The Kiddy Pool: The Princess Paradox


“While I appreciate the concept behind the Christian princess, Scripture doesn’t talk about God’s children as princes or princesses.”

As the mother of two little girls (and none of us live under rocks), I’ve been mulling over the princess thing for a while. On the one hand, I think dressing up and make up and girly things like Hello Kitty are super fun. On the other hand, I hold at least vaguely feminist convictions, and while I happen to be somewhat traditionally feminine, I prefer to see gender as a continuum rather than a prescription.

In my personal history, I can’t exactly overlook the tremendous debt I owe to feminist legislation like Title IX that makes my generation significantly more likely to be athletes than our fore-mothers. I also really like the film Snow White, and while I can live without the other Disney princesses, I just don’t want to give her up, so I try to spin her as “outdoorsy.” And what a soprano! Sure. I think this is what post-structuralists call a fragmented self.

In any case, I agree with the porcine former-princess Olivia in Ian Falconer’s Olivia and the Fairy Princesses that the princess thing gets a bit overdone, and tends toward uniformity rather than uniqueness, which seems sort of anti-princess, right? If you’re looking for more real-world credibility, consider Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s remarks on Sesame Street, where she told Abby, “Pretending to be a princess is fun, but it is definitely not a career.”

That quote has me thinking in a lot of directions, first with regard to the “Christian princess” syndrome. A Google search for “Christian princess” brings up an array of products, testimonials related to purity balls, and a “princess prep school”-themed Sunday school, among others. Most of these emphasize being a spiritual daughter of the King of Kings, thus (by that logic) making all Christian females princesses. I just don’t see this argument working for boys, because boys don’t want to be princes. Princes seem relatively generic, and, as Neil Gaiman claims in his poem “Boys and Girls Together,” “In stories, even princes don’t want to be princes.”

While I appreciate the concept behind the Christian princess (the one about being fully embraced as a child of God and still delighting in culturally significant expressions of femininity), Scripture doesn’t talk about God’s children as princes or princesses. Children, heirs, adoptees, servants, but not princes or princesses. So what happens when, in the midst of a cultural obsession with being royalty (but not the kind that actually has political or governmental responsibilities), we take this role on for ourselves? Where does that place us in relationship to the King of Kings?

My second concern comes from Sotomayor’s emphasis on careers, defined as “a job you train for, or prepare for and plan on doing for a long time.” Princess is not a viable career option for most of us. Where, I wonder, does that leave me? I think Sotomayor makes a great point, but I also think, given the context, I don’t actually have a career. I teach part time at a university (something I definitely trained for, and hope to do for a long time, but I am contingent labor). I write, something I also trained for and hope to do for a long time, but also not something that, at this point, earns me a living wage. I realize economics are not part of Sotomayor’s definition, yet most of us would ascribe some sort of financial component to the word career. I spend (there’s that economic metaphor again) most of my time mothering, but all of my training for that life-long endeavor is on the ground. No licensing required! There are benefits and drawbacks to viewing motherhood as a career, yet few fathers seem eager to pronounce fatherhood (or even parenthood more generally) as their career, which speaks volumes about the gendered implications of work and relationships, time in public and private spheres, financial and social recognition for the jobs we do, and the kinds of care we invest with value (more economic metaphors!).

To return to Gaiman’s “Boys and Girls Together,” he writes:

None of them know that one day, in their turn,
Boys and girls will find themselves become bad kings
or wicked stepmothers,
aged woodcutters, ancient shepherds, mad crones and wise-women,
to stand in shadows, see with cunning eyes:
The girl, still waiting calmly for her prince.
The boy, lost in the night, out on the moors.

The problem with princesses is that they grow up. Even Olivia ultimately decides it’s better to be queen. But there’s no room for a Christian queen. Definitely not another Christian King, given the standard theological framework. We need our metaphors to come to spiritual maturity. I love playing princesses with my daughters, but I want more than that for them, more even than careers. I want a vocation grounded in their relationships with the King of Kings, an evolving and eternal effort to be the unique people God created them to be.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • http://www.speculativefaith.com E. Stephen Burnett

    In some sense I would suggest there is “room for” Christian kings and queens, under the ultimate King. As author Randy Alcorn is fond of phrasing it, we are indeed destined to be “kings and queens” ruling over the redeemed creation, the New Heavens and New Earth. Perhaps based on that, we can find Biblical this latent concept of a king or queen — while also honing the concept of a “princess.” Princesses, after all, do grow up and have responsibilities beyond being pretty and waiting for the Handsome Prince, and et cetera.

  • http://geeksofchrist.wordpress.com Mickey

    I’m a little uncomfortable with princess-culture too. I would add that Disney (and even Anderson and the Grimms) have euphemized the terrible role that real princesses occupied. Let’s face it: they wore pretty clothes, pretty hair, pretty perfumes, and pretty make-up because their only useful function in life was to become the wife of some foreign prince. They were raised to be married, and they married to ensure political peace. It just seems like kind of a dismal life.

    The other reason I don’t really dig the princess thing is that it encourages distraction. “Someday my prince will come…” Yeah, someday. Maybe. What are you ignoring about your life right now while you daydream about your imaginary boyfriend?

  • J.L. Schafer

    The New Testament does present us as rulers in the “world to come” (e.g. Hebrews 2). But Scripture depicts Jesus as the prototype, so he, not Snow White, should be the dominant image. Also, the position of ruling is given not to individuals, but collectively to all humankind. The gospel is not supposed to make us into divas and divos. Rather, it brings us to our true home in a web of interdependent relationships.

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  • Daniel

    Mickey, I think you hit the nail on the head: a Princess’ primary role was that of a chess piece in kingdom’s politics.

    In that regard, the recent movie “Brave” had an interesting take on that theme. The was the usual (probably needed, but nonetheless highly predictable and stereotypical) feminist tale of “girlpower”, but also I felt sympathy for the mother. (As usual, the father was somewhat of a dolt.) Medieval politics was grim, and frankly to bravely play the role as a peacemaker, a living peace treaty if you will, was an honorable choice. The “pretty princess” props around her were not trivial, but not the main point of real princesses. But us modernlings focus on those props.

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