Helen Chappell: April 2006
She was no more than five, tripping through the aisles of the grocery store with the dignity of a woman thrice her age. Her dark curls were swept up beneath a tiara, and she daintily held up the long skirts of her tulle and polyester satin gown. She grinned at me, then touched me with her wand. “Hi, Helen!” she exclaimed.
“That’s some dress,” I remarked.
“I’m a princess,” my friend said, utterly serious.
“Of course you are,” I agreed.
Her mother, pushing a cart containing a week’s worth of groceries and the princess’s baby brother, rolled her eyes. “I can’t get her out of that dress. For the past week, she’s worn it every waking moment. And she’d wear it to bed, if I let her. I wouldn’t mind, but it’s just so tacky looking.”
The Princess waved her wand at a startled elderly gentleman. “I can do magic,” she informed him.
“Can you lower the price of these tangerines?” he asked.
The princess tapped the fruit. “Done!”
“She’s a lot better at this princess stuff than I was at her age,” I told her mother, the de facto Queen.
“I’m hoping it will pass soon. That dress is starting to get really filthy, and she won’t let me wash it,” the queen said as she pushed the binkie back into the mouth of the prince, just before he could let out a piercing wail. I held out my finger and the baby’s fingers curled around it. I told the prince he was the cutest thing ever and I could eat him with a spoon, which was met with indifference.
“I remember when you were little, and you had a princess dress,” I reminded the queen. This made me feel ancient. Were there any jobs open for Tired Old Dowager Queens in modern fairy tales?
My friend suddenly smiled, even as she was prying the princess’s fingers from a box of raspberries. “I’d forgotten all about that! I’d gotten that long pink nightgown for Christmas, and I thought it looked just like one of those ladies from the Middle Ages. I thought I was a princess. I wore it until it was a rag.”
We laughed. “Your mother and I were so worried that you were going to be all girly and wait for the prince to come along and rescue you. We thought that was a bad message for little girls.”
She frowned. “I don’t recall anything about a prince. I suppose there was supposed to be a prince out there somewhere, but he was an accessory, like Barbie’s Malibu Dream House or My Little Pony. Maybe he was played by Ken. I always had kind of a crush on Hercules, but he’s not really a prince. He’s more of a handy guy. A backup. I don’t recall a prince being a major player. They were my adventures and I was always getting myself in and out of trouble.”
We both smiled down at the present-day princess, who was happily trying to turn a hand of bananas into a Dream Mobile.
My own personal princess dress, those many years ago, was sea blue, a sort of ballerina affair with a sleeveless top and a skirt made of layers and layers of tulle. My aunt found it at one of the many rummage sales she managed for her various charities. I thought I was hot, bouncing around in this gown, tastefully accessorized with some old lace curtains I found in the basement.
There were tears several days in a row when I couldn’t wear that dress to kindergarten. I’ve never had a dress since that made me feel that magical. When it was finally worn to shreds so ragged even I had to admit it was time for it to be trashed, I’d had lots of imaginary adventures in that schmata. I’d killed dragons, mastered magic and run an entire country all on my own, which, of course, prepared me for real life as a White Anglo Saxon Protestant Princess.
In the ‘70s, princessing was getting a bad name. By the time I was in college, the White Anglo Saxon Protestant princess (WASP), the Jewish American Princess (JAP), the Black American Princess (BAP) were all derogatory names for a certain kind of high-maintenance, materialistic female whose main ambition in life was to beautify herself with as much material goods as Daddy’s credit card could handle, until Daddy handed her off to the Prince, who was expected to pick up where the King left off. Think Paris Hilton and you have the idea.
Princesses should not be confused with Queens, such as Miss Volunteer Fire Company, Miss Fire Prevention, the Delmarva Poultry Princess, etc. That’s a whole other species of royalty. And while it involves wearing a tiara, and a prom dress and sitting on the deck of a convertible in fireman’s parades, being a beauty queen doth not a princess make. Of course, a princess can, and often does, become Miss Something or Other, but Miss Something of Other does not have to be a princess. Get it?
In my princess days, the expectation was that eventually there would be a prince at the end of the story – Sir Right, who would support the princess. But he was pretty fuzzy when we were little kids, and the focus was on our royal adventures. Princessing got a bad name in the ‘70s when women were waking up and realizing they had other options than keeping the castle clean for the prince.
Royal princesses didn’t seem to fare so well in the real world either. Look at poor Princess Di. All you have to say is Princess Stephanie of Monaco and everyone knows what you’re talking about. Eurotrash with ancestors.
Long ago, Disney created the Princess franchise. Uncle Walt’s Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty pretty much stuck to the traditional idea that a princess has to wait for some guy to come along and rescue her miserable self. Even post-feminist icons like Jasmine, Belle, Ariel, Pocahontas and Mulan seemed to be connected to a man, somehow. Lilo is connected to an alien, but that’s a whole other story.
These days, I’m seeing more princesses out there getting it done on their own, not waiting for some guy to wander in at the last minute and slay the dragon or kill the monster. Little girls may want their rooms done up in pink and Disney royalty cartoons, but now, they see themselves as the rescuers, as the heroines of their own stories, the rulers of their own countries. They’re likely to duel the baddies with their own swords as stand in the corner gaping at the mayhem. Today’s princess is getting it done on her own.
And today’s princess is, of course, tomorrow’s queen.
Watch out, world!