Princess Narratives and the Stories We Pass On to Our Young

My rejection of Princess stories and all things Disney is frequently met with exasperation and disdain from members of my community. In a climate which encourages a binary view of Muslims as either ‘extreme’ or ‘moderate’, large factions of our community seem to have internalised the idea that any resistance against cultural hegemony is an endorsement of ‘extreme’ ideology.

My rejection of Princess stories and all things Disney is frequently met with exasperation and disdain from members of my community. In a climate which encourages a binary view of Muslims as either ‘extreme’ or ‘moderate’, large factions of our community seem to have internalised the idea that any resistance against cultural hegemony is an endorsement of ‘extreme’ ideology.

I am, by nature, a chronic over thinker. There are few things this has ever served me well in, and in my most recent role as mother, the debate is still open as to whether this will prove to be fruitful or not.

Having two young girls, from birth I have always been hyperconscious of their interaction with the world – how they interface with all the external forces that will inevitably shape their sense of identity, what they value and how they form meaning. Motherhood will always disrupt the borders of selfhood; from the physical act of producing another human being – that something being a part of you, to it being a subject in its own self. To how your very senses are extended to accommodate theirs; is the bath water too hot, is the room dark or quiet enough. Your role as human vessel doesn’t come to an end once their physical being comes into existent.

And naturally, it’s their formative years where my role as human shock absorber proves to be most fraught. I am constantly trying to expand their world to include as many enriching and fulfilling experiences as possible. As children from an ethnic minority background I am conscious that certain spaces will naturally feel less inclusive to them, and therefore we spend time in museums and galleries, not only as a learning experience, but also to acclimatise them so that they are not deprived of that cultural capital. As girls, they may be discouraged from pursuing certain interests that are deemed too boyish and so I would take my daughter to weekly football sessions so she would never feel any doors may be closed to her. It is this constant consideration of their developing sense of self, and the world and how it will inevitably treat them, that I feel immense pressure to balance in order to ensure their own borders of self hood are not restricted or hampered because of the various factors that make up their identity.

Media and its role in shaping normative gender definitions has always, and will always, weigh heavily on my mind and my metrics of value. And this does mean I limit my children’s access to both physical screens, and the ideological content that emanates from them.

I am just going to put this right out there – in effect, it means we don’t live a life dictated by Frozen. And apparently this is very controversial.

Being Muslim, my rejection of Princess stories and all things Disney is frequently met with exasperation and disdain from members of my community. As the question of British Muslim identity and belonging continues to be contested, many of us involuntarily fall into an apologist role and engage in respectability politics. With Muslims being increasingly othered, and with the racialised notion of Muslim identity in popular imagination – and all the baggage that that contains – much of our community are keen to tow the ‘good immigrant narrative’ and demonstrate that on an individual, as well as a social level, Muslims should just play ball and conform. We should, it seems, use our very existence to communicate to the world that we are ‘normal’ and not all that bad. In the same way political dissent amongst Muslims is vilified, many Muslim communities view any independent thought, or departure from social norms, as trouble-making – why can’t we just be like everyone else?

In a climate which encourages a binary view of Muslims as either ‘extreme’ or ‘moderate’, large factions of our community seem to have internalised the idea that any resistance against cultural hegemony is an endorsement of ‘extreme’ ideology. No doubt this is rooted in a very real fear, cultivated by Prevent and its role in policing Muslim families, and the threat we face for any perceived act of dissension. And this extends to even the most innocuous acts – the sphere of criminality for Muslims is expanded to a much larger degree than it is for most of our other British counterparts.

We must, it seems, celebrate birthdays and Christmas with rigour, and not bear a whole host of markers of religiosity. Coupled with the wounds inevitable in an ideologically fractured community, and the defensiveness and suspicion it breeds, I have so far been mostly reticent about my rejection of all things Princess. But as I come out on my anti-Princess crusade, to a hopefully sympathetic audience, I do find it hard to imagine building a life for my children in any other way.

Raising Muslim women for tomorrow

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Princess narratives are almost always centred on the idea that a woman’s worth is defined by her perceived beauty. It’s the Princesses’ beauty which gives the narrative any sense of direction, and her any purpose. If we take the most popular reimagining of Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s saccharine adaptation, the not so subtly named Beauty is pursued by the Beast due to her captivating looks. As much as the tale is moralised to include an apparent radical love of reading (pesky girl readers!) and a ‘kind and loving heart’, it is this physical conformity to dominant ideas of beauty that carries the story to the seemingly desirable end goal of marrying the Beast. The story leads us to the apparently inevitable conclusion that her very worth is justified by her relationship to a man. To young, impressionable minds, Beauty and beauty is aspirational– the doe eyes, flushed cheeks, red lips and suggestive neckline. The desirability of Belle and all of the Disney female leads, is what is marketed as aspirational to young girls of every language, culture and background. Misogyny is a universal language it seems.

The insidious undertone that it’s the unknowing quality in Beauty – her being oblivious to her own good looks – that sets her apart from the background of women vying for Gaston’s attention. Here we unearth a more sinister underbelly of feminine ideals – a naivety and lack of astuteness, a pliability – apparent in every impatient gesturing of perfectly curled hair away from her porcelain brow. It is this coded reference to her impressionable nature that lends Beauty her appeal over the equally Eurocentrically ‘beautiful’ girls in the animation.

And it is this contradiction embedded in normative ideas of femininity that we champion in retelling and sharing these stories with the next generation of women– to have to be beautiful according to an impossibly narrow standard and yet to be totally unconscious of this beauty. To be self-aware enough to warrant attention and totally unself-aware at the same time. To be the ideal according to male desire. This contradictory, impossible, and frankly bizarre set of standards is what we set for our children when we unquestioningly let these stories into our homes.

All of these qualities are of course seemingly counterbalanced by a false sense of female agency, paradoxically they are presented as empowering tales of female independence. Whether it be from Ariel’s rebellion or Jasmine’s toothless, fiery independence. The idea that these princesses represent the very outer limits of female potential and yet still the most they choose to achieve is to win the love and affection of mostly obsessive and imbalanced males. To frame controlling, often coercive, behaviour as romantic love, to an audience of children for whom these stories will develop their very basic notions of love and marriage. Who will code these behaviours as part of functioning relationships. This short circuiting of expectations for women’s destiny and purpose, the limiting and reductive perception of female worth – no thank you.

In Ariel’s case in particular, she literally gives up her voice for the chance of being with Prince Eric and willingly faces physical mutilation to be part of his world. This idea that pain and suffering is intrinsic to women’s identity is something that echoes throughout time, and that we continue to let ripple unabashed into future stories of femininity and the consciousness of young audiences.

When young girls see these dimensionless characters, in their billowing dresses and tumbling curls they will inevitably find them and everything that they represent as aspirational. These narratives, and the values that they imbue, cause young girls to self-objectify and fashion and value themselves according to the male gaze, to bring that measure of worth into their most intimate thinking and developing sense of being. And which part of this do I want to pass on to my daughters – the warped sense of worth and beauty? The need for male attention to be validated? The crippling sense of self-consciousness? The submissiveness and compliance? The feelings of inadequacy in never quite matching up to any of the above?

I cannot see these characters or stories as anything other than symbols and fables of female suppression. Fables that are reinforced in a society which rewards women for being visually and socially compliant. And while my position may be perceived as overly austere, I feel it is necessary to provide even a semblance of balance given the sheer hegemony of princess culture and the paucity of truly empowering and challenging narratives concerning femininity and womanhood.

I hope that by shielding my daughters from what will inevitably draw them into an economy of worth defined my male desire, that they will build a truer understanding of themselves, untainted by this fetishisation. That they will ‘be’ rather than want to just be seen. And that when, at every other point in their lives, their anxieties will be exploited in order to sell a tube of mascara, that they might be slightly more impervious to the idea that the most that they can hope to achieve is to please a man. I’m also inspired by the idea that they may be less likely to see the gratuitous frills and bows of baroque fashion as aesthetically pleasing, but of course this is just a secondary, more personal goal…

We have no shortage of real women from which to draw upon to share with our young girls and boys – most importantly from Islamic heritage. But also from our community of women – be it human and civil rights activists, scientists, artists, architects. The list is quite literally inexhaustive. Unless we start bringing these stories and these narratives to the fore, then we will continue to pass down a heritage of low expectations. I feel the desperate need to expand my daughters sense of womanhood – to frame it according to the reality that I know and see in others, and not the fictitious, distorted version of it that I see on page and screen. And I do hope others will join me in the process, in sha Allah.