My dear, darling daughter,
I owe you an explanation.
You’re really into princesses right now. Crowns, flouncy dresses and anything that sparkles or glitters. I used to pride myself on the relative gender-neutrality of your toy collection, but now, there’s no mistaking that a princess obsession has taken over our household, much to my dismay.
The thing is, I grew up with these stories. So I get it. I do. I loved them.
I knew (and still know) most of the words to the movies and feel nostalgic whenever I hear their soundtracks. But reading them to you was the first time I found myself asking, in horror, “Wait a second, what are these stories teaching little kids? How did I never see this?”
And so, dear daughter, instead of banning you from ever reading these stories again (à la King Triton), if we’re going to do this princess thing, I need to get a few things off my chest first.
1. You don’t have to change who you are to be loved.
Ariel traded in her mermaid tail for a pair of legs at the expense of her ability to properly communicate, in addition to her entire family and community. I mean, I know she loved Prince Eric, but I’d like to think that if it was love—real, honest-to-goodness love—surely Eric still would’ve loved her back, without her having to give up so very much of herself.
When you love someone, and indeed when someone loves you, that love needs to include what differentiates you, what makes you unique. I actually think that it’s through those differences, those challenges to our own characters or opinions, that we grow— individually and as a couple.
Take Princess Anna in Frozen, for example. She and Kristoff were polar opposites, in many ways. They came from different walks of life. They kinda irritated each other at the start, too, (and, spoiler alert—they’ll continue to irritate each other as their relationship blossoms) but she was the truest version of herself with him. He accepted and loved her as she was—I daresay because she was true to her authentic self.
2. On that note, ‘happily ever after’ is not really an ending.
Many of these stories end with a nice, neat “and they lived happily ever after” bow, like it’s all done and dusted. Again, spoiler alert: when you find your partner in life, and decide to commit to one another—honey, that is just the beginning.
Part of the beauty of falling in love is that actually, you get to fall in love with several versions of that person. We all grow and evolve over time. Our characters, beliefs and worldviews aren’t meant to be static. So we can’t expect the person we love to always remain who they were when our love first began.
It’s not always easy. They’re not always adorable. Some versions are harder to love than others. (Ask your father and he’ll gladly testify.) But through that evolution, together, you will find new and sometimes unexpected reasons to keep falling in love with each other. Those less than “happy” times are often the ones that bring you closer to each other, funnily enough.
3. If you keep on believing, your dreams—well, they might come true.
Look, this made for a great song in Cinderella. It sounds lovely. Just believe—and boom(!)—your dreams will come true. Okay. Yes. Believing in yourself and your aspirations is absolutely crucial.
But you also need to be proactive, take risks and make things happen.
You have to work really, really hard. Sometimes you have to fail once, twice, or 4,293 times until you get there. Sometimes, you have to change course completely because what you thought was your dream is actually a stepping stone that leads you elsewhere.
4. Have the courage to stand up for yourself because you are worthy of respect.
Belle and Cinderella are great examples of kindness, grace, compassion and selflessness—especially when faced with disrespect and cruelty from others.
But—I’m sorry—you need to demand more.
Yes, be kind. Yes, be compassionate. If someone treats you unkindly, while sometimes it’s okay to forgive them and move on, do not accept this as a pattern in any of your relationships—even, or maybe especially—if it is someone you love.
Don’t make excuses for their behavior. Call it when you see it. You have to dig deep, find that courage, and stand up for yourself.
In Brave, Merida showed courage in standing up to her mother about not wanting to get married. She decided that the best course of action was to turn her mother into a ravenous bear, so I hope we can avoid that route, because I promise to listen to you when what you want is different from what I want for you, no matter how hard that might be sometimes. Respect is a two-way street, and you deserve it from everyone, including me.
5. Golden hair, dainty feet, or “skin white as snow” is not what makes you beautiful.
When I was growing up, there wasn’t much variety in terms of how princesses looked. Jasmine, Mulan, or Pocahontas were as close as it got, and even then, they were essentially very slightly modified clones of every other Disney princess. In the more traditional stories, one of the princesses’ primary accomplishments is that she is “beautiful.” Kind, but also “beautiful.”
While I’m glad that nowadays you get to see some different representations of physical beauty in the newer Disney heroines, l want you to know that there’s one overarching thing that eclipses their skin color, hair, or body type.
Moana’s real beauty comes from things like her courage and determination. Princess Tiana’s beauty comes from her confidence and perseverance. Princess Elsa’s beauty comes from her loyalty and (eventual) wholehearted acceptance of who she really is.
Being physically beautiful means different things to different people, but the beauty of character, the more important, valuable and timeless beauty, is universal.
6. No one is inherently a “bad guy.”
Gaston, Cinderella’s stepmother, Mother Gothel, Maleficent, Jafar, Prince Hans—every story has a villain, right? The bad guy. But in the same way that I never tell you that you’re “bad” or “naughty,” these characters are not inherently bad or naughty, either.
We are all capable of making bad choices. We can all succumb to our lower nature and fail to rise up and better ourselves. And that applies to absolutely everyone.
No one is, by default, a “bad guy” or a “good guy.” It just doesn’t work that way. I know that these characters behaved in some reprehensible ways, but in real life, it’s just not that cut and dry. People change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Each person has their own journey and no one is entitled to judge another.
My sweet, dear daughter. I know this is a lot.
In fact, I could probably keep going, because there is just so much to say. I know that I’ve done some serious overthinking here, and it might be a while until we can have a thorough conversation about all of these things. But it’s my job to show you, as well as I can, the beauties and challenges of this world.
Fairy tales are all well and good, and I want you to enjoy them. I want to see that glint in your eye as you turn the page to the next part of the story. I love watching you twirl in your dress-up clothes.
But when you ask me questions about these stories and why the characters behaved as they did, I’m going to answer you with a dose of reality.
Now come over here, snuggle up to me and let’s read another story.