Princess Play Vs. Princess Culture: There Is A Difference

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princessPrincess play, the act of pretending one is a princess through dress up reenactment of fairy tales, took on a different connotation after a Disney executive attended an ice skating show in 2008. According to Peggy Orenstein‘s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, the executive was stunned to see legions of little girls attending the show in homemade princess outfits. Because so many little girls were designing, or begging their parents to create, princess outfits, the trend was seen as a huge marketing opportunity for the company who the went on the market the princesses outside their respective fairy tales. It is because of this executive’s observation that we now have “princess culture” — the entire bubblegum wash of glitter, sparkles, rapid materialism, and cult-like following that Disney has no intentions of slowing down.

But the make-believe of being a princess or inhabiting a mythical story was not always a commercially-sanctioned past-time, and while there are many princess alternatives that Disney has not yet soiled, the current dilemma for parents is to parse out play-time for their princess-leaning children that is not being sold on television. Princess play, if coupled with other stories and fables, can be a powerful exercise for young girls who have interests beyond fainting and looking pretty. They may not have their own line of dresses and DVDs, but there are many accessible princesses who are known for more than their appearance — but rather engaging stories that highlight their skills and abilities.

Athena, although technically a goddess, was born to Queen Hera and Zeus in Greek mythology. Not only did Athena spring from her father’s head fully-formed (and fully adult), she was known to lead men into battles and was an excellent weaver. Her half-sister, Artemis, has been immortalized as an excellent archer with a penchant for animals and helping women in need. She also famously went after hunter who dared spy on her while she was bathing naked, turning him into stag.

Queen Elizabeth I of England and Ireland  would also be princess worthy of your child’s imagination. Not only did Queen Elizabeth rule without a husband, prince, or a king, she is noted to have spoken six languages and have been a much more tactful leader than her father, restoring order to her kingdom. Cleopatra VII also seized control of her father’s empire with a top-notch education and a prowess for languages, philosophy, and literature.

In many ways, princess culture has adopted some of our most powerful women in history and diluted their stories to depict ether a strictly romantic plot or materialistic objectives. Mining history and myths for princesses who have gone unsullied by pink and plastic crowns can be a worthwhile effort to reframe princess ideology for girls — perhaps getting them to recognize the other traits that history’s most notable have possessed such as strength, tact, intelligence, and specific capabilities.

Princesses and queens are not innately problematic icons for girls. But our culture’s manipulation of the term and reappropriation has turned contemporary princess icons into mere fragments of their historical origins.

(photo: Glenda M. Powers/ Shutterstock)


  1. Jen

    July 18, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    You know, most of the later Disney Princesses aren’t so bad either. Belle is really into books and rejects the cool, handsome popular guy because she wants more out of life and wants to define her own path. Jasmine hates being treated like a piece of meat and falls for the guy who likes her for who she is not WHAT she is. Ariel is a bit moony, but she also digs adventures and making her own way long before she gets all gaga for Eric.

    I think with any Princess story you just need to drive home the fact that being brainy or good at sports or into music or any of the three thousand other things little girls (and boys) can be ARE all valid ways to be a “princess” and that it’s ok to want to be “girly” because there are a lot of really awesome and inspiring girls and women from all walks of life and being female and/or feminine is an empowering thing.

  2. Eileen

    July 20, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    I’m going to be that jerk who points out that Athena was actually the daughter of Metis, Zeus’s first wife, and the reason she sprung out of Zeus’s head was that he had swallowed Metis whole because he had heard a prophecy that she would one day give birth to a son who would overthrow him.

    But I totally agree with this piece and would like to recommend my all-time favorite princess: Catherine des Medicis. Despite being a foreign, merchant class woman, she (as dowager queen) managed to exert her will over a country with specific rules against rulers who were foreign, merchant class, or female. After her husband (who treated her like crap – which, considering it was an arranged marriage, her dowry didn’t get paid, and she had a hard time getting pregnant, isn’t all that surprising) died, she basically owned the French political scene.

    • LoveyDovey

      November 7, 2011 at 11:37 am

      Let’s not forget Queen Gorgo of Sparta. The movie 300 didn’t do her justice, she was known to be very clever and strong. And Boudicca, Queen of Iceni was one of the first people to stand up against the Romans during their occupation of Britain and won.

      There’s some good ones at this link too (Warning for language):

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  4. Jo Flemings

    November 20, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    Mulan is my all time favorite. Honorable, brave, smart, and perseverant.

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