I have been in no hurry to welcome my daughter’s princess phase. I was glad when Sylvia emulated her brother, Theo, in their games and wore a knight helmet or carried a pirate flag with her tutu. I am not opposed to girly things, but the extreme-pink, airbrushed girliness of mainstream princess marketing makes me cringe.
We have avoided princess movies, with the exception of Shrek and Brave—because I deem ogres and archery prodigies just enough outside the norm to be good role models?
What is up with my princess prejudice? We attend Renaissance Faires, for goodness’ sake! I made Theo a cardboard suit of armor last year and encourage chivalry in general. Also, given the opportunity, I would totally don a good princess costume. I’m all for glitter nail polish—who isn’t? I just like it best when there’s dirt under the fingernails from playing outside.
My hangups are entirely irrelevant, however. Apparently, a princess is crowned promptly on her third birthday, even if her mother has carefully culled the size 0 to 3T Disney princess t-shirts from the hand-me-down boxes and hidden them.
When Sylvia said she wanted a princess on her birthday cake, I balked. “I thought you wanted a duck,” I said.
My hesitation was fueled partly by princess resistance and partly by my reluctance for my youngest child to officially ditch her babyhood. Three years old feels official; and kids who are 6 and 3 feel much older than kids who are 5 and 2. I’m a little sad. But also, aren’t there several developmental stages between a duck and a princess?
“A princess and a unicorn,” Sylvia said. We compromised: Her cake featured a princess sitting on a duck sitting on a unicorn. The cake was the last compromise.
For Sylvia’s third birthday, my parents gave her a truly wonderful princess outfit, replete with silvery ballet slippers sporting plastic jewels and downy feathers and a pointed pink hat with a chiffon streamer. The dress approximates the blue ball gown of Disney’s Cinderella, although Sylvia doesn’t know that (yet).
The first time she wore it—as soon as she unwrapped it—a double rainbow appeared in the sky above her My Little Pony mylar birthday balloon. She has worn the princess dress for at least part of every single day since then. That’s more than 20 days in a row. I occasionally wash it in the dead of night.
Really, it is very cute. Adorable, even. And charming. She twirls and moves her arms balletically. She rotates through crowns and hats, sometimes adds fairy wings, and often carries a magic wand—along with some Post-it notes, rocks and a couple of baby dolls, one of whom she recently named Hot Sauce.
When she runs, she bunches her princess skirts up to her armpits and sprints hard. Grass and mud stains soil a good two inches of her splendid hem. She spills yogurt, juice, milk and chicken grease down her front. Her princess hat’s chinstrap has snapped, and her soft-soled slippers are worn almost completely through from running on rocks and pavement. She may be a princess, but she’s hardly prissy.
Right before her birthday, we spent three days on the San Juan River. Sylvia, along with Theo and their cousins, spent the vast majority of the time mostly naked and covered with mud. She tried floating on her back with her feet facing downstream—“drown-proofing.” She peed in the river and pooped in the groover, earning her river-rat cred. She climbed rocks and fell down, and she played for hours in the squelchy silt of the riverbank.
Prim propriety, priggish prettiness, pale-pink pusillanimity—all that timid, precious, princess alliteration: That’s what bothers me. That and the rescue narratives of which these traits are part: I don’t want Sylvia to idolize princesses that are always needing, waiting for or seeking fulfillment in being rescued by someone else.
Whether I’m thinking about Sylvia or Theo, I’m aiming for a grounded self-empowerment. Also, purely from a fantasy-game standpoint, the stereotypical princess character type is very limiting: It is boring to wait around to be rescued while everyone else gets to run around on a quest.
I need not worry. Sylvia likely won’t wait around anywhere for anyone. “I am a warrior princess and I am scary!” she declares in a voice that is scary indeed. Or, “I am a princess, and I will cut you down!” The truth is, it is kind of scary for your two-year-old to snarl out a line like that. And then, of course, I worry I’m encouraging unchecked royal aggression. I can’t win.
Sylvia’s princess leap coincided with a nasty virus. She had a fever for several days followed by a chest-socked cold. This meant she was super cuddly, limp and sweet for a while, during which we catered to her every need with ibuprofen and electrolyte popsicles. Then, she morphed into a whiny and demanding tyrant whose imperious edicts were punctuated by hacking coughs. The coughing elicited some sympathy early on, but preschooler imperialism gets old quick. It is no less intolerable clad in a princess costume.
Whether courtesy and refinement is seeping through her princess polyester is anyone’s guess (my guess is no), but Sylvia is beginning to use the word “please” at least a little more often. That’s the case this week, anyway. We’ll keep working on mitigating the high-handed demands, and, doubtless, this will continue for a good long while.
In the meantime, Sylvia’s play is pretty fun. At the moment, she’s deemed our garage/laundry/storage room her fairy princess house, which is fine as long as I keep the engine oil and spray paint out of her reach.
“Mama, you have to play with me in here because you are my fairy tale,” she called to me the other day.
“No,” I wanted to respond, “actually, you are my fairy tale.” Sylvia is blowing apart my preconceived notions of what it means to play princess. When I played warrior/questing princess as a child, I mostly veered toward medieval costuming like capes and pillow-case tunics. I was not aware, until very recently, that Cinderella dresses were open to such free interpretation.
“You need a skirt,” she told me yesterday. Clad in shorts, I was not up to princess par. So I put on a skirt, but it was short and A-line—and the trend-defying versatility of an A-line miniskirt was lost on Sylvia. “No,” she said. “You need a long spinny skirt! Or you can’t dance!”
I was rather ashamed I didn’t have one. I made a mental note to procure this essential item as soon as I could. Every girl should have a terrific spinny skirt on hand. They feel transformative, almost like a pair of fairy wings.
If you’re a princess like Sylvia, you wear whatever you want to. You make it adventure-worthy merely by wearing it on adventures. You command your own narrative. You run down the sidewalk yelling, “Princess Hot Sauce! To the rescue!” You save your mother from her narrow, preconceived notions of what it means to be a preschool princess, or any kind of princess at all.
In the unventilated heat of our garage/laundry/storage room-cum-fairy-princess house, Sylvia leans into me, eye to eye. “Princess,” she says earnestly, breathlessly—her face so close to mine I can’t focus, her princess dress a silver-blue blur.
“Princess,” she says again, resting one hand on her chest and another on my shoulder. “I, I will rescue you.” What I should say in response is simply, “Yes, you will. Thank you.”