While reading Sheila Finch’s Myths, Metaphors, and Science Fiction, I ran across a passage that gave me, as a parent, pause:
“In later centuries, we seem to have watered down the messages [of fairy tales], especially in the post-Disney world, but the continuing popularity, even into our scientific age, of what might otherwise be considered mere nursery tales tells us that at least some of the original serious intention seems to be getting through” (p. 65).
Two phrases here struck me: the “post-Disney world” and “original serious intention” of the tales.
Let me step back here a moment. I’ve been intentionally vague in these posts about the fact that my now-toddler is a boy. In a cultural moment when we’re expected to have “gender reveal” parties with cakes or confetti-filled balloons or dove releases that announce the baby’s gender by being pink or blue accordingly, I wanted to get away from what other people seem to insist is The Most Important Thing about my child. Believe me, it isn’t. It’s his curiosity, his laugh, his delight at discovering new things. It’s the fact that he enjoys spicy food and dancing (like me) and that he needs to know how everything is put together (like his dad). If he were a girl, none of that would change.
And yet, when I found out that my second child, due in October, is a girl, I made that list of things I won’t allow her to do. Top among these: no princess anything, ever.
Which, I realized shortly after, was a double-standard. If my son wants to pretend to be a prince (or a princess), why not? I’ll just tell him about the problems of monarchies, especially those that drain the resources from the people. If my son wants to watch a Disney princess movie, sure, go ahead! I’ll just use it as a teaching moment.
So why not let my daughter do the same?
I’m probably among the last of the last Gen-Xers to have children. Which means that the last (non-Pixar) Disney movies I saw were The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and those only because I was watching them with younger family members. Perhaps princess movies have moved on from the “story ends when prince marries the lucky girl” trope. Regardless, these older movies and related non-Disney films remain popular, so I doubt I can shield my children from them entirely. In fact, I know I can’t. So what to do?
Rather than keep my son and daughter away from princess culture, I’m going to keep in mind the “original serious intention” of fairy tales, including those that glorify romantic partnerships over everything else. There are lessons to be learned, and if my children enjoy the stories, we can use them to talk about, say, good decisions and bad decisions, and about accepting the consequences of breaking rules. We can use them to talk about how some rules are outdated and should be broken. We can use them to talk about how there’s more to life than romantic partnerships.
And I think I need to remind myself that these pink-and-sparkly versions of fairy tales are most folks’ first exposure to the broader category of fantasy and its umbrella, speculative fiction. If my children are hooked on the stories and want to read more, then shouldn’t I encourage that? There are so many good middle-grade and YA speculative stories that turn the tropes I worry about on their heads—it should be my job to steer my children toward those stories as well as to discuss what’s troubling about mainstream depictions of the “princess marries her true love” tales.
So, if my daughter wants to wear pink and pretend she’s a princess, I’ll let her. I’ll also remind both my children that no one’s story ends just because they win their true love.