The Complicated, Empowering, Messy History Behind Our Obsession With Princesses

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If you walk down the “pink aisle” of any store that caters to children, one theme tends to jump out more than any other: the theme of princesses. There are princess dolls, princess bikes, princess art sets, princess play kitchens, princess board games, princess bedding, princess t-shirts, princess shoes… The sheer variety of princess items available often threatens to overwhelm — but kids love it.

And, if we’re being honest, a lot of adults love it, too.

Like today’s children, many of us older folks went through a “princess phase” when we were young; I certainly did, even if I went on to vehemently reject the label during my tween and teenage years. (I’m at peace with it now, but that’s an essay for another time.) And these days, I — like a lot of my peers — look back fondly on the princess stories of my childhood. If the surge of nostalgia many of us feel for ‘90s-era Disney movies indicates anything, it’s that a lot of us secretly did want to be princesses, even if we’d never dare admit to it now.

And therein lies a curious phenomenon: Why are we so obsessed with princesses when we’re young? And — perhaps even more bizarrely — why are we later shamed for that same obsession? Because that’s definitely a thing; when women reach a certain age, “princess” becomes a Bad Word. To be called one is an insult, rather than a delight, even if the qualities princess stories and princess play taught us to cultivate when we were kids are qualities we’re still expected to maintain as adults.

What are we to make of this phenomenon? And how are we to navigate it when the expectations surrounding it change so suddenly?

While it’s undeniable that a lot of the childhood obsession with princesses in today’s environment is spurred on by marketing, the truth of the matter is that princesses have been part of our cultural landscape for… well, most of human history. Real-life princesses go far, far back into antiquity in a huge number of cultures: They existed in ancient Egypt; in ancient China; in ancient Celtic cultures; and on and on and on. And as for the princess stories that are so prevalent in our fairy tales? Many of them were first published in their now-familiar literary forms centuries ago, by either Charles Perrault in France in 1697 or the Brothers Grimm in Germany in 1812 — and even before that, they existed as folktales passed down between adults and children for generations.

Princess play, too, has existed for ages. Consider, for example, dolls: Celebrity dolls — which includes the subgenre of dolls modeled after real-life royalty — have been A Thing for centuries. The Victorian era really cemented the celebrity doll — and, therefore, the royal doll — as a cultural icon, when, as Hadley Meares wrote for Atlas Obscura in 2016, "Owning your own version of a hero, royal, or great beauty not only connected you with the person in question, it reminded you of a person or event that made you happy.” These days, historical or real-life princess dolls have given way to Disney Princesses and Princess Barbies, but the fact of the matter is that the trend is far from new: Kids have been playing with these kinds of toys for centuries.

Why are we so obsessed with princesses when we’re young? And — perhaps even more bizarrely — why are we later shamed for that same obsession?

There are, of course, problematic elements of princess culture. Princesses — particularly as they’re portrayed in many fairy tales — are very closely tied up with our ideas of traditional femininity, and they do teach an awful lot of lessons that don’t serve girls well in the long run: Lessons that emphasize “waiting for your prince to come,” placing undue value on physical beauty, and many, many more. Take "Cinderella," for example: No matter which way you look at it, one of the core messages of the story is that “ugly” people are morally bankrupt, while “beautiful” ones are virtuous — prejudices that affect us dramatically in the real world: A 2016 study found that kids don’t trust "ugly" people, but do trust "pretty" people.

What’s more, the 2016 study “Pretty As A Princess” did find that girls who engage with princess media adhere more strongly to feminine behavior — which matters because, as researcher Sarah Coyne of Brigham Young University told the Washington Post, girls and women who cling strongly to traditional gender roles are more likely to place a great deal of value on physical appearance, “forever chase an unattainable beauty ideal, a road that can lead to misery,” and “sabotage a skill [like those developed in STEM classes] that could have blossomed into a successful engineering career.” These are real concerns that highlight some of the more troubling aspects of princess culture.

But princess play is not inherently bad nor, for that matter, is femininity, even when it’s tied up in princess stories and play. Fairy tales like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” demonstrate lessons about goodness and kindness as much as they reinforce troubling ideas about gender roles and appearance — that is, they teach the value of prosocial skills and model how to display them. Prosocial skills, like empathy, are often classified as “soft skills,” which we in turn often code as feminine; however, research is increasingly finding that soft skills are not only valuable in the workplace, but also that employers are actively looking for candidates who exhibit them. And, in the big picture, to devalue qualities our culture codes as feminine serves to perpetuate the idea that “masculine” things are better and doesn’t actually do anything to further gender equality.

I say all of this to point out our obsession with princess play when we’re kids is not only understandable, but necessary. That’s why we don’t shame kids for engaging in it; what’s more, it underlines the fact that the answer to “solving” the more problematic elements of princess play is not to deny femininity entirely. Kids should be allowed to explore femininity in a way that feels comfortable for them, something that princess play lets them do.

Fairy tales like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” demonstrate lessons about goodness and kindness as much as they reinforce troubling ideas about gender roles and appearance — that is, they teach the value of prosocial skills and model how to display them.

But something interesting — and troubling — happens to “the princess obsession” and those who harbor it as we get older: We start getting shamed for it. And nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in how the implications of calling someone a “princess” changes based on whether you’re saying it to a kid or to an adult.

When kids are young, it’s a treat to be called a princess. We throw children princess parties. We give them princess makeovers. We make them princess Halloween costumes. For kids, it’s “princess this” and “princess that,” all day, every day.

But then, consider what we mean when we call an adult woman a “princess.” Urban Dictionary’s definitions of the term include a woman “who refuses to grow up,” “who wears a crown on her birthday despite how old she is,” “whose favorite color is pink, loves glitter, wears Juicy Couture, and wants to be the center of attention.Whereas calling a child a “princess” is nearly always a term of endearment, calling an adult a “princess” is exclusively derogatory. When we call adult women “princesses,” what we’re really calling them is immature.

20th Century Fox

The weird thing, though, is that all those “feminine” qualities princess stories and princess play teach us (both problematic, and otherwise) are qualities that we’re still expected to maintain as adults: Women are expected to be kind — so kind that we always put others’ wants and desires above our own, even at the cost of making us feel uncomfortable or unsafe. We’re expected to be beautiful, particularly in a white, European kind of way — and, indeed, our culture will reward us for possessing this kind of beauty by treating us kindly, by making it easier for us to get jobs, and by not discriminating against us based on how we look.

It’s a weird catch 22: We’re supposed to cultivate the qualities princess culture teaches us women “should” have, but after a certain age, we’re not supposed to either like princesses or value princesses. And it speaks volumes to how our culture views women.

There does, however, appear to be one way that adults are “allowed” to maintain an interest in princesses: Through the lens of celebrity. In the same way that it’s OK for adults to follow the lives of celebrities, it’s socially acceptable for them to follow the lives of real life royalty — particularly those of the British Royal Family, and especially of Prince William, Kate Middleton, Prince Harry, and Meghan Markle… except that there’s a lot more to it than simple celebrity culture.

It’s a weird catch 22: We’re supposed to cultivate the qualities princess culture teaches us women “should” have, but after a certain age, we’re not supposed to either like princesses or value princesses.

“I definitely think in America, [the Royals] do become absorbed into a broader fascination with celebrities, but they aren’t quite the same as other celebrities,” Arianne Chernock, associate professor of history at Boston University, tells Bustle in an interview. In fact, she says, the reason we're drawn to them may have nothing to do with their celebrity at all. Perhaps, it’s the fortitude it takes to be royalty that holds our fascination.

People like Queen Elizabeth become powerful symbols for women as we grow up — symbols of operating within the constraints of the role in which society has placed you while still maintaining control over your own life. “There is this sense that not necessarily by choice, but by necessity, women in [the British Royal] family have had to take on roles in some ways that are ahead of their time or at least force them to confront issues before others in their generation,” Chernock says. As she points out, Queen Elizabeth was “forced to navigate motherhood and her professional life in the 1950s under public scrutiny,” often receiving pushback for the choices she made, but balancing those roles nonetheless — and her visibility as she did so had a noticeable effect on the conversation about how women were “supposed” to lead their lives.

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And that, notes Chernock, is an element of princess play that “often gets dismissed.” “What does it really mean for a little girl to play princess?” she says. “If you ever listen to little kids at play, yeah, sometimes they are, you know, dreaming of finding prince charming, but for the most part, it actually means that they’re the ones who get to boss everybody else around.”

And, of course, the current British Royals are part of a long, long tradition of prominent women making huge strides in royal positions of power throughout history. The Iceni warrior queen Boudicca, for example, raised a rebellion against Roman invaders in 60 A.D.; although the rebellion ultimately failed, Boudicca’s successes had long-reaching effects on the course of history. In Japan, Empress Suiko was the first woman to become Empress Regent; under her rule, Buddhism was officially recognized and the Seventeen-Article Constitution was established. In Egypt, Hatshepsut created major trade routes and accomplished incredible building projects; she’s regarded as one of the most successful pharaohs in history. And on, and on, and on.

Even the princesses of all those fairy tales frequently show their strength, resilience, fortitude, and wit. In “Petrosinella,” the folktale on which “Rapunzel” is based, the heroine effects her own escape, instructing her lover to bring rope with him the next time he comes so she can leave the tower with him, then stopping the ogre who has imprisoned her from following them as they go on the run. The miller’s daughter — later the queen — in “Rumpelstiltskin” beats the titular imp at his own game. Even “Aschenputtel,” the Brothers Grimm’s version of “Cinderella,” has something to recommend her: She wants a night off from work, so she finds a way to make it happen. Talk about advocating for yourself in the workplace.

Walt Disney Productions

When we’re kids, we shouldn’t have to choose between princesses or dinosaurs; we should be able to choose princesses and dinosaurs (or neither princesses nor dinosaurs, because hey, princesses and dinosaurs aren’t everyone’s cup of tea). And when we’re adults, we shouldn’t have to choose between being a “grownup” and liking princesses; we should be able to do both. We should be able to make whatever choice is best for us, at any age, without risk of derogatory judgment from anyone else.

Sometimes, you just want to put on a tiara and play pretend. Because you know what? It’s fun.

Bustle’s Royally Fascinated series is all about owning our obsession with princesses — and exploring why that's an empowering thing.