I’ve read articles arguing both sides of the “Princess Debate”: whether or not it is healthy for young girls to be exposed to the world of pink and sparkly when there is such a push for equal opportunities and independence. While I agree that several of the traditional concepts of princesses can have a seemingly detrimental effect in contrast to encouraging gender-neutral interests, I can say that I grew up with princess stories and still ended up an engineer.
In retrospect, I’m actually glad I got to enjoy those movies and novels. I still enjoy them. Sometimes I think it’s possible to push too far when aiming for equality in that we can start to villainize any healthy feminine interests. People are multi-faceted. Even princess stories, if presented from the right perspective, can be learning devices to teach us about qualities and morals that will benefit us throughout our lives. Here are 10 values that I learned about:
Even the most dependent of the storybook princesses knew to be kind to everyone. They were surrounded with supportive friends, doting parents, and affectionate animals because they continuously demonstrated kindness and friendliness in return. The quality is almost universal to the idea of a princess, and as such is inherent to their nature. In Snow White, the dwarves and forest animals are won over by Snow’s gentleness. In Cinderella, Ella remains polite with her stepmother even when she does not reciprocate. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle shows genuine compassion for the Beast and the residents of the cursed castle. Such kindness, whether to family or strangers, is a trait to be emulated by all.
While I remember the riches and elaborate dresses, I also remember princesses who saw themselves as shepherds of charity. They offered whatever they could if they encountered someone in a less-fortunate situation, and were always happy to offer help and support where needed. In A Little Princess, Sara, a wealthy student, befriends Becky, a servant, and gifts her a pair of fine shoes when she learns that she has none. In Enchanted, Giselle takes the opportunity to clean Robert’s entire house in gratitude for a place to sleep, and then aids him in planning a romantic gesture for his fiancé. In the Princess Diaries II, Mia surprises a group of orphaned children with a walk in a parade and then works to establish a new home for them. Large or small, these gestures demonstrated charity and thought beyond self.
Princess stories were the first to teach me about the importance of image and dignity. The princesses I remember tried to be poised, composed, and cool under pressure in efforts to emulate their queens and mothers. Now, in almost all of the stories these efforts go awry, but it did demonstrate that there is a sense of dignity and honor tied to the role of a royal. While we can’t and don’t need to be “perfect”, it is our goal to project confidence, morality, and self-control when acting in an official or professional capacity. I picture Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and My Fair Lady and Queen Clarice in The Princess Diaries series.
Most of the princesses are young, so they’re either not given too much responsibility yet or they’re amidst the transition to young adulthood. However, the theme is that as they grow they will be expected take on more responsibility for their country and for their families. This is just as we all face that transition into a sense of duty for our adult lives. Many of the characters from these stories provide excellent examples of duty. Mulan sneaks into the Chinese army to defend her country and protect her aging father. Elsa, from Frozen, risks exposing her powers to ascend her father’s throne. Sara, from A Little Princess, continues to read to the students of her school even after she is separated from them. Even Mia, who is thrust into the life of a princess, grows to love Genovia and views it as her mission to succeed the family line and support her new lands.
Growing princesses learn to be leaders, not just from their parents but from friends and role models. They desire to preside over nations and support causes. They aim to become queens. Characters such as Queen Mary of Scots (Reign), Queen Catherine of Aragon (The Constant Princess), and Queen Clarice (The Princess Diaries) demonstrate decisiveness and fairness in their rules, and pass those qualities down to their families and friends. I expect that if/when a Frozen sequel is released it will show Elsa’s new rule over Arendelle as well.
Princesses are taught to be polite and employ all acceptable social graces. They know how to greet people, how to dine properly, and how to dress appropriately. Once again we have Mia and Eliza Doolittle, who are both provided countless etiquette lessons. While the term “etiquette” may seem archaic in today’s world, it really comes down to good manners and in some cases makes social interactions much simpler (ex. addressing wedding invitations). There is nothing wrong with being polite, and the rules of etiquette give people a standard to go by.
Some of my favorite princess stories were fictionalized accounts of real-life people: Catherine of Aragon, Elizabeth I, Pocahontas, Marie Antoinette, Anastasia, etc. There were movies, novels, and diaries depicting young princesses handling both historical dramas and standard teenage life. Not only did they provide the same examples as the other princesses on this list, but they inspired me to learn more about their time periods and counterparts. I would read the novels and go to the library to find non-fiction books about the castles, wars, and empires that they lived through. Even in the case of Disney princesses I was motivated to search out the original fairy tales and learn about the authors. My exposure to these stories as a child gave me a foundation for my future interests.
There are several princesses and heroines that demonstrated piety and spirituality in high regard. Pocahontas and Mulan reflected their religions in how they approached challenges, turning to their faiths to build resolve. In The Constant Princess and other novelized accounts, Catherine of Aragon is committed to God in her vocation as a wife and queen. In nearly all depictions she is represented as a truly pious woman, devoted to prayer and almsgiving. This image of someone so mighty as a princess or queen submitting to faith for strength was a powerful one for me.
While all of the princesses in the stories were complimented on their beauty, what I gained from these tales was an appreciation for the beautiful things in life. Nature, architecture, and craftsmanship feature greatly in their kingdoms. There is nothing wrong with enjoying such fine items and comforts so long as they are not valued to the point of materialism. Snow White, Aurora, and Pocahontas loved to explore and experience nature. Belle was gifted an exquisite library that any reader would dream of. Giselle had a passion for gorgeous dresses and turned it into a career. Admiring and cherishing beauty allows us to reflect on what we have been given on this earth.
Most of us don’t have a castle or carriages or an army of servants to take care of us. But one of the lessons I learned from A Little Princess was that we are all gifted with a powerful imagination. We can visualize our world as anything we’d like it to be. And when that vision becomes a goal, and then a plan, we move towards creating that world for ourselves physically. In Sara’s case she imagined herself a princess surrounded by fine treats. In yours maybe you’d like to be an artist near a beach. The what doesn’t matter as long as you’re experiencing it and working towards it. Our imaginations and creativity are two of the most impressive resources we have.
When I thought of princesses as a child, I pictured women who didn’t have to worry about schedule or chores and instead were free to focus on charity and making their voices heard. So I think the princess issue comes down to a matter of perspective: if you are able to highlight the right lessons these stories can be great tools for learning. They become even more useful if you supplement them with real-life historical examples and other non-royal role models. Instead of fighting the inevitable pink phase, employ it as a building block for new interests. It will be what you make of it.
Here are some suggestions for princess-related (or similar) novels and films. If you have any you’d like to add to this list, please leave them in the comment section!
- A Little Princess, Francis Hodgson Burnett
- The Princess Diaries series, Meg Cabot
- Royal Diaries: Elizabeth I
- The Constant Princess*
- Anne of Green Gables
- The Secret Garden
- The Prince & Me
- Disney Princess collection
- The Princess Bride
*Young adult novel