My daughters have always been equal-opportunity when it comes to their play. Not only do they have their dolls, kitchen, Barbies, and other toys and games traditionally associated with girls, but they also have Legos, Lincoln Logs, fire engines (and firefighter outfits to go with them), and Thomas the Tank Engine trains and track. My older daughter will sometimes parade around in a ball gown with a firefighter hat on, proudly declaring “I’m a princess who’s also a firefighter!” I love their willingness not to discriminate, and it’s something we encourage.
As time has gone on, though, and I find that they are now at the age where the Disney princesses have entered their world and seemingly taken up permanent residence. They still play with their trains and Legos, but it does appear there are a lot more princess toys and princess play going on. It could be the age and developmental phase, but it could also be partly a result of exposure to the “princess culture” that social critics like Peggy Orenstein warn us about. Whatever the reason, here they are, and they seem to be here to stay. For the time being, at least.
While they love the classic princesses (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine just to name a few), they have also not been immune to the spell cast by Anna and Elsa. However, the one I want to focus on is also another relatively new princess–Sofia.
“Sofia the First” is a show that airs on Disney Junior, and it has quickly become one of the girls’ favorites. According to her backstory, she is the daughter of a single-mom shoemaker who catches the eye of Roland, the King of Enchancia (where our story takes place). The king and Sofia’s mom marry, and Sofia is suddenly thrust into the role of princess with no experience or preparation, and many of the episode storylines revolve around her adjusting to her new royal life. The show is funny and entertaining, and has some good life lessons (be true to yourself, listen to others and their needs, don’t be greedy, sometimes doing the right thing is really hard, and so forth).
As the parent that stays home with the girls, I have watched quite a few episodes of Sofia, and very often I get requests to see certain episodes many times in a row. While some parents may groan at this prospect, I view it as an opportunity to give one of my daughters’ favorite shows a closer look.
For example, I look at the Kingdom of Enchancia which, according to the show, is situated in the “Tri-Kingdom Area.” This area also contains the Kingdom of Khaldune and the Kingdom of Wei-Ling (which is guess is technically an Empire, since it is ruled by Emperor Quan). I imagine something along the lines of a Disney version of the Five Boroughs; since travel to these kingdoms doesn’t seem to take very long, I would gather they are very small. It does however, make me wonder–how could three kingdoms with such diverse ethnic populations be in such close proximity? Wei-Ling is a kind of miniature China, and Khaldune reminds me of a North African nation (at least, its citizens do–we have not yet seen the kingdom itself). Perhaps the Tri-Kingdom Area is a bit like the former Yugoslavia and other parts of Eastern Europe, where diverse ethnic populations live side by side. Perhaps they are the descendants of invading armies from wars long since past.
Another explanation could be that their world may just be a lot smaller than ours. Other kingdoms in the area include Tangu (reminiscent of a Saharan Middle-Eastern country), Corinthia (19th-Century Greece, perhaps?), Friezenburg (a kind of German city-state), and an unnamed kingdom that sort of resembles 15th-Century Spain (its matriarch, Queen Cecily, looks like she’s straight out of a Velazquez painting). While outside of the immediate Tri-Kingdom Area, they still appear to be in relative close proximity to Enchancia. Or perhaps their proximity to each other is an illusion because I’m not taking shortened travel time into consideration. The monarchs of these kingdoms send their children to school at Royal Prep Academy in coaches drawn by flying horses. It could be that these flying-horse carriages are the equivalent of the Concorde in this world, and they can travel vast distances in a short time. Since this is a world where flying horses exist in the first place, it’s conceivable that they can break the sound barrier as well.
And that leads me to the subject of Royal Prep. If the kings and queens of these nations are all sending their children there, does that mean it’s centrally located in order to avoid having anyone travel too great a distance to attend? And where exactly is Royal Prep? Is it located in a Switzerland-type neutral nation? Or is it kind of like the United Nations–a sovereign region unto itself, where no one can claim ownership? Or is it—
And then it hits me. I’m reading way too much into this. It’s a children’s show, intended for three- to five-year-olds.
However, I must admit that exercises like this one has helped keep my media-analysis skills sharp, and this is something I hope to teach my girls. I don’t want them to be passive viewers. I want them to think about what they’re watching. And reading. And the games they play. I don’t want them to be pigeonholed into what marketers and media companies have decided are appropriate “roles” and “products” for girls. I want them to think for themselves, and choose for themselves. And that’s the best that any parent can hope for. Princesses who fight fires are okay in my book.