What do you want to be when you grow up? If you were anything like me as a kid, at some point, the answer to that question was "a princess." Thanks to good old-fashioned gender stereotypes, most little girls born in the '90s (and even now) grew up in pink bedrooms, playing dress up while wearing crowns. Some of us grow out of it and find our interests elsewhere, but some of us don’t — some of us see that interest follow us into adulthood, and provide a framework for how we see the world and ourselves. And despite the origins of our princess interests, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially if it's been something you've held close to your heart for most of your life.
The idea of princesses — particularly Disney princesses — was a huge part of my childhood. Sure, I loved The Lion King as much as anyone else, but in my heart, it could never compete with stories like The Little Mermaid and Cinderella. Living in Florida in close proximity to Disney World only made the princesses even more real to me; when I was in the Magic Kingdom, Snow White and Belle weren't animated characters on my TV screen — they were living, breathing human women who held my hand for a picture and seemed fully interested in everything a six-year-old wanted to tell them.
The older I got, the more I fell in love with the dream of being royal. Meg Cabot's The Princess Diaries series quickly became my favorite books when I discovered them in middle school. Being plucked from your normal life, only to find out that you're royalty? Sign me up. But it was more than the idea of being "royal" or "special" — it was the idea that princesses seemed to have a whole world of options at their feet. Mia Thermopolis, for instance, was both a princess and a writer, which were two things I knew from a young age wanted to be. The way I saw it, as a princess, you could have it all — and growing up in a world where people are constantly limiting women or telling women they can't, this meant the world to me. Maybe there was room for me and my dreams after all.
I graduated high school and started college, in pursuit of an English degree. It didn't take long before I figured out that combining my love of writing with my love of pop culture was a real job that someone would pay me to do. Like the princesses I loved, I could have it all. To me, that drive was a direct extension of that fascination in the princess role models I had growing up — my career could become my own personal fairy tale.
I never really questioned this, though, until a lit theory class my senior year. Never too old to rep my princess love, at 22 years old, I wore my Ariel locket to class, and the professor — a very well-educated, intimidating woman — stopped me on my way in. She picked up my necklace, looked at me, and said, "Do you plan to give away your voice so a man will love you?"
The class fell silent, and so did I. I've never been good at being put on the spot, so I barely managed to squeak out the word "no" before practically running to my desk in the back of the room. I didn't pay attention to anything she said about Foucault that day — all I could think about was how thoroughly my world had just been rocked. Could stories about princesses really be so easily reduced to a woman needing to find a man?
This led to a lot more questions I was forced to grapple with for the first time. As someone who believed she was growing up to be a strong woman, someone who also believed that you could have it all, did loving princesses compromise my feminism? Could I think fairytales and the idea of living happily ever after were beautiful, but also understand the importance of fighting to make your own dreams come true, with or without Prince Charming? I never had a reason to question that these ideals could coexist. After that conversation, I wasn't sure.
Years later, I can see why some people would call the princess narrative into question — and those people are right in that Disney princesses can be problematic. Although they are making strides in the right direction, they certainly aren't representative of every child who might watch their movies and look up to them, and haven't been historically. In a study published in Child Development in 2016, Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne discovered that girls who engaged with Disney Princess culture were more likely to buy into gender stereotypes, and she found that girls who were interested in Disney princesses were more likely to have a lower body image. Because of that, I can see where that professor might have been coming from, even though she was judging me personally at the time.
But so much of the way I viewed princesses growing up and into adulthood was dependent on the lens I saw it through — and to me, they were every bit as much sources of power as they were magic and romance. Does that mean they can't also have a positive influence on the little girls (and boys) who love them?
My love for Disney princesses was recognizing that there is so much more to their stories than finding love. Ariel, more than anything, wanted legs so she could explore the human world. Cinderella wanted to escape her indentured servitude so she could have a night off. Merida refused to get married just because she was a woman of age, Tiana was determined to open her own restaurant, and Elsa wanted the freedom to be herself. These are characters that children can identify with and learn from; there's a reason why children cling to them, and it's because they have empowering, encouraging, and relatable messages.
I’m a long way from the six-year-old holding hands with Snow White, but princesses still remain an important part of my life. I can tell you, down to the last detail, everything that's publicly known about Kate Middleton's third pregnancy. I can sing along to any Disney song on command, and once a month, I take a trip to Disney World, despite the seven hour drive, because chasing my happiness there is that important to me. But I have also built a career and a life I am proud of, and maybe a little part of that is because I've been able to believe in myself the way the princesses I grew up watching did.
But even if it isn't, I shouldn't have to justify something that makes me happy — nobody should. It's OK for something like Disney movies and princesses to make you happy without a bigger reason behind it. You can love princesses. You can believe in happily ever after and dreams and magic. If this is where and how you find your happiness, you can indulge in it. You are allowed.
Years later, I saw the same professor who questioned my locket at the mall. I was a 27-year-old-woman, fully established in her career — one that has been built on the same drive those princesses instilled in me growing up. And suddenly, I felt two inches small all over again. But then, I had to look down at the castle tattooed on my arm and remind myself that I found my strength in it; that not every person does, but I do. She didn’t have to understand it, but she should have respected it — women are far too often shamed for their interest and desires, and the day she called me out, she became one more person to perpetuate that.
Loving princesses shouldn’t be mutually exclusive to anything. Twirl with Rapunzel at Disney World. Wake up in the middle of the night to watch Prince Harry and Meghan Markle exchange vows. Live vicariously through your heroes, and let them either inspire you to take action in your own life, or just allow yourself to feel the joy of something that puts a smile on your face. Whatever your princess obsession means to you, it doesn't make you less of a feminist or diminish your strength as a woman. In fact, if you're going to believe in anything, the magic of happily ever after is a good place to start.
Bustle’s Royally Fascinated series is all about owning our obsession with princesses — and exploring why that's an empowering thing.