Obviously, I am not going to defend the way that we gender-segregate kids’ toys. It’s pretty blatantly wrong: boys can be firefighters and knights and scientists and anything else they want to be; when boys play pretend, they get to be the characters that have cool powers and do cool things. Girls get to be shoppers, mothers, and princesses; when they play pretend, they’re being kidnapped or buying clothes or doing laundry.
So, given that girls’ choices for play pretty uniformly suck– of mothers, shoppers, and princesses, isn’t it better to be a princess?
Maybe I’ve grown up with more subversive princess role models than most, but princesses at least have some institutional authority. Princesses don’t get stuck with the drudge work; princesses have adventures! Okay, in most Disney movies, that means doing drudge work until someone else’s adventure culminates in your rescue, but when I was little my friends and I knew that that wasn’t what being a princess was about. That was just how you became a princess. Once you were one, you had an entire kingdom to explore, and everyone had to do what you said!
It was actually slightly unbalanced in our favor, for a change. Nobody wanted prince dolls; those were boring. Princes are all interchangeable. But princesses are all uniquely fascinating. We would make up tragic curses set upon us, or herculean tasks required by evil relatives, and even though the prince’s story was always the same (he conquers evil and gets the girl) the princess was different every time.
It’s still an obviously problematic narrative, but it at least allowed us to take our princess dolls and imagine stories that were centered around our desires and motivated by our actions.
Now, it’s possible that my friends and I were the sort of girls who would have made up unconsciously-feminist narratives no matter what toys we were given. Except that, thinking back, we received the baby dolls and fashion dolls in equal numbers, but we weren’t interested in them as the princess paraphernalia. There’s not a lot you can do to claim motherhood or shopaholicism as a way expressing your own autonomy. Inherent in the idea is the fact that you are defined by your children or by your things.
So, sure, “princess” isn’t great as a cultural frame, but at least it gave us just enough wiggle room to do our own thing. We could have done worse.