(CNN)The allure, and controversy, surrounding princess play is a familiar story. Girls want to be princesses. Parents fret over their daughters wanting to be princesses.
Few adults feel as though banning a category of play altogether is the right move. Kids’ imaginations need freedom, and kids want to be accepted by their peers. Caring about romance isn’t a fatal flaw. The laws of nature are such that a parental taboo ups the appeal of any particular activity by approximately 10,000%. Also, sometimes a frilly dress really is just a frilly dress — for girls and, increasingly, boys.
Still, to let children play princess and watch stories about princesses without any thought of the ways the implicit, and not so implicit, gender and racial narratives might impact them is to do us all a disservice. These are the mass-marketed messages that beauty is paramount, and marriage to a man equals living happily ever after, with which popular culture has managed to seduce generations of women. Beauty, in this case, is often synonymous with whippet-thin Whiteness.
Meghan’s recent revelation about what life was like for her as the Duchess of Sussex, during which she has dealt with racism, and loneliness and suicidal thoughts, is the latest, and devastating, example of the dark underbelly of princess life. In her interview with Oprah Winfrey that aired on CBS March 7, she compared herself to Princess Ariel from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”
“I was sitting in Nottingham Cottage and ‘The Little Mermaid’ came on. And who, as an adult, really watches ‘The Little Mermaid’ but it came on and I was like, ‘Well I’m here all the time, I might as well watch this,’ and I went, ‘Oh my God, she falls in love with the prince and because of that she loses her voice,'” Meghan explained, realizing that she was suffering a similar fate.
While not necessarily cause to pull the plug on all princess play, Meghan’s story is a reminder for adults to be thoughtful about how the children in their household perceive princess life. As parents and guardians, we are their castle knights and their esteemed advisers, charged with the tasks of protecting, educating and defending them from some of the more sinister forces at play. We should also help them imagine what happily ever after really looks like for them, and everyone else in the kingdom.
While questions about how children’s play influences their gender identity took off during Second Wave feminism, heightened scrutiny of princess culture is largely a product of the last decade. This was following Disney’s push to market all things princess as much as they can. Cultural critics and researchers have taken a closer look at princess play, focusing on the way idealization may negatively affect girls’ self-image. Meghan’s story injects the element of race, which hasn’t been as thoroughly interrogated by mainstream culture.
“With Markle, many people saw a Black woman elevated to a status that is so privileged, rarified and glamorous as breaking an ultimate glass ceiling, and that story felt really good and hopeful,” said Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” and other books on kids and gender.
But the difference between the message sent by her inspiring wedding day and the racism the duchess experienced from the media from the onset of her relationship with Prince Harry and in the palace afterward diminished these hopes. It was a development many are more sensitive to at this cultural moment.
“Race and racism are perennially important issues, but the racial reckoning of this moment makes Markle’s story particularly salient,” Orenstein said.
Black families are glad to see more people doing what they have long done: dissecting princess culture through the lens of race.
“For many Black girls, princesses are not the typical or most important role model. It just isn’t how we see ourselves,” said Seanna Leath, assistant professor of psychology at University of Virginia. The very White, very European, monarch fantasy, as interpreted by popular culture, has historically held less appeal “and space for the ‘magic’ of Black girls.”
“The Markle interview may have been surprising to folks who are not Black, but a lot of the conversations that I’ve seen within Black communities is that the monarchy’s racism was not surprising.”
The enduring, and evolving, princess
Princess culture is fueled by the almost subconscious and completely natural desire for parents and children to believe their children are special.
“‘Princess’ becomes a shorthand for expressing that our girls are precious, a wish to protect them from pain. We don’t want them to know sorrow. We want them to live happily ever after,” Orenstein said.
The good news is that our ideas of “special” when it comes to princess types have evolved. Recent movies like “Moana” and “Frozen” feature protagonists for whom romantic love is not the main obstacle; their happy endings are, respectively, about heroism and sisterly love. The character Moana even has proportions that are physically possible for a human woman. This is a huge win.
“Parents have been becoming increasingly critical of princess cultures for a while now. I don’t think princess play is quite the indomitable force that it was,” said Rebecca Hains, professor of media and communication at Salem State University in Massachusetts and author of “The Princess Problem.” The lock pink tulle has had on the imagination of the American girl is on the wane.
Also, there has been some backlash to the anti-princess backlash, as we’ve begun to reckon with some of the internalized sexism in feminism, particularly how it trickles down to kids. Princesses like clothes, are invested in relationships and value empathy. Me too. Facebook prompts for this article yielded a number of comments in which moms defended princess play — for their sons. And why shouldn’t our boys enjoy a little glamor and, perhaps, romance?
Few of us have the desire, let alone the will, to tell our children: “No more princesses.” We don’t have to.
“From a parent’s perspective, if kids love the fun and fantasy of princess play that is great, but it is a parent’s role to diversify their interests,” Hains said. “Make sure to give them other toys and other movies.”
Parents should also remember that “kids are never too young to talk about racism and sexism,” Hains added, suggesting that parents appeal to their kids’ innate sense of fairness. If you tell your kids that some people think other people are not as good because of their gender and race, they can understand that.
Also, when appropriate, it can be OK to explain to kids that not all real-life princesses are happy, and talk about why, Hains said. While suicide is too heavy for young princess fans, sadness is a relatable and appropriate topic of discussion.
Direct, open-minded conversations with kids can help parents suss out what kind of narratives are fueling this play for them. Is it about beauty? Being rescued by a man? Or something else?
“Ask your kids why they want to be a princess. What do princesses do? Why do you like them?” Leath advised.
“There is nothing inherently negative about wanting to be princess, but if it is tied to them feeling that they should be something other than who they are, then that is a problem,” she said. “If I am having a conversation with my daughter, and she said she only wants to look like Elsa (from “Frozen”) and she wants to be blond, it’s time to talk.”
Diversifying role models matters; girls of all races and backgrounds should be exposed to brilliant women of other races and backgrounds. Also, when it comes to parents of color and other minorities, their girls should be exposed to role models who look like them. Adults should have active conversations with kids on the accomplishments — and challenges — of women like Vice President Kamala Harris, inaugural poet Amanda Gorman and activist Malala Yousafzai, to name just a few. This isn’t likely to happen through osmosis, as popular culture still skews white.
Why these conversations matter
Seemingly small conversations about princesses can make a big difference at home and, ultimately, the world at large, said Nerissa Holder Hall, a Black mom of twins, and founder of Mirror Mirror Books, which publishes books aimed at helping kids process difficult moments.
“Parents should bring awareness and intentionality to the ways they are preparing their children to enter the world,” she said. For her, this will include helping her children see Meghan’s courage and sense of justice, which she admires.
“It starts with self-awareness. What is your place in society? What are your responsibilities given who you are and what space you occupy?”
Tiaras can symbolize joy, as they do for Holder Hall’s daughter. Tiaras can symbolize oppression, as they did for Meghan and many other princesses, real and imagined. Conversation is what will help our kids understand the difference in their lives, and the world around them.
Elissa Strauss is a regular contributor to CNN, where she writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.