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The Fissure in Our Princess Freeze-Out

02/28/2014 03:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2014
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We haven't had much time for princesses around our house. In retrospect, I don't think that was my doing. I would like to think that I took a stand as a mother and had a well-thought-out approach about appropriate influences on my kids. But, in fact, my sister and I grew up breathlessly waiting for The Wonderful World of Disney each week, and most especially the yearly screening of Cinderella. "A dream is a wish your heart makes" -- I still know those lyrics cold.

One thing I've felt fairly certain of, however, especially given the research my friend Katty Kay and I have recently turned up for a new book we're writing on women and confidence, is that the traditional princess conceit isn't great for girls and their confidence.

Still, it was my kids who drove our relatively princess-free decade as a family. Hugo is 12 now, and Della is 8. My son good-naturedly watched my beloved musicals with me -- My Fair Lady, The King and I -- until he was about 7, and then, that was it. But the cartoon royalty never appealed at all to him.

And my daughter seemed to arrive on earth with explicit orders to challenge stereotypes, expectations and, most of all, her parents. From her earliest moments, Della's preferred crashing to walking, risking to waiting, declaring to listening.

And, most definitely, superheroes to princesses. She never really hated Sleeping Beauty and her pals. Because of course I tried. But within minutes of watching or reading about their travails, she'd grow perplexed and then bored. And then demand a return to The Justice League or The Flash or, of late, the Power Rangers. Wonder Woman and Cat Woman held little interest. I lost count of the number of painfully predictable exchanges we would experience with well-meaning adults who would innocently ask what she wanted to be when she grew up. "Batman," Della would declare. "Do you mean Batgirl?" many would suggest. She'd shake her head in disgust, muttering something about traitors. Or, better yet, growl.

Indeed, it's through Della's eyes that I've really learned how far we still have to go for our girls. After all, what life experience gets a mother ready, and full of smart answers, for the nights when her four-year-old daughter wonders how she'll grow up to be batman when she's not a boy?

Despite the fact that I'd written an earlier book on women in the workplace with Katty, I've had no education as compelling as the one I got from my daughter. Of course the female versions of those superheroes are far less appealing, when you think about it for even a minute. Just watch who has the best gadgets, the best lines and the most power. For a while, it was a bit startling for me and my husband to hear Della tangle with her brother and declare, in her 5-year-old voice that he "wouldn't see the light of day" unless he handed over her toy. But we've decided to go with her flow.

So imagine our astonishment when this winter we experienced a substantial fissure in our princess freeze out. My husband had dutifully set off to entertain Della and a few friends at the movies over the holidays. The only option was Frozen. He worried Della would hate it, that it would be another in the line of Princess-finds-true-love movies that she couldn't tolerate. But they went, and Della not only tolerated it, but liked it. The next day, she asked to download a song from the movie. And then another, and another. Pretty catchy, I thought to myself, as I listened. For the next few days we saw a slice of our daughter we didn't know existed. She sashayed around belting out lyrics, talking about sisters and acts of love. It was startling. I overheard her telling her father that she was especially struck by the fact that Anna's act of love was actually "being really brave, and loving her sister." This was a movie I had to see, and Della happily went back.

I was really blown away, I have to admit. Slightly obsessed, even. Not only are the songs Broadway caliber (for good reason, given the composers' background, it turns out) and the animation exquisite, but the story is truly compelling and creative. It was classic Disney in the best sense, but with a surprisingly modern make-over.

I realized, after a day or two of trying to puzzle through my fixation, why it was resonating with me so strongly. Yes, it's great in all the ways a musical should be. But it's laced with a powerful message for girls. And not just that girls can be queens and don't have to get married in the end. Those are critical messages too. But Frozen is a powerful vehicle for showcasing the way girls can build confidence -- and become confident women. Our research has shown us that embracing risk-taking and banishing perfection are critical challenges for girls today. And those themes are everywhere in the film.

"Let it Go," the ubiquitous theme song, could be a confidence anthem. Girls today are achieving like never before in school, but the pursuit of perfection, of doing it all and getting it all right, is crippling them. And it inhibits the acquisition of confidence.

As Elsa learned, and sings, the pursuit of perfection isn't just a waste of time. It can be soul-draining and even dangerous. Young girls should be encouraged to jettison that "perfect girl" and let any ensuing storms rage. Learning to deal with storms is exactly the skill that will help them become confident.

And Elsa's parents offer a cautionary lesson for flesh and blood parents as well. Worried about her "powers," they encourage her to "conceal," not "feel." Not so great. What a metaphor those gloves are for being encouraged to be the "good girl." How easy it is for all of us to encourage our girls to please, to not create trouble. To keep their powers under wraps, lest they prove to be messy. Our girls have to get messy and learn to relish what they can do, even if -- or especially if -- that power causes trouble.

Elsa learns to take a big risk -- finally getting out of the box into which she's been stuffed, but Anna is from the start action-oriented, and quite inclined to risk-taking. That is terrific stuff for young girls to see. When thing go bad, she immediately decides to gallop off into the storm after her sister, no man by her side... and no suggestion that she needs one. She happily berates her sweet, ice-man guide when he lumbers along, and isn't afraid to take the lead in battling a giant snow-demon. She makes mistakes and keeps going. Again, critical confidence messages.

And the heart of the story, the theme that so clearly reached Della, is fantastic. I love that Disney took the traditional act of love bit, had fun with it, and then turned it into something much more meaningful. Just as the race is on to get Anna a kiss, which will "solve" everything, we discover her handsome fiancé is really a jerk. A real life lesson, if ever there was one. And then, a double fake. Anna doesn't even need the kiss from the good guy, Kristoff. She chooses to risk her own life and save her sister instead. Very cool.

Yes, there are moments I could have done without. Elsa's transformation into a gorgeous, slinky mountain vixen made me slightly uncomfortable. But as I instinctively looked at my daughter to see what she thought of the high-heels and sequins, she didn't seem to notice. And after all, there was no man she was dressing up for.

I've since learned (because I do love to investigate) that Disney had been eager to break out of the old mold for some time, and take some risks. You won't be surprised that, among other critical decisions that were made, Frozen was the result of a significant first: one of the co-directors was a woman.

Well done Disney. Now, a female superhero of aspirational quality please! Let's give the little boys something to wonder about.