My daughter is three and likes pink. She likes to wear dresses and tiaras and wants to be a princess. This is not great surprise. And yet this phenomenon angers some people, like Laura Penny in The New Statesman. Which is also no great surprise. Ms Penny blames the $4bn Disney Princess industry. I have no idea what Disney Princess she is referring to – since our daughter doesn’t really watch Disney at the moment. Her TV favourites are Charlie and Lola, Octonauts and Winnie-the-Pooh. But she likes to dress up as a princess (which overlaps with being a fairy, an angel and a ballerina) and, when she has to wear trousers, she is sad because, in her own words ‘Princesses don’t wear trousers’.
This phenomenon in my daughter seems to have emerged organically. We never pushed the ‘Princess Experience’, but we don’t see any need to crush it, distract her from it or frantically promote something else. I suspect that in ten years time, she will be rather bored of princesses and have moved on to ponies or pop music. Or playing the piano, painting or Purcell.
So why the eye-rolling at the desire of little girls – and big girls – to be a princess? Like most enduring images, and romantic tales, it gets to the heart of what it is to be human.
It is fine and practical to tell a young girl that hoping to marry a prince is not a good life-plan. But most young girls probably know this. There just aren’t enough princes to go round. What is the cause of the yearning? Surely it is a desire to be loved, cherished and adored? Who doesn’t want that?
We can pretend that men and women are identical in every way, ignoring the fact that men can’t ovulate or give birth. We could pretend that men and women are emotionally identical in every way, and that the desire to be a princess is purely the capitalist conditioning of the Disney corporation. But we know this is simply not true. Tales of princesses, princes, knights, dragons and maidens are ancient and timeless.
Likewise, we could pretend that acknowledging the differences means that one is superior to the other, or descend to other childish debates. Or we can conclude that the Princess phenomenon demonstrates there is clearly an enduring, even eternal, desire within in many women to be beautiful, to be loved and cherished – just as there is a desire in many men to be strong, to protect and be respected, like a knight in shining armour.
So why the fury at Kate Middleton? She was a ‘common’ girl, who has become a Princess. Laurie Penny argues that “the cult of princesshood is, at root, a cult of social mobility.” She is right. The pleasant but unremarkable Kate Middleton has found favour with a prince – and now she is a Duchess, and may one day be Queen, or very nearly. The celebration of this tale is, for some, a denegration of the virtues of effort, industry and application, albeit framed in a feminist narrative. Why celebrate the unmerited favour of a prince?
And yet, unmerited favour is something we all cry out for. Little girls want to be princesses who are cherished. Little boys want to be knights who are respected. And we crave these things because we know in our heart of hearts that we are unworthy of them. These stories are so successful because they tap into that unfulfilled desire.
In some ways, this is why Christianity is so hard to stomach – because it is about finding unmerited favour with a Prince, in the case, Jesus. (This is not a great surprise, either) The Christian is not someone who, by character or hard work, is worthy of Christ’s approval, love and sacrifice – but the recipient of those things. If we want those royal spiritual robes – and the acceptance and respect on offer – hanging around the palace or demanding to be let in will be a fruitless endeavour.
Our response may be to turn away, and decide we don’t want the approval of anyone, and that we only need to justify our lives and ambitions to ourselves. But ultimately, if we do that, we will find that ourselves with the harshest and most unjust and unforgiving task master of all.