Thursday, July 29, 2010

So You Want To Be A Princess?

Princesse de Conti, from Wikimedia Commons, here.

 It's a joke in our house that I was born with a princess gene.  This is an allusion to the princess in "The Princess and the Pea" who couldn't sleep because there was a pea underneath her twenty mattresses.

I'm accused of having the princess gene because I'm "sensitive," or, as you might want to describe it, "fussy."  I can't stand loud noises, or static, or even mediocre sound systems.  I hate it when the vegetables are a day old, when the carpeting looks cheap, when leather has that shiny look it sometimes has when it's low-quality.  I can tell when the sheets have a low thread count, and it bothers me.  I have many, complex opinions about the tastes of various brands of bottled water, and will go out of my way to choose Dasani over Aquafina, even though these two are the worst two of all the brands out there.

I don't know why I'm like this, and believe me, I didn't ask to be this way.  Obviously there are times when these impulses should be struggled against, and I work hard at things like not wasting food, choosing tap because it's good for the environment, and not developing a taste for fine wines.

But I used to struggle not only against the impulses, but against the character trait as a whole.  I hated being fussy, and I tried to pretend I wasn't.  I practiced saying things like "I don't care which one," "Either way is fine with me," "No, no, it's perfect just like that."  I was determined not to notice, or care, when things weren't what I wanted them to be.

The older I get, though, the more I think you have to be true to yourself.  So instead of feeling bad about the princess gene, I started thinking about all the good qualities princesses have. You know, things I could work toward improving, taking princesses as a role model.

And I realized:  there's a lot to work with here.  Consider:

1.  A princess is never crabby or sour when little things don't go her way.

A princess never makes a scowly face when she gets mud on her clothes, or her friends are late, or her shoes pinch.  She may notice these things, and she may not like them, but she knows better than to get upset.  Princesses are above all that.

2.  A princess is generous, kind, and skilled at making others feel welcome and comfortable.

It's like one of the main duties of a princess:  to know how to make everyone feel at ease, and to make people feel like they belong.  Princesses are, above all, gracious.

3.  A princess models gentleness, civilization, and cultivation.

If you've read Little Men, the sequel to Little Women, you may remember the character of Bess, the daughter of Amy.  From her earliest childhood, Bess likes things just so; she likes quiet games and pretty clothes and polite conversation.  Rather than making Bess seem like a silly girly-girl, Louisa May Alcott shows how Bess's presence exerts a powerful civilizing effect on the other children:  they take care to watch what they're doing, and to not say hurtful things, and to play gently with one another.  In other words, she's a tiny model princess.

Of course, the locus classicus for all of this is A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, one of my favorite childhood books.  Sara arrives at boarding school as a rich little girl, but then is thought to have lost her money and family; she has to work as a maid and live in the attic and almost starve to death.  Eventually her family's friends find her and her money is restored.  Throughout, she is generous and kind, reaching out to the poorest and least-liked people in the school.

As Wikipedia so aptly puts the princess aspect:
"A few of the older students are openly jealous of Sara's fortune and give her the mocking nickname of "Princess Sara" in reference to her wealth and perfect manners. The nickname first embarrasses Sara, but soon she adopts it as a reminder to be generous to others."
So if your little girl wants to be a princess, remind her that it's not all glamorous gowns and magic wands:  the position comes with responsibilities and requires a noble character.  No whining, no mocking, no meanness, and no slouching are allowed.

Of course, all of this goes for princes as well.


chris said...

I think you're right to focus on the positives, but what about the negatives?

You mention fussy as the negative. Fussy isn't that awful. But the phrase "acting like a princess" suggests a package other negative attributes: spoiled, selfish, and conceited.

Does being true to yourself include acknowledging and accepting those negatives? And is that good?

I guess the bigger question is something you've discussed here before: What if your true self, or important aspects your self, sucks?

Patricia said...

Hi Chris, Yes, the degree to which self-acceptance means accepting one's negative qualities is a hard, hard problem. I do, though, think those particular negatives you mention are worth struggling against.

I guess what I was thinking was that this was a direction for improvement that didn't require a renunciation of the basic concept but rather just a redirection of it.

You know, like working toward being better in an accessible way rather than an inaccessible one, if that makes any sense.

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