To Princess or Not To Princess

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 05/05/2013

Have you ever been at one of those big toy stores, or a giant store with a big toy section, and found yourself in the middle of…the pink aisle?

Everything in the pink aisle, it seems, is the color of pepto bismol, with accents of magenta and lavender and teal.  And the content of the toys down that mysterious aisle, all wrapped up in this pink and purple finery, are often….princesses.

Princess dolls, princess accessories, stemming from princess movies and books from the classic Cinderella through Snow White and Bella and Jasmine and Ariel up to the much more modern Princess Merida in the movie Brave.  All up and down the pink aisle, and all up and down the minds of many, many kids growing up, princesses loom large, as do the princess affiliates, which are ballerinas and brides.  For some children, princesses are everything they watch and read about, think about and play and want to be.

I can’t go much further in this sermon without noting some explicit gender generalizations that I just can’t seem to get around making.  At least I can point them out, if I can’t avoid them, and hope that there’s a little wiggle room for everyone in this conversation. 

First of all, it goes without saying that there are in fact plenty of girls who disdain pink and frills and princesses altogether.  Social efforts over the course of my lifetime to make not liking princesses an okay way for girls to be have made a lot of difference, I think, even if a case could be made that we aren’t all the way there yet. 

More hidden, though, even to this day, are the number of boys who love pink and frills and princesses and have very few opportunities to indulge in that affection.  Listen, as a stay-at-home mother of two boys who spent a lot of time in preschooler playgroups, I became convinced early on that every single three-year-old, boy or girl, loves the color pink and would eagerly put on a fluffy ballet tutu given half an opportunity. 

The reaction that most boys who do so still get from their parents and the world around them, however, is immediate and strong and redirective, to say the least.  You could say that many boys grow out of their affection for pink early on, but I would say that their affection for pink is actually convinced out of them and sometimes drummed out of them.  This practice,  the convincing of boys to not like pink, should be a concern for Unitarian Universalists, who are a people who want each of us to be free and safe to be who we really are inside, even from the earliest age.

And my third explanatory point about generalizing is that any time we start talking about boys and girls, men and women, it pays to remember that there are significant numbers of people for whom those two choices are not all that applicable.  It would be good for us to figure out how to get their voices heard too.

With those caveats under our belts, then, I will make the following generalizations about this princess thing:  that pink aisle in the store, it seems to be created for girls.  The princesses are certainly all girls, or young women.  Many boys don’t feel that the princess phenomenon is meant for them, and are in fact overtly excluded from the princess thing. The princess phenomenon and the pink aisle seem particularly directed at girls, so much so that it can seem as if it all might be trying to teach girls how to be female.  At least, if it isn’t trying to teach girls about femininity, it still has the effect of doing so.

 And by the end of all of this, we parents and other raisers of girls are left with a very specific question, the same question that labels this sermon:  To Princess, or Not To Princess?

We ask whether or not to indulge this princess thing because somewhere along the way, probably around the time that I was a child in the 1970s if not a bit before, folks began to realize that the stories being relayed by these princesses weren’t very affirming for young women, and they only presented a narrow range of life choices to them. 

The classic princess story features an outstandingly pretty young woman who’s down on her luck, poor or abused or both, but is saved because the prince in town notices her, sees how beautiful she is, and despite her lowly or troubled status, marries her and rescues her from all of her problems. 

It doesn’t take a sociologist or even a feminist to see how having a bunch of these role models might convince little girls that what matters the most in the whole world is the magnitude of their beauty and their ability to attract the most alpha of males.  These movies teach girls that getting married will save them.  And while that has definitely been true in the past for women, it’s not the message we want most girls to believe now.  We want more for them.

But it seems like this classic princess story is a huge draw to girls.  There’s something about it that they seem to love.  Many parents try to keep their girls away from princesses altogether, and only sometimes is that a successful effort.  Since it’s hard to keep the girls away, Hollywood and Disney have done some work to try to change the princesses themselves, change the messages these stories are offering.  And as time has gone by, the relative strength and power of the princesses featured in the movies has gradually shifted. 

From the low point that I would say was Ariel in The Little Mermaid, we’ve seen more interesting princesses coming out of Hollywood.  Pocahontas meets John Smith, but is also charged with finding peace for her people.  Rapunzel falls in love with a common person, not a prince, and frees herself through daring and truth telling and magic.  Mulan becomes a warrior to defend her country.  They are still princesses, and there are still true loves to find, but at least the princesses have a little oomph to them. 

Another alternative story line for girls of recent years is the one where they turn what used to be a princess character into a superhero.  The movie The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl does this (2005).  Lava Girl retains all the qualities that a good princess has.  She is exceptional.  She is recognized.  She is powerful and in control.  She isn’t those things because she’s beautiful and there’s a man to be found, or a boy in this case.  Rather, Lava Girl is all those things because she has a special talent, she’s one of a kind.  She is still exceptional, she is still powerful, but that is true because of her own superpower, and not because of her beauty or her ability to attract a guy.  And when Lava Girl’s time comes to be saved, she does that saving herself.  It’s an improvement, at least as far as I am concerned.

But it is this last development, this change from princess to girl superhero, that makes me suddenly wonder what the wishes behind these tales actually are.  What are the wishes, the yearnings of girls, that are being met by these stories?

I’ve come to believe that there are core desires behind the push for these stories, desires that are met by the classic princess story and the modern princess story and the superhero story. I spoke of them just now, because they were made quite evident with the superhero model.  Being a superhero, I said, allows girls to meet their need to be exceptional, powerful, and recognized.

Girls have a need to be exceptional and powerful and recognized.   And since princess stories often morph, as women age, into prom queen stories and bridal stories, could be it be said that women have a desire to be exceptional, and powerful, and recognized as well?  A desire that they explore through stories about exceptional girls, famous for their beauty or their courage or their abilities, who are able to control the world around them either to make the world better, or to protect themselves and those they love, or to live happily ever after?

If women want to be exceptional, powerful, and recognized, is that a good thing, or a bad thing?

A few Sundays ago, H. gave a sermon here where she referenced a speech given at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly last year by Rev. Fred Muir, who is the minister of our congregation in Annapolis .  [“From iChurch to Beloved Community: Ecclesiology and Justice,” by Fredric J. Muir.  192nd Berry Street Essay
Delivered at the Ministerial Conference June 20, 2012, Phoenix, AZ. ]  The speech was largely a critique of Unitarian Universalism, and in the speech Rev. Muir offered what H. referred to as “the three prongs of the pitchfork,” the three cultural traits that are keeping Unitarian Universalism back from being all it could be to itself and to the world.

H. spoke of one prong in her service, a Unitarian Universalist allergy to authority that runs through our culture.  And she’ll be back in June to speak of the third prong, which I’ll keep under wraps for now so excitement can build.  But I have the honor today of speaking about the second prong. 

The critique that Rev. Muir offered was that Unitarian Universalism can tend to be a religion of individualism, where, when we are our worst UU selves, we come together at church to see what we personally can get out of it, to get our personal needs met.  When we Unitarian Universalists join up and everyone there is mostly looking out for themselves and what they want, rather than what is best for everyone or what will serve the world, then that is the individualism about which Rev. Muir is warning us.  When we come, like in our reading and our video [Reading:  excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance”. 
Video:  "Here’s to the Crazy Ones,”] , because we are special, brilliant, aware, and we want to be around others who are like that too, that’s individualism.  Rev. Muir calls this phenomenon “iChurch” – like an Apple product, not so coincidentally.  iChurch is a church that you can tailor to your own specific distinct desires.

Rev. Muir contrasts iChurch with the notion of Beloved Community, the term used so frequently by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and one that we like to bandy about here at Sugarloaf as well.  Beloved Community, Rev. Muir notes, is not iChurch.  Beloved Community relishes individuality, for sure, but never individualism.  Beloved Community pursues, as he puts it, “a vision that expresses the sacred value of individuality, of diversity, of each strand in the web of life”.  But the goal is not individual progress or individual satisfaction, not in the way iChurch promotes.  Rev. Muir quotes the Rev. Shirley Strong, who says, "I understand the term Beloved Community to mean an inclusive, interrelated society based on love, compassion, responsibility, shared power and a respect for all people, places, and things—a society that radically transforms individuals and restructures institutions.” “[W]hich is to say,” Rev. Muir adds, “[that] Beloved Community is shaped by what we know and feel as justice.”

Beloved Community is shaped by justice.

On the one hand, individualism; on the other hand, individuality, cherished and respected within the bonds of community.

On the one hand, iChurch; on the other hand, Beloved Community.

On the one hand, a womanly desire to be exceptional, powerful, and recognized.  There’s only one princess who can win the prince.  Are you the prettiest one, the only one who is saved, the only one who wins the crown?  Where’s the power in that, really, at the end of the day?
On the other hand… a womanly desire to be exceptional, powerful, and recognized.  Because when you’re a superhero, strong and special and seen, you can save yourself and you can save others.  Because when you’re a superhero, it’s okay if everyone else is a superhero, too.  Having more superheroes just makes everyone stronger, doesn’t it? Recognizing everyone’s superheroeyness is the way to bring everyone up, isn’t it?  Isn’t that what Beloved Community is, at the end of the day?  We’re all strong because we’re all superheroes, and everyone knows it?  We’re really exceptional.  We’re really recognized.  And we are really powerful that way.  Beloved Community.

To princess or not to princess, at the end of the day, has far less to do with how you gain your princessy power, and far more to do with what you do with it once you have it.  Will you use it for yourself and your own improvement, or will you use it to make a difference for all of us? 

We Unitarian Universalists intend to work together to make the world a better place for all of us, by recognizing every person’s gifts and value, and encouraging all of us to work for the benefit of all of us.  If we can do that while wearing a big pink dress, whether we are a boy or a girl, then so much the better.

Our last word today will be from Disney itself, which actually says it all, I think.  [“I Am A Princess”]