny. Instead of fretting about getting up in time to do the school run, she’ll stay up all night, drinking you under the table. Unlike the molly-coddled offspring of the helicopter mum or the stressed-out kids of the tiger mother, her children are perfectly content and well behaved, precisely because they’ve learned that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Mummy’s a person, too.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, just how well this works out. Just as the cool girl manages to meet all the standards for patriarchal fuckability without ever getting neurotic about diets, the cool mum raises healthy, happy children without ever appearing to be doing any actual motherwork. Because motherwork, like dieting, is dull. The only reason any woman would bother with either of them is out of some misplaced sense of having to compete with other women. But what women don’t realise – despite the best efforts of men such as the Bad Moms writers to educate us on this score – is that the kind of woman who openly obsesses over her children or her looks isn’t worth emulating. On the contrary, she’s a selfish bitch.

For what could be more selfish than revealing to the world that the performance of femininity doesn’t come for free? That our female bodies are not naturally hairless, odourless, fat-free playgrounds? That the love and devotion we give our children – the very care work that keeps them alive – is not something that just happens regardless of whether or not we’ve had to reimagine our entire selves to meet their needs? No one wants to know about the efforts women make to perform the roles which men have decided come naturally to us. It’s not that we’re not still expected to be perfect partners and mothers. It’s not as though someone else is on hand to pick up the slack if we go on strike. It’s just that we’re also required to pretend that our ideals of physical and maternal perfection are not imposed on us by our position in a social hierarchy. On the contrary, they’re meant to be things we’ve dreamed up amongst ourselves, wilfully, if only because each of us is a hyper-competitive, self-centred mean girl at heart.

Don’t get me wrong. It would be great if the biggest pressures mothers faced really did come from other mothers. Alas, this really isn’t true. Let’s look, for instance, at the situation in the US, where Bad Moms is set. I have to say, if I were living in a place where a woman could be locked up for drinking alcohol while pregnant, where she could be sentenced to decades behind bars for failing to prevent an abusive partner from harming her child, where she could be penalised in a custody case on account of being a working mother – if I were living there, I’d be more than a little paranoid about fucking up, too. It’s all very well to say “give yourself a break, it’s not as though the motherhood police are out to get you”. Actually, you might find that they are, especially if, unlike Kunis’s character in Bad Moms, you happen to be poor and/or a woman of colour.

Even when the stakes are not so high, there is another reason why mothers are stressed that has nothing to do with pressures of our own making. We are not in need of mindfulness, bubble baths nor even booze (although the latter would be gratefully received). We are stressed because we are raising children in a culture which strictly compartmentalises work, home and leisure. When one “infects” the other – when we miss work due to a child’s illness, or have to absent ourselves to express breastmilk at social gatherings, or end up bringing a toddler along to work events – this is seen as a failure on our part. We have taken on too much. Work is work and life is life, and the two should never meet.

No one ever says “the separation between these different spheres – indeed, the whole notion of work/life balance – is an arbitrary construct. It shouldn’t be down to mothers to maintain these boundaries on behalf of everyone else.” Throughout human history different cultures have combined work and childcare. Yet ours has decreed that when women do so they are foolishly trying to “have it all”, ignoring the fact that no one is offering mothers any other way of raising children while maintaining some degree of financial autonomy. These different spheres ought to be bleeding into one another.  If we are genuinely interested in destroying hierarchies by making boundaries more fluid, these are the kind of boundaries we should be looking at. The problem lies not with identities – good mother, bad mother, yummy mummy, MILF – but with the way in which we understand and carry out our day-to-day tasks.

But work is boring. Far easier to think that nice mothers are held back, not by actual exploitation, but by meanie alpha mummies making up arbitrary, pointless rules. And yes, I’d love to be a bad mummy, one who stands up and says no to all that. Wouldn’t we all? I’d be all for smashing the matriarchy, if that were the actual problem here, but it’s not.

It’s not that mummies aren’t allowing each other to get down and party. God knows, we need it. It’s just that it’s a lot less fun when you know the world will still be counting on you to clear up afterwards.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.