From the moment I could speak, I knew that “Sarah” means “Princess.” I don’t remember why I initially asked my parents what my name meant, but I grasped onto that fact, something my dad repeatedly reinforced by calling me “princess” throughout my childhood.
I dreamed of ballgowns and jewels and castles and every wonderful thing that princesses throughout literary (and actual) history have been privy to.
And of course, I dreamed about my own Prince Charming.
I watched Ariel fall in love at first sight and then give up her voice so that she could woo a man that she had never spoken to. I watched Belle fall in love with her captor. And I watched Jasmine fall in love with a boy who lied to her about his real identity, but it was ok because he did it all in the interest of love.
Oh, I also had Leia, Adora, and Buttercup; they were fierce but Leia still had Han and Buttercup still had Wesley and in the end they were who they were because of their male companions, not despite them.
As I grew into a teenager, teen movies and morning television shows reenforced the idea that I somehow wouldn’t be complete without a boyfriend. A boy would make the acne and bad hair disappear because he would tell me I was beautiful and worthy of love. My sophomore year of high school I complained to my mom that the boys in my biology class only wanted to be my lab partner for my brain, not any other reason. She tried to comfort me, but now I wish I could go back in time and shake my 15-year-old self into realizing that it wasn’t that big of a deal because none of them were worth my time anyway.
But still I pined for someone to love me the way all the girls in the movies were loved.
That unrealistic expectation that followed me through my childhood and teen years almost ruined me forever when I finally did start dating my eventual husband. He was cute, sweet, and made me laugh. But he didn’t fit the ideal that I had built up in my head. I had a plan and I knew what I was looking for.
Thankfully, I eventually came to my senses.
When our daughter was finally born, I had decisions to make concerning the princess genre. Did I want to encourage our daughter to live in a fantasy world of unrealistically drawn female characters that created expectations of what love was supposed to be like? Or did I want something more? Would more ever become available to me?
We caved to some of the pressure. We allowed her to watch Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast when she was two and three, but they didn’t have the impact that we expected. Her favorite character from Beauty and the Beast wasn’t Belle, it was the Beast. Her favorite character from Aladdin was Aladdin, not Jasmine, and suddenly the whole cast of the movie, including occasionally Jafar, became her imaginary friends. She took these friends everywhere with her: the car, the park, daycare, the store. She often carried them around in a clean, empty sour cream container. The container went everywhere with us because her imaginary friends needed to be with us.
But I wondered if it was possible for a new generation of films to break the cycle of dependence on another human being for her personal happiness.
When it came out, I took our three-year-old daughter to see it and we were both mesmerized. The animated landscapes took me back to my junior year of college traveling through the Scottish countryside to Edinburgh and the Celtic music warmed my soul. But what really captured our imaginations was the love story between a mother and daughter as they learned to understand each other.
Merida didn’t need a prince, no matter the pressure her mother put on the family to host the clans. Merida wanted to pick a husband on her own terms and she was clear that she wasn’t ready. So instead of a story that focused on her finding the man of her dreams we ended with the story of a rift between a mother and daughter and a daughter’s determination to repair that rift and free her mother. The end didn’t show Merida getting married; it showed her climbing a rock face alone.
And she became the first princess our daughter wanted to be like.
My daughter is growing up in a new age of princesses. Tangled introduced a Rapunzel who was determined to find out who she was and where she came from; was initially suspicious of Flynn Rider’s very presence. Frozen, while including two very different love interests for Anna, is really a love story about two sisters. In fact, the second love interest criticizes the first love interest as being ridiculous because Anna decided to marry him almost immediately after meeting him. Moana goes on a quest to save her family and returns without a love interest. Ralph Breaks the Internet gleefully mocks the traditional princess narrative. The live-action version of Aladdin shows a Jasmine who is fierce and independent, her budding relationship with Aladdin a bonus as she tries to convince her father to let her take over as Sultan without a man by her side. Aurora in the Maleficent series becomes queen in her own right; her proposed marriage to Philip purely for love and not because of an arrangement between parents. And now with Frozen 2, despite the subplot of Anna and Kristoff navigating a future together, the real story is about two sisters learning about their past and finding their place in the present.
And how has this affected my daughter? I was boy-crazy girl who wanted a boyfriend from a ridiculously young age. I wanted to feel beautiful and loved and the fact that I didn’t have a real boyfriend until right after graduating from high school was a point of devastating disappointment for me. My 10-year-old talks about wanting to someday get married, has good friends who are boys, and we’ve started to see glimmers of crushes bubbling under the surface, but it isn’t her main goal. She wants to travel, she wants to be a vet, and then she wants to someday get married and have a lot of kids.
She wants to be like Elsa and the Jasmine of her generation, not mine. She wants love, someday, but not being in love doesn’t define her.
This is the princess revolution. Our daughters are learning that, like the historical princesses of old who stood up to men in power, a princess doesn’t have to be meek and submissive. She can be strong and independent and fall in love on her own terms.
And this mom couldn’t be happier.