Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Princess Litmus Test

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.


  1. I think that, quite sadly, this is these parts -- the morale-bearing chunks -- removed from the modern versions which were the keystone of these fairy tales.

    Simplistically put, from you examples:
    - Hansel & Gretel: don't be too gourmand;
    - Cinderella: be sure to treat people fairly and with respect as, if the situation were inverted (which may possibly happen), you'll be rather surprised that these people then treat you with the same lack of consideration (if not more) that you displayed in the past;
    - Little Mermaid: of course you can desire things, and eventually have them, but there may be a price; is it worth the gain?

    If you come to think about it, in the olden days, fairy tales were just the little children's religions. They served to convey the outcome of their ancestors' experiences; giving kiddies reasons (if not articulate justifications) to do what was “good” for them by scaring the heck out of them away from what wasn't. I suppose it is quite easy to identify oneself, as a kid, to a gentle princess, a beautiful mermaid or an adventurous child, and take the lessons these characters learnt as one's own (“Remember what happened to Hansel? Now eat your veggies.”).

    So I would say that the real issue is not what the fairy tales were teaching kids (even though I'm not sure scaring people is the best way to make them understand by themselves; quite the opposite, really), but how meaningful nowadays' versions are. Edulcorated tales offered by Disney et al. do not cary that much of an insightful morale anymore and, indeed, just leave gullible peop^W^Wchildren into thinking life can go as seamlessly as that of their new role-model characters.

    Previously used as means to show children how to behave, these fairy tales have, as other similar pieces of lore, lost their topicality and most of their meaning when adapted to mass-consumption (and money-making) entertainment. They are still nice stories -- actually even nicer, now that the sadish morale has been edited out -- but one should make sure that children don't take them too literally, or run the risk to see more princes(ses) unable to function on a day-to-day basis as they got no teaching out of their modern-days fairy tales.

    And princesses have bad days too, particularly if they hide their veggies under their mattress instead of listening to their parents and eating them.

  2. Nicely put, olivier. You must be a Clever Bastard.

  3. I am so over people disecting what is essentially harmless fun. Little girls love princesses, kids believe in Santa and the tooth fairy, etc, they all eventually learn that's it's not real. But for those few brief years, it's magical for them. Leave them alone !

  4. Hear hear, anonymous. I'm all for Santa and the tooth fairy, and for fairy-tales too. I just really, really can't stand The Princess and the Pea.

  5. I think that fairy tales should be burned! How dare we fill our children's minds with such hoo-ha! These poor children will grow up with some superiority complex and start kissing frogs or some shit!

  6. I think clever bitch makes a good point Anonymous - Santa and the Tooth Fairy are harmless, as are some princess stories, but teaching little girls that you can get the best in life by being over-sensitive and a massive whinger cannot be a good message.

  7. CBFan and CB - what a load of shite you talk. Definately a sign of your own insecurities, anxiety and outright fear. Santa harmless? Yeah i guess there is nothing wrong with pushing religious values (without actually pushing religious values) on the youngens. Nothing like teaching impressionable minds that acting good, even if you don't intend it, will reap rewards.

  8. Santa Claus, harmless? I guess if you call commercializing a sacred Holiday or instilling a guilt complex in the children of parents living in poverty who can't afford to buy the latest toys and gadgets to demonstrate how good their children might have been HARMLESS!

    Being a proponent of FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION, however, I won't go so far as to advocate creating some governmental entity as censor and then banning such "harmless" myths as Santa Claus or Fairy Tales.

    Proving such myths to be so much hogwash and creating better ways to instill valuable moral guidance and common sense into young minds seems to me something that the best parents eventually learn to do themselves without relying upon others to do their parenting for them.

    It's also advisable to teach children that certain elements in the world who have placed themselves via excessive wealth and privilege into undeserved positions of being de-facto royalty lording their affluence over the rest of us are out there constantly working to exploit "commoners" as much as they possibly can, and that neither living one's life as a ruthless bastard nor a meek and submissive sucker will get them anywhere worth the price of getting there.

    I read recently that "Capitalism unrestrained leads inevitably to the tyranny of Trusts as a ruthless, unscrupulous Elite work constantly to satisfy their insatiable greed at others' expense ... but Socialism leads to murderous tyranny as the same ruthless Elite dupe the masses into "sharing equally" the pittance permitted to them as "public" property by the same greedy bastards at the top who use murderous force to rule over those duped masses."

    Common sense, good morals, individual initiative, and inalienable Freedoms tempered by the responsibilities inherent in an ABSOLUTE code of Ethics seem to be the best way for societies to become self-managing. Universal availability of weapons, be they guns, knives, baseball bats, attack dogs, or even military-style hardware (and strict ABSOLUTE rules for their use in self-defense and stiff penalties up to and including DEATH for their misuse for criminal purposes) would ensure that few would be those who dared attempt to rob, rape, or murder anyone ... given the high probability that the would-be "victim" was quite capable of wielding deadly force in self-defense.

    Have I made it TOO obvious that I'm an American???

  9. I was just thinking of this "princess" distraction the other day. And Im glad to see someone else has as well.
    Perhaps in their original forms, the fairly tales are nice stories that teach a lesson. But I have noticed that women, young and old, really do seem to expect to be treated like, princesses. For example, my sister was yelling at her husnabd saying " you promised me that when I married you, you would treat me like a queen!". And a friend of mine says my boyfriend isnt good enough for me because shes treated like a princess by her boyfriend, and Im not treated that way by mine.
    So, it seems that now with the stories being glamourized, girls are growing up expecting to be treated like royalty. And it really creates a problem for the men, as boyfriends, and as husbands. Because, they are not going to treat you like royalty!
    Only royalty deserves to be treated like royalty. And I respect the station of queen, princess, and prince, etc. However, men are not princes, and girls are not princesses. And I think its unhealthy to teach girls that they are princesses and dress them up like it, because something inside starts to believe they really ARE special and deserve special treatement.
    So, thats what Ive noticed. And I like how you showed those girls REAL royalty. Because they should see that even REALY princesses and queens dont live the lives they think they do. And the princes, dont ride white horses and have talking birds on their shoulders either! lol!