I’m sure a lot of feminists will say that the Daddy’s Little Princess meme or children’s books (from fairytales to contemporary fiction) about princesses – or teen fiction such as The Princess Diaries – is inherently harmful to feminism. And it’s not surprising they would take that view – what is a princess? She’s the daughter of a king – which means that a woman’s status and worth stems from that of her father, which is a patriarchal idea. The expectation of both fictional and real-life historical and contemporary princesses is that they’ll marry a prince, or, failing that, at a rich Prince Charming will do in contemporary Britain. This constraint on a woman’s choices and sex life, as well as the fact that a princess’s main duty is as a baby-making machine (something thhat can no longer be doubted after the ‘royal baby’ media coverage) is obviously problematic, as is thhe heterosexism inherent inthe princess stereotype.
But the problem isn’t with the word “princess” itself. There would be nothing wrong with calling our little girls by the pet name if it didn’t mean all of the above and if it didn’t strongly imply an unrealistic and narrow standard of beauty (nobody thinks of cropped hair, jeans, a size 16 dress or hairy legs when they hear “princess”, do they?) A princess would have to buy into all the consumerism to achieve a look thhat the media tells her she should have. Despite Disney’s efforts with Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog, the princessly feature of long wavy hair is not easily achievable by all ethnic groups without damage to the hair (relaxing or hot combing) or money (a weave or braid extensions).
But what if the word “princess” when used for little girls meant a future queen instead of the daughter of a king or the future wife of a prince? It could be used to mean that a girl will grow up to be successful, educated or even famous, because of the intelligence, determination or talents she already possesses as a child. A successful businesswoman, a celebrity, athlete, media personality or Nobel Prize winner is today’s equivalent of a “princess”. (Or a politician, well known writer, inventor, and so on.)
If we changed the meaning, reinforcing to our daughters that they are “princesses” would be a good thing. It would be a feminist thing. Little girls would say they are princesses not because they like pink and are wearing blonde extensions at age nine, or because they’re a teen who loves all things girly, but because they can imagine a successful career-driven future for themselves.