Disney takes a lot of heat for its princess line, in part because it’s supposed to be setting an unrealistic model for children—not all little girls can grow up to be princesses, after all. Now, let’s leave aside things like the fact that little kids’ beliefs about what they’re going to be when they grow up are often unrealistic. My six-year-old son said, not long ago, that he wants to be a ninja chef, and that’s not actually even a thing. Ask a little kid what they want to be when they grow up, and the odds are frankly against getting any kind of realistic answer, because they’re kids. A bigger issue, honestly, is that Disney is not the only source of this particular model.
At least those Disney films are usually lifting from older stories; while Merida is an original character, she’s practically the only Disney Princess who is. Sure, Elsa and Anna aren’t characters of old stories exactly, but they’re from a very loose adaptation of the “Snow Queen.” Tiana is from “The Princess and the Frog.” Cinderella and Rapunzel and all the others are characters that generations of children knew before they were animated—Sondheim got to Rapunzel before Disney did! What’s more worrying to me is how many children’s shows these days are full of queens and kings and princesses and are new stories.
And, yes, Disney takes some heat there as well. Sofia and Elena aren’t out of legend. But Disney isn’t the only offender. Quite a lot of my kids’ other preferred shows have princesses and assorted other monarchs, even if the main character herself is not a princess. True lives in the Rainbow Kingdom. Luna Petunia visits Amazia, which has a queen of some sort. Pretty much any time you’ve got a fantasy for kids, with a very few exceptions, you’ve got a monarchy.
This is true for adult fantasy, too; a lot of adult fantasy involves monarchy. Much fantasy is of a European feudal model. What’s odd is that not all of these children’s shows are. Sofia the First lives in a land where she sometimes interacts with other Disney characters. But Luna Petunia is a generic Special Girl (the other main characters literally seem to do nothing but wait around for her to show up and be interesting when she isn’t there), and even she visits a magic monarchy with a magic queen. There are no other structures of monarchy there, either, just the queen and her castle.
Even in my own childhood, I watched a shortlived cartoon called Wildfire about a little girl who lived on a ranch with her dad except when she jumped on the back of her magic horse through a hole in the sky and went to a land where she was a princess. And she had to overthrow an evil witch who was taking over her kingdom, and goodness knows enstating a democracy wasn’t on the table there. Admittedly that show had no more feel for the real work of ruling a kingdom than any other kids’ show, but my thought is that the idea stems from the fact that kids want to feel special, and imagining yourself as a princess is one way of feeling special.
These days, we’ve tended to deemphasize the idea that you need to be a princess to be special, which is why the Generic Special Girl is such a staple of my kids’ fiction. You mix princesses and the Chosen One model, you get a kid who doesn’t do anything interesting to be special but still has people fawning all over them. But they still come from a fantasy tradition full of monarchy, so there’s still monarchs running things. At least that’s my guess. It’s worth noting that even several of the Special Girls have episodes where they’re queens for a day. And when Pocoyo makes the narrator tell a story, it starts with Prince Pocoyo and Princess Ellie.