On Calling Little Girls Princess

Can this gendered term of endearment be reclaimed as empowering?

Toy tiaras, a plastic cupcake, and other party favors on a glossy white surface.

By Joanna Eng • November 14, 2018

 

In the grocery store checkout line, my baby bounced in the cart, wearing a hoodie that happened to be pink. An employee came over with a dramatic gasp and a loud “Hi, princess!” and handed us a strip of fuzzy stickers. I was too taken aback by her use of that word on my pre-walking, pre-talking infant to thank her properly for the gift.

Princess has become a common term of endearment for young girls, but it’s a loaded one.

Princess has become a common term of endearment for young girls, but it’s a loaded one. On the popular parenting site Scary Mommy, Kristen Mae writes, “It has become a demonized term, for some evoking images of overindulgence, foot-stomping, and tantrums, while for others, it brings to mind images of passivity, obedience, and propriety. Whatever it means to the individual, the term ‘princess’ is, apparently, the antithesis of feminism.” (She goes on to say that she uses the nickname anyway for her daughter: “We’re not enforcing patriarchal ideals or any other dark, malicious thing others attribute to the princess trend. We’re playing.”)

Elizabeth Broadbent, a blogger on YourTango, is one of those passionately anti-Princess-as-a-nickname parents. She expounds on the many reasons why:

Princesses are passive ornaments. They’re dressed up in pretty clothes and paraded around at various functions. . . . Is this really what you want for your daughter?

In addition to opening charity hospitals, princesses have one function: breeding. . . . They’d be expected to produce heirs, spares, and possibly as many children as possible.

Princesses weren’t given a choice in their selection of husbands. This is no “someday, my prince will come.” Princesses are passive, dependent on the men around them to make decisions, and used sexually in ways they don’t choose.

Disney movies have been moving away from the problematic representation of princesses that feminists have long criticized.

For other parents who insist on their daughter not being called princess, it’s more about the spoiled, girl-who-gets-everything-she-wants connotation of the word. Brian Andersen writes in the Advocate:

When my daughter was born I implemented a strict “no princess policy.” That is to say, I made it clear that growing up she would at no time be called a “princess”—either as a nickname or as a term of endearment. . . .

Cosplaying as a princess has been fine, but coddling her as one is a no-no.

In the back of my mind, I too thought it was my feminist duty not to refer to my daughter as a princess, but I also have little interest in frilly dresses, royal weddings, Disney movies, or buying lots of stuff (pink or otherwise) so would be unlikely to push these interests on her.

But speaking of the princess figures that are marketed to young girls in pop culture, they are changing. Disney movies have been moving away from the problematic representation of princesses that feminists have long criticized. Disney “princesses,” the female protagonists, are becoming more outspoken and more culturally diverse while also becoming less defined by their physical beauty and less dependent on male characters to save them. In Jeff Guo’s analysis for The Washington Post:

The classic Disney princess films were focused on looks. More than half of the compliments that women received—55 percent—had to do with their appearance. Only 11 percent had to do with their skills or accomplishments. . . .

In the latest batch of films—“The Princess and the Frog,” “Tangled,” “Brave,” and “Frozen”—the pattern is finally reversed. For the first time, women are more likely to be praised for their skills or achievements than for their looks.

Some people are choosing to reclaim the term princess as a positive.

As the princess stories of pop culture evolve, and we have real-life princess stories to follow—like the biracial, feminist Meghan Markle’s entry into the British royal family—some people are choosing to reclaim the term princess as a positive.

In an opinion piece for The New York Times, “How a Black Feminist Became a Fan of Princesses,” Maya Rupert brings an important perspective to the princess debate:

While white women have long denounced stereotypes that reduced them to their physical appearance, black beauty has historically not been acknowledged nor celebrated in the same way in mainstream American society. White women have been cast as weak and helpless, while black women are depicted as possessing a preternatural strength and animalistic physical prowess.

Because white womanhood has culturally been treated as the standard, white women are most at risk for being involuntarily defined as princesses, and denied their autonomy and strength.

That is, no doubt, infuriating. But I realized something: It hadn’t happened to me. I didn’t grow up feeling locked into the princess role, but rather locked out. And as I realized that, my anti-princess feminism began to give way to something more nuanced.

Rupert goes on to say that she now unabashedly celebrates Black girls and women in princess roles as “inspiring.”

Let’s face it: Boys don’t get called prince all that often, especially not by strangers.

In a similar vein, Andersen, the Advocate-writer dad who previously refused to let anyone use princess on his daughter, changed his mind after seeing the 2017 film Wonder Woman.

I’m happy to call her a princess now because she and I finally have a representation to look up to of what it means to be a true princess. If my daughter can one day become even a tenth of what is embodied by Princess Diana of Themyscira [Wonder Woman], then she’ll be the amazingly confident, kind, and powerful person I already know her to be.

There are plenty of opportunities to rationalize the use of princess, for those who are interested in doing so. But perhaps the main reason I’m still uncomfortable with princess as a term of endearment for girls isn’t about what princesses represent (it’s more varied these days, after all) but about how aggressively gendered the term is. If my daughter had been wearing a navy blue hoodie that day in the grocery store, what would the employee have called her? Let’s face it: Boys don’t get called prince all that often, especially not by strangers.

From the perspective of the name-caller, princess is supposed to indicate that the child is special or precious—but for no reason other than appearing to be a girl. If sex or gender is the main qualification for being called something, can it be interpreted as a genuine compliment, or is it inherently sexist?

What about the term queen for adult women? When used as a term of admiration, especially for Black women, it was always my impression that queen was primarily seen as empowering.

What it comes down to is the question of why people, particularly women and girls, need to be royalized to be respected.

It turns out that not everyone appreciates this gendered nickname either. Ira Hobbs of Blavity picked up on a recent debate about the practice of calling Black women queen: “Is it a term that’s meant to empower, show respect to, and uplift Black women? Or is it a box, controlling the perception of how a woman should or should not behave, holding her to a set of traits and responsibilities that Black men feel are worthy of receiving that title.”

What it comes down to is the question of why people, particularly women and girls, need to be royalized to be respected. As Obaa Boni of Ghaminism puts it:

Oftentimes “Queen” is a way in which sexist men divide women into two categories: one category affords women respect, while the other category dehumanizes and denies women respect. . . .

I personally, in all my pro-equality awesomeness, am not flattered because men designate me as a Queen, or Empress or some sort of exploitative figurehead. This “compliment” also rings hollow, as women have not even been granted equal access to contemporary political systems of power.

Of course, princess is still just another silly nickname to some. I’m not going to stop calling my daughter love bug or honey even though she is neither a tiny insect nor always expected to be sugary sweet. But I will definitely take care not to call my child or other children by terms that are primarily based on stereotypes about their sex or gender. If people insist on calling my child princess when she is old enough to understand what it means, there’s always that modern parenting solution to everything: I’ll have a discussion with her about what she thinks a princess is and whether she wants to be called one.

Joanna is wearing a cobalt-blue knit top and smiling into the camera, with thin trees in the background.Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor and a 2017 Lambda Literary Fellow. She studied anthropology at Cornell University and is excited to finally be using her major for something. Joanna lives in the New York City area with her wife and child.

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