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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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism