I'm by no means the first person to note the problems with what fairy-tales could be teaching kids. Veritably, fairy-tales are rife with infanticide (Hansel and Gretel), incest (Many Furs), cannibalism (Hansel and Gretel again), genetic determinism based on birth order (anything featuring a Seventh-Son or -Daughter) and maleficent or outright murderous step-family (Cinderella, Snow White, etc.). Some of the more unpalatable devices have been omitted from public consumption in recent years; for instance, it's difficult to find a current copy of Cinderella, which depicts the public torture of the evil-stepmother and -stepsisters which featured at the end of original versions. In another act of housekeeping by Disney, Ariel the Little Mermaid traded her voice for legs, whilst Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid endured legs which were paid for in agonising pain - every step she took on them was enchanted to feel that she was walking on upturned knives.
What the modern fairy-tales don't omit, however, is what I consider to be the most dangerous device of all - the notion of innate royalty. And, more frighteningly, how royalty is operationalised to children to, socialised by ideas of tiaras, pretty dresses, castles and white horses, are taught to aspire to it.
The Princess and the Pea instructs young readers that a Princess can easily be identified from a "commoner" through the application of a simple test - a Princess Litmus Test - where she is put to bed on a boiled pea beneath twenty mattresses and twenty feathered-eiderdowns. The take-home points from this engaging story, regarding the properties of a Princess (that is, as repeatedly emphasised, a true Princess), are as follows:
a) She will be beautiful (with tiny hands and feet, flaxen hair, and skin as white as milk, in most translations), mild-mannered, and pliable enough to allow herself to be subjected to bizarre experiments designed to determine her lineage.
b) She will be "delicate" - to the point where she is unable to sleep on a boiled pea, even when this pea is underneath twenty mattresses and twenty eiderdowns.
c) She will suffer from a bizarre skin condition which will cause her to break out in bruises after spending a sleepless night in said pea/mattress/eiderdown arrangement.
d) She will complain heartily of her mental and physical stress from the event, in front of the people who did her a favour by putting her up for the night.
ERGO: This will hook her a royal wedding and "happily ever after", as only a true Princess could exhibit such delicacy and fragility.
Take-home points for little girls (who are taught to idolise Princesses) include:
a) Princesses really are a whole different species to you and me.
b) Princesses are, without question, beautiful (and blonde, and thin, and white).
c) Princesses should not be able to cope with anything.
ERGO: The ultimate aspiration presented to little girls is to be pretty, wear a nice dress, and marry a prince after demonstrating the ultimate in physical inferiority and self-indulgent hysteria over creature comforts.
Recently, when I asked some little girls I was taking care of for the afternoon what they wanted to play. The answer was, of course, "Princesses!", and was the same when I asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. I caught myself, for one moment, trying to explain to a five-year old in a pink tulle dress-up skirt that Princesses are just like you and me, but with more expensive outfits.
"They're not," I explained,"really any different to other people. You're just the same as them."
The little girl didn't believe me. Why would she, when everyday, imagined princesses are presented to her in their rosy, golden glory, complete with storybook Prince. I suddenly had a sneaky idea. I pulled out a glossy magazine from another room, and flicked through until I found a royal; Princess Beatrice, looking pallid and unattractive at a London event.
The little girls were unanimous in declaring that she didn't look like a Princess at all. Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, playing with her children in a parka on a beach, was judged the same way. In fact, the only person that the little girls agreed did look like a Princess was Hilary Duff, in a pink dress on a red carpet.
Even real Princesses were failing the Litmus Test.
In the end, I don't think I managed to rid those little girls of their illusions about royalty. In their hearts, they know quite well that Princesses are beautiful, pink-clad, and better than real people. Instead, I think that the only take-home point I provided to the little girls that day was that they wanted to be Hilary Duff. OK by me, so long as it doesn't imply skin trauma from sleeping on a boiled legume.