Princess complex: How fairy tales poison our daughters

Beware! The pretty princess at the centre of your beloved fairy tale might be hazardous to your daughter's mental health, well-being and self-esteem.

Kamala Thiagarajan July 12, 2012 15:34:36 IST
Princess complex: How fairy tales poison our daughters

by Kamala Thiagarajan

When my daughter was six years old, I dozed off in the middle of Snow White. A little finger poked me in the side. Dangling a red apple over my head, a sing-song voice asked sweetly, 'Mommy could you poison this for me?'

I guarantee that nothing could wake a sleeping mother faster than her daughter's request to poison her fruit. My eyes flew open and I just stared at her open-mouthed.

"I'm Snow White mommy. I have to eat the poisoned apple," she explained in a matter-of-fact tone.

Thanks to these timeless tales, we have to explain to our toddler why she can't eat poison or actually kiss that garden toad; how terribly unwise it is to stick your foot into a glass slipper, or try to engage in conversation of any kind with a mirror. If you're mothering a princess, it's wise to be prepared for the long hours spent preening in front of every reflective surface. In my home, a braided hair piece -- long as a python and blindingly blond -- has taken over my chest-of-drawers.

Princess complex How fairy tales poison our daughters

Fairy tales merely fetter children with unhealthy notions about beauty. Representative image. Reuters.

But these are small burdens compared the other more unhappy effects of our daughters' addictive Princess mania.

This realisation hit home when I hosted a Princess Party when she turned eight. This is a famed milestone in a parent's life – finding yourself knee-deep in glittering gowns, sparkling tiaras, and jeweled wands. After an hour or so of handing out pink paper napkins placed under crown-embossed pink cups filled to the brim with pink lemonade, and served with a platter of pink cup cakes, I stepped out for a breather. It was then that I spotted Alisha* (name changed) looking very forlorn and alone.

My daughter and Alisha have been friends since first standard and over the years, I've known her to be a bright, spirited child. When I asked what was wrong, she said in a small, deeply embarrassed voice, "Nobody likes a fat princess. I think I'll just stay here."

I'll never forget the stricken look in her eyes.

In an era obsessed with physical beauty, the princess stories (beamed into every living room by Disney) – along with advertisements, magazines and movies – help drive home the same, stereotypical notion of femininity: flowing locks of long lustrous hair (usually blond), tiny waist , pert straight nose and generous bust. Is it any wonder that young girls grow up into women obsessed with fairness creams and plastic surgery?

We are bringing up a generation of painfully self-conscious young women who are unable to see beauty in themselves. And at a time when women are moving ahead by leaps and bounds, we are in greater danger than ever of raising a young girl whose sole ambition is to marry that rich, handsome prince – which may be the most potentially harmful and fanciful notion of them all.

Of course, it's easy enough to wring our hands, and nearly impossible to insulate a child from the lopsided values of the world around her. But there are great books out there that can help, either as an alternative or addition to their princess diet.

My household swears by the 'Berenstain Bears' series co-authored by the late husband and wife team, Stan and Jan Berenstan. Every illustrated book features Mother Bear who is very smart and sensible; a warm, but sometimes boastful, Father Bear; and Brother and Sister who learn larger lessons from their small mistakes. The books deals with modern-day childhood problems (such as eating junk food, watching too much television, throwing tantrums, fighting with siblings, telling lies), all of which are solved with plenty of love and togetherness. And the Bear family bond emerges stronger and happier at the end of each simple story.

As your daughter grows, between the ages of 7-11, Beverly Cleary's Ramona stories offer a wonderful literary companion. Ramona is a lovable young girl (certainly not a princess) with a normal family who lands herself in one blundering scrap after another, both at home and in school. Ramona's comic escapades all come with a moral, but dressed up in layers of exciting action and incredible humor.

Our very own Bruno series ('Things to Learn with Bruno' published by New Delhi-based Sterling Publishers) chart the delightful escapades of the cute little dog, Bruno and his family. Any of the Little Golden Books (with their pretty gold spines) would make an excellent choice. (Just steer clear of the illustrated fairy tales also in this series. From 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit' by Beatrix Potter, 'Grover's Guide to Good Manners', and 'Frosty the Snowman', each of these beautiful stories come with stunning illustrations that help it leap to life.

As for those princess tales, they are indeed fun. They open up a whole new world full of beauty, magic and excitement – and that's why little girls all over the world can't resist their allure. But they also reinforce a message – that beauty is literally skin deep – most young girls should never hear when they're just beginning to discover who they are, and who they want to be. So let us savor stories of plucky young girls like Ramona, and leave those glass slippers out to dry!

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