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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.

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

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.