04/23/2013 05:53 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2013

All Hail Princess Leia

Cara McDonough

My 4-year-old daughter loves Disney princesses in the same way many other little girls her age do, her interest in them both startlingly specific -- knowing their ball gowns down to the neckline, for instance -- and glaringly vague (grasping none of the cultural significance of Tiana's New Orleans roots in The Princess and The Frog.)

And, like many other parents who vehemently decried things like allowing my children to watch television... before I had them, I've adapted to the presence of princesses in my life, explaining wisely to other moms, "Oh, the princess stuff? I don't mind it. It's actually kind of fun."

Fun, it is. The world of make-believe that my daughter often inhabits -- of unicorns and magic wands -- is an undoubtedly enriching exercise in imagination, keeping her occupied for long stretches at a time, as she flits and floats from her "castle" (the couch) to a different "castle" (the chair). Castles are a big deal.

The Disney stuff, an understandable extension of the general theme, carries with it a few issues perhaps problematic to some parents; there's the intrinsic commercialism and associated retail mania (believe me, my daughter knows if that's the actual Disney-issued Cinderella gown or not). And then there's the more pressing issue, at least as far as I'm concerned, and that's whether or not these princesses are positive female role models.

That's the issue I'm referring to when I tell people that "I don't mind" the princess stuff.

It's also the issue that had me overjoyed when my daughter recently became interested in Princess Leia, inspired by a good friend at school who'd become obsessed with Star Wars, much to her parents -- and our -- delight.

Leia! Sassy Carrie Fisher talking back to Harrison Ford and fighting alongside her male counterparts. Escaping the clutches of evil Jabba the Hutt and standing up bravely to Darth Vader. Her princess status was all that was important to my daughter; her self-confidence was important to me.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that the Disney princesses don't appeal to me, and it's not that they aren't strong in their own ways. The characters have grown over the years in the face of evolving female ideals. Belle loves to read. Ariel is persistent. Tiana opens her own business. The modern princesses are, despite their good looks, non-conformists. Plus, I like those movies. When Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Potts sings "Beauty and the Beast," I cry. Every time.

But, I have my moments. A few weeks ago my daughter was watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a movie she adores, despite it's age. I've seen the movie more times than I can count, including as a child myself. Suddenly, however, watching half-heartedly, listening to that irritatingly high voice, I thought about Snow's situation. Yes, the film is a product of the 1930s, but there's a theme that carries through these fairytales. "All she wants is the man," I said to my daughter, shaking my head.

"That's not cool," I explained, expecting her to jump up and join me in a bout of feminist fist pumping. She did not.

Which brings me to another important point. My daughter is 4, and I'm not sure that watching these movies is shaping her worldview in a major way. It's simply not that big a deal.

As I said, though. I have my moments.

Like when my daughter's sashaying around the house, batting her eyes and adopting a vapid look, completely removed from her normally inquisitive, enthralled and judgmental demeanor. It's a learned look; learned from those goddamn princesses.

That's when the ideals I clung to before becoming a mother of two young children, a slightly more worn-down version of myself, fight their way back to the surface. "Hey," I tell her. "Let's be brave, instead. Let's go on an adventure."

In this scrutinized world of child rearing, it's sometimes easy to forget about instilling important ideals in our kids. I'm ashamed to admit that, at least on a conscious level, I've probably put more thought into how much juice my children should drink than teaching them the importance of loyalty.

Luckily, as I get more and more comfortable in my role as a parent, I'm taking more opportunities to teach the big lessons when I see them.

When the Star Wars mania began, my husband (beyond excited at this branding shift) retrieved his own plastic light saber from our basement and showed it to our daughter. Please understand, it's not that I want her to idealize fighting or any kind of violence, but seeing her brandish it about, just like the characters in the movie, was so much better than the alternative of batting her eyes and clasping her hands.

Later, in full Star Wars mode, she showed me a new move. "Watch this!" she shouted, jumping high into the air and landing with her feet planted far apart, the light saber pointed straight ahead. She was a study of pure confidence in miniature.

"Now that," I said, mirroring her enormous smile, "is awesome."