Sometime around Anouk's second birthday it happened. It was triggered by her first viewing of Shrek, maybe, or the tiny set of Weeble-esque Disney heroines given to her by my Aunt Liz. She added a new word to her vocabulary: "pin-theth," said in a little piping voice. She became aware that there are princesses in the world.
I hadn't exactly been hiding this fact from her, in kind of the way I hadn't exactly been hiding the existence of Barbies. There are a few raggedy-haired leftovers from my childhood in her bunch of toys (so solid and thick-waisted compared to the Barbies of today!) and when she unearths them from the jumble, we play with them. But we don't go digging for them. It was the same with the princesses -- I wasn't consciously trying to steer her away from them, I just wasn't pushing the pink, the gilt, the glitz, the crowns.
But now that A. does know about princesses, there is no going back. She uses the word a dozen times a day at least. "This pree-tee pin-theth dress, mama," and I will agree, it is a pretty dress fit for a queen. But then I will root around in the dress-up box for her stethoscope and lay it next to the iridescent ruffled plastic skirt just in case not doing this sends a message that somehow it's better to be ornamental than useful. Just to remind her that there are options.
I played with princesses growing up but as an adult, I'm uncomfortable with the idea of them. I fully realize that they are innocuous characters but I think that's what bothers me about them, along with the fact that people become princesses simply by the virtue of being born to the ruling class. That's not the lesson I want to teach my daughter about the world. I want her to know that people can change their situations by work, and knowledge, and by looking out for one another. I'm not sure how much a two-year-old can conceive of things like class and wealth and power and beauty and how they all hang together but I do know that at one point as a child I owned the doll that said "math is hard" when you pulled a string in its back. And I grew up thinking math was hard. And boring. And when I had to try to do it, I let myself give up much more quickly than I did with other things. I'm not sure how much the doll (and things like her) contributed to this mindset but just in case it did, I want to be careful about things like this.
So whenever Anouk started talking about princess this or that, I found myself shutting off whatever other jabbering was going on in my mind and paying attention to the context. And what I found surprised me. "Princess," she would say, pointing to a drawing of Belle in full regalia on the DVD cover of Beauty and the Beast. "Princess," she would say, looking at a drawing of Anne of Green Gables in her puffed-sleeve dress in an illustrated version of the book I keep by my bed. "Princess" -- when seeing a paper doll in a ballerina leotard, Melissa McCarthy standing in tall shoes on SNL, a portrait of my grandma at age 14 hanging over our dining table.
I started to realize that to my daughter, right now, princess just means "woman." Any woman, all women, of all shapes and sizes and colors. Her understanding doesn't go beyond that. The mailcarrier with beads in her hair, who delivers us packages sometimes, is a princess; the woman with the colorful tattoos who bags our groceries at Trader Joe's is one too. Right now, Anouk's favorite princesses to see in the whole world are Alice in Wonderland, with her frilly white pinafore, and Caillou's mommy, with her soft paunchy stomach. In her mind, every woman is a princess -- simply by virtue of being born.
It's something I hope she'll remember forever.