Dispatches from the Desk # 12: Little girls — brandish your wooden swords and burn your plastic tiaras!

International Women’s Day has come and gone for this year, and I’ve been thinking about princesses. Here we are, all post-feminist doin’ it for ourselves, and all the little girls want to be princesses. In my day it was cowboys. Or pirates. (Yes, cowboys. Sorry, to all those real female cowhands out there.) Cowboys got to ride around on pretend horses and chase bad guys, and I regret to admit that it never crossed my five-year-old mind that a cowgirl could do the same. Mind you, it never crossed my five-year-old mind that I shouldn’t play a boy if I wanted to.) So, cowboys had horses and pirates got to wave swords about and make people walk the plank. All very empowering; you were the hero (or presumably the Byronically cool anti-hero in the case of pirates), and you had to make up stories to go with what you were pretending. We never played we were princesses.

Why on earth not? Myself, I always liked the fairy tale about the princess who went off to rescue her seven brothers and had to cut off her little finger, to shape the bone into a key, to get into the enchanted castle. Now that was a princess.* And yet despite that, somehow, a princess didn’t seem like someone who did anything. It’s even worse now. The little girls seem to want to be princesses, but princessing, as witnessed in my nieces when they were a few years younger, isn’t pretending anything. It’s Barbie-ing with more sparkles. It’s just dressing up in pre-fab Hallowe’en costumes based on movie character designs and saying, “I’m a princess.” There’s no play involved, and certainly no getting to be a hero (or even a villain) and master of your own fate, saver of the day. Mind you, I think we’re teaching boys to be passive too, or worse, to feel they have no value, but that’s a whole other essay. (What about all the fairy tales where the youth, prince or humble artisan’s son, sets out to seek his fortune and achieves it, and usually a clever rather than passive-and-sparkly princess as well, through his wit, daring, honesty, and kindness to animals and old ladies? Why is no one retelling those for kids today?)

There is a plethora, or at least a sufficiency, of princesses in the Blackdog world. Possibly this is some previously unrecognized attempt by my subconscious to make up for always feeling the active and interesting roles in a game of pretending were male. “Darn it, not only am I going to have female heroes, but they’re going to be princesses . . .” Probably not, though you never know what your subconscious will get up to when you’re not looking. Properly, very few of the Blackdog world’s royal females should be called princesses, since it’s a Romance-language word, a feminine of the Latin-derived “prince”. In a Germanic culture, a king’s daughter was a lady, a kneader of bread. I used “princess” as a sort of private joke between Mikki and Moth and myself, and it stuck, linguistically at odds with the Northron culture though it is. Mikki calls his back-from-the-grave warrior-wizard lover “princess” when he’s feeling sarcastic about her avoidance of manual labour. I suppose I could say he calls her “princess” in a meta-fictional defiance of the current cult of sparkly princessiness that consumer culture has created in little girls, which seems to debase the word. She’s not the only one. Ulfleif, queen’s sister and Queen’s Sword in “The Storyteller”, is another princess, and An-Chaq, who dies trying to sabotage a devil’s wizardry, is a third. (That’s not a spoiler — she only enters the action after her execution.)

A generation has grown up dismissing “princess” as something not merely passive and un-adventurous, but as twinkly and childish. It also seems to have connotations of a creepily sexualized prepubescence. The word’s been so candied that it doesn’t seem it can possibly apply to Aethelflaed of Mercia, Alfred’s daughter and a worthy Anglo-Saxon commander (who of course is not a princess, but the king’s daughter of Wessex and Lady of the Mercians, wife of the Mercian king), or to Henry I’s daughter Matilda, who outfought King Stephen in the first English civil war and, if only she’d been a diplomat as well, might have succeeded in claiming the crown some felt was rightfully hers. It’s been taken away from all the real princesses to whom the word did apply, all those young women shipped to foreign kingdoms to seal alliances through the Middle Ages and long after, who might have been passive victims of their birth, but many of whom survived, reared their sons, and quietly (or otherwise, in the case of women like Isabella of France, mother of Edward III) made history. Contemporary culture has made “princess” an expectation of helpless passivity and sparkliness, and worringly, it’s convinced a lot of little girls that that’s what a girl is supposed to be, until she turns into a sexy glam queen at puberty.

None of this is really a good reason for Moth to be, culturally-inaccurately, called a princess. But hey, it amuses Mikki, and am I going to argue with the man with the axe?**

*And of course it’s also a shapeshifter story, and we all know my fondness for shapeshifters; the princess’s brothers, in the version I remember, were ravens.
**Arguing with the giant demon bear is right out.

About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, Gods of Nabban, and The Last Road epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at thewildforest.wordpress.com
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