Monday, August 11, 2008

Fairy and Princess Indulgence: When Wishes Shouldn't Come True

Monica Dux, a fine former Melbourne Uni-ite, has written a piece in today's Age about the madness that is the pre-school girl obsession with fairies and princesses. Called "Girls Can't Thrive in a Puff of Pink" she muses on why fairy princesses abound at every pre-school turn. As she points out, there's certainly nothing wrong with young girls who genuinely covet pink frippery breaking it out for special occasions or dress-ups, but why do we see so many fairy princesses tagging along for the weekly grocery shop? It's not like the lone boy who insisted on going along to Safeway in his Spiderman pyjamas, there are fairy-ballerina-princesses, complete with wands, at every suburban Westfield Shoppingtown at this moment.

As the poor baby above, weighed down by an oversized crown that she doesn't seem to particularly want there, suggests, this trend perhaps is a reflection of parental attitudes to femininity rather than the children themselves. If girls do begin to desire wings and tiaras, it seems that it is often because we have told them that they should. This is not a new cultural effect, as we've been through the "why are girls given toy ironing boards and kitchenettes while boys get power tools and earthmovers" discussion many times before. I wonder if the fairy and princess obsession is borne out of parental consideration of their child as unique. There is a well-known tendency in children's literature for child protagonists to discover that they are "special". A heroine (or hero)'s uninteresting regulation parents prove not to be her own and the story reveals that she actually has royal lineage or a special magical quality. Just think of Harry Potter discovering that he is really a wizard and can escape (at least for most of the year) dull (and abusive) suburban life with the Dursleys.

Many children have the fantasy that they are just biding time with an ordinary Mum and Dad before their supernatural or magical parents make themselves known. Are the parents of these little princesses and fairies enacting a slightly different form of this typically childhood fantasy? One in which their daughter is actually a princess. A real princess can't be displayed in public in a tracksuit, but must be shown off in a highly feminine, impractical-for-toddlers outfit.

I visited Disneyland Paris last month and was surprised to see so many little girls making their visit to the park dressed in Disney Princess dress-up gowns. Perhaps it was one occasion where a little indulgence would not be inappropriate but I wonder how far the fantasy is indulged and for whose benefit. I can hear the mums of my mother's generation saying "don't be ridiculous" if their girls demanded to go to the shops in a fairy costume. I can't help but thinking it's parenting style rather than girls themselves that are primarily responsible for fairy rings sprouting across suburbia.

As a footnote, the child in the top-right photo is part of a kind of anti-princess photoshoot.

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