Who Are You Calling a Princess?
In February of 2010, I came across this article posted on the SurLaLune blog and felt compelled to respond with a balancing point of view.
The article begins with this query:
My twins aren’t even three years old, and I’m already sick of that girly triumvirate that seems impossible to escape when you are raising girls: The Princess/Barbie/Pink matrix. Toys ‘R’ Us has entire aisles devoted to Disney Princess merchandise, racks of sparkly pink dress-up clothes, pretend makeup and costume jewelry, and of course, those totally weird Bratz dolls with their stripper clothes and drag queen makeup.
And another passage about fairy tales and Disney:
No doubt, the P/B/P trap will be difficult to avoid. Introducing my kids to traditional Disney fare like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Beauty and the Beast would be a surefire way to turn them into tiara-wearing maniacs. So right now, we stick with Treehouse. When I told my friends that I’ve altered some traditional tales (like Cinderella) to make them more “girl power,” a couple of them thought I was nuts. Did I really think I was going to hide the fact that the Prince rescues the poor, helpless maiden when these stories have been told for generations? No, probably not. But I’m determined to allow my daughters to make their own choices when it comes to their self-image, especially now, before High School Musical and Hannah Montana teach them that stereotypical beauty = teenage power.
“Who Are You Calling a Princess?”
First, fairy tales should be heard, not seen, by young children. This idea is fully supported in Bruno Bettleheim’s “Uses of Enchantment” – a very important work on the analysis of fairy tales in relationship to Freudian psychology. When we expose children to the fairy tale world through Disney, etc., we are imprinting images that they may or may not be ready for psychologically (or spiritually) and these images “lock-in” and become fixed. In addition, there is a great deal of “fairy tale propaganda” that is used for one purpose only – to sell STUFF!
In Waldorf Education, we try to stick with telling fairytales at appropriate age levels, using books with gentle, impressionistic illustrations which leave much to the imagination, and giving children dress up and play materials which are simple and open to the child’s creative impulses.
There is nothing wrong with “princess” and “prince” play. In fact, it is quite wonderful and can actually be cross gendered if the children so desire (no comment need to be made to the children themselves by adults). To be a “true princess” or “true prince” is to have an elevated sense of ethics, if you follow true fairy tale interpretation. In other words, the “true” prince or princess must be kind, generous, truthful and good. They must care for others above themselves and put others first, whether human, animal or elemental. Only then can they achieve union with their “other” – the opposite prince or princess which represents their own higher self (not an external person) and in so doing, inherit the “kingdom” (which is an expression of their own spiritual state of contentment and enlightenment).
The color pink is the color of love in its gentle and innocent form. It is the color of affection and warmheartedness. Unfortunately, our more than material, our negatively spiritual society has corrupted this into vanity and even a horrific early sexuality. Think of the TV show “Toddlers and Tiaras” as a horrible example. Bringing pink back to innocent love and affection should be the goal. Simple pink silks, a little bit of bling for sparkle and gentle reminders of what true princesses do and don’t do is enough to keep the young child in healthy fairy tale love for a long time!
“Beauty Is As Beauty Does”
A side note about beauty, especially regarding hair. I have yet to find an original version fairy tale specifying that the “princess” or “princess-to-be” is blonde. There may a few who speak of “golden” hair but I am having a difficult time finding one. Most do not specify. The princess in The Frog Prince is described thus:
“IN OLD times when wishing still helped one, there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself, which has seen so much, was astonished whenever it shone in her face.”
Many illustrations show her as yellow haired, but it is not specified in the story itself.
Little Snow White is ebony haired. This is a very deep reference to the three colors of Rosicrucian alchemy – red, white and black. It has nothing whatsoever to do with racial or even physical characteristics in the material sense. Little Snow White is one of the most complex and spiritually rich “fairy tales” and it would require an extensive article to explore it as deeply as it deserves. Here is the opening:
Little Snow White; or, Schneeweißchen
ONCE upon a time in the middle of winter, when the flakes of snow were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat at a window sewing, and the frame of the window was made of black ebony. And whilst she was sewing and looking out of the window at the snow, she pricked her finger with the needle, and three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the red looked pretty upon the white snow, and she thought to herself, “Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window-frame.”
Soon after that she had a little daughter, who was as white as snow, and as red as blood, and her hair was as black as ebony; and she was therefore called Little Snow-white. And when the child was born, the Queen died.
After a year had passed the King took to himself another wife. She was a beautiful woman, but proud and haughty, and she could not bear that anyone else should surpass her in beauty. She had a wonderful looking-glass, and when she stood in front of it and looked at herself in it, and said –
“Looking-glass, Looking-glass, on the wall,
Who in this land is the fairest of all?”
the looking-glass answered —
“Thou, O Queen, art the fairest of all!”
Then she was satisfied, for she knew that the looking-glass spoke the truth.
It is easy to discern that in this story, we are going to really feel the full impact of over emphasizing the importance of physical “beauty”.
Most fairy tales do describe the maiden or princess as being “beautiful”. One needs very much to realize that in the true princesses this is really inner “beauty”. In the false princesses it is outer beauty which often turns to ugliness when their true soul condition is revealed. Beauty is always connected with the inner qualities of compassion and self-sacrifice. It is only when the stories have been altered as with Charles Perrault who wrote French versions of many of Grimm’s tales that more external values have been applied. There are huge differences between Perrault’s “Cinderella” and its forerunner, Grimm’s “Aschenputtel”. Then Walt Disney came along and corrupted the stories even further. Most unfortunately, the “Disney versions” became deeply entrenched as they entered unfiltered as moving pictures.
“Who Rescues Who?”
I have a problem with equating fairy tales with adult values such as female independence, strength, etc.. This, I believe has arisen primarily because of the fairy tale “propaganda” from the Disney versions, etc. If one reads the original, true versions, one will find that the prince rarely “rescues” the princess!
In “Sleeping Beauty” or “Briar Rose”, the original version, the Prince kisses the Princess awake, but only because her time of awakening has come. Many others died trying to get in to the castle, but when the Princess’s own time is at hand, the briars part to admit the true Prince. And it is a woman, the 13th good wise woman who “saves” Briar Rose by transmuting the death sentence of the 12th, “evil” wise woman.
In the original Aschenputtel (Cinderella), the gowns are brought by the birds (spirits) because of the girl’s own tears over her mother’s grave (not by a fairy godmother). She earns her own spiritual sheaths through penance and devotion. She meets the Prince three times, but runs away! When the Prince tries the shoes on the two stepsisters, birds (spirits) come and tell him he has the wrong bride. Each of the stepsisters mutilates herself to get the shoe on. The Prince in this version is rather clueless. Only through spiritual intervention is the union completed.
In Rapunzel, it is she who initiates the union and in the end, her tears falling into the blind eyes of the Prince do the rescuing. Her hair represents the spiritual power of Imagination, obliquely reminiscent of the physical power of Samson’s long locks.
In Little Red Cap (Little Red Riding Hood), it is a male huntsman who rescues the child and grandmother from the belly of the wolf (yes, they were devoured by the wolf) but both feminine archetypes here are child and elder, not mature young adult figures.
In Snow White (Little Snow White), the prince does not kiss the girl awake, he begs the dwarfs to allow him to take the girl in the glass coffin back to his castle. On the way, the cart goes over a bump and the poisoned apple is dislodged from her mouth. The Prince is a catalyst to the awakening, but not necessarily a rescuer.
In Hansel and Gretel, it is Gretel who saves them from the witch. First, through her cleverness at getting Hansel to poke a chicken bone through the cage bars (the witch can’t see well and wants to know if he is fat enough to eat) and then through sheer bravery and strength of will in pushing the witch into the oven!
To really understand fairy tales, one must get back to the originals and to the many wonderful analytic works available to us today. These are teaching stories, psychological and spiritual and it behooves us to be very, very careful of bastardizations, because they change the teachings drastically. The fact that we can buy over the counter drugs doesn’t make us a pharmacologist!
For a wonderful collection of fairy tale illustrations go to SurLaLune’s Illustration Gallery:
You may be interested to note how differently many princesses have been portrayed in illustration before Disney came along. Again, the caveat, the picture that is created in the child’s soul through hearing the story without illustrations is the most beneficial and psychologically appropriate one for that child.
Luckily, there are beautiful Waldorf style books, with soft, impressionistic illustrations that allow a child (or adult) to live in them imaginatively and flexibly. They are easy to find once you know what to look for. One last piece of advice – try to hold off giving the child a fairy tale book until after he or she has lived with the oral version for a long time. Once a picture is seen, it cannot be unseen and it could damage the child’s inner picture irrevocably.
When I taught a Waldorf fourth grade, one of my children’s mother gave him D’Aulaire’s book of Norse Myths. Fortunately, it was after we had completed the main lesson block and the children had heard the stories and illustrated their own books. When my student brought in the book, they spent literally hours looking at it and arguing about whether the pictures in it “looked like” Thor, Odin, Freya, etc. They already had their inner pictures and weren’t going to accept someone else’s version, even from a book! Hurrah for the power of a story told!
If You Thought
If you thought me beautiful
I would be
The bright sun playing
In a cherry tree.
If you thought me beautiful
I would know
The thoughts of moonbeams
If you thought me beautiful
I would hold
The key to caverns
Full of gold.
If you thought me beautiful
I would look
Like a fairy-tale princess
In a magic book.
2003 All Rights Reserved
Christine Natale discovered Rudolf Steiner and his work at age 16 through a summer job in the Biodynamic Gardens at the Threefold Community in New York. After two years of community college in the area, Christine embarked upon a two year journey with her mentor, Rene Querido. Lucky enough to be in a small training class, Christine was able to intern at the Sacramento Waldorf School from the first of December through June with full block training experience in almost every grade and Kindergarten. Christine taught for about ten years, primarily in the Kindergarten, with one year taking a combined Fourth and Fifth Grade. During this time, she has given many lectures to the public, produced puppet theater and festival productions, co-directed young schools and been an active resource for Waldorf parents and their children.
More recently Christine has been focused on her writing. She has produced an extensive collection of children’s stories and articles on Waldorf Education and is in the process of self-publishing them. Christine brings a variety of skills in all of the arts, such as Waldorf Watercolor Painting, Crayon Drawing (and its interpretation), Handwork, Music, Drama, Puppetry, Storytelling and much more. She has a broad and deep base of knowledge of Anthroposophy and Waldorf Education, as well as a good familiarity with other educational systems and methods and an ability to draw connections and to build bridges of understanding for people who come from a wide variety of backgrounds.