What Is It About Princesses and Superheroes?

These types of movies and imaginative play are almost unavoidable in our culture. Why is it everywhere we look and who drives the market on the ever-so-popular fairy tale princesses and superheroes? Is it the children who so desire it or is it adults who immerse the kids in it? Perhaps the answer is both. If that’s the case, is it possible that all of humanity longs for what the heroes and princesses represent?

There are two sides to this coin. Most people in our culture believe that this type of play and the movies or T.V. shows associated with it is innocent and that it fosters the child’s imagination. Then there are those who believe that it hinders the child’s imagination...that the gender-specific marketing sends signals to girls that suggest that they are beautiful little princesses who frolic around aimlessly until someone comes and saves them from the woes of the world - or that boys must learn how to fight the good fight by being ultra-tough superheroes.

There is something to be said about what these fanciful activities actually represent. Heroic qualities are leadership qualities that are necessary in life for women and men. Heroism refers to a character who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, displays courage and the will for self-sacrifice...for some greater good of all humanity. An endearing quality that can be extracted from the princess mentality is the ability to surrender to something outside of ourselves. There are certain things that we cannot do for ourselves. We all will need to seek support from someone at some point to act on our behalf. So, back to my question in the introduction: Is it possible that all of humanity longs for what the heroes and princesses represent? Absolutely. We all have a definite, innate desire to give and receive. It’s a perfect symbiotic relationship with an automatic feedback loop where one depends on the other...there can’t be givers without receivers or receivers without givers.

Maybe America is on to something with all of the movies and characters, but overall it appears that we’ve missed the mark. Montessori suggests that children from birth to around age 6 need not be exposed to things of fantasy. Children this age are considered to have an “absorbent mind,” an impressionable, undifferentiated mind that needs concrete examples of real life. Once the foundation is laid after age 6 then the brain can comprehend mythological concepts that can be helpful with character building.

Montessori advocates that a child develops a vivid imagination, but not one that is out of step with reality. She says "faulty fantasy" is what most children are forced to engage in: "Yet when all are agreed that the child loves to imagine, why do we give him only fairy tales and toys on which to practice this gift? If a child can imagine a fairy and fairyland, it will not be difficult for him to imagine America. Instead of hearing it referred to vaguely in conversation, he can help to clarify his own ideas of it by looking at the globe on which it is shown."

The iconic superheroes and fairy princesses are fleeting versions of the substance kids crave. We have to be careful that they do not become substitutes or stand-ins for the real thing. If children have real desires for leadership (giving) and real desires for support (receiving), then we need to feed them something that is sustainable. We might want to limit the movies, toys, and costumes that promote faulty fantasy and instead help our kids don on real, sustainable attributes that will last a lifetime and strengthen them for what lies ahead.

What is something sustainable that we can feed them? We’re constantly reminded that we are the living examples for our children. Madeline Levine said it perfectly in “Raising Successful Children”: “One of the most important things we do for our children is to present them with a version of adult life that is appealing and worth striving for.” We have to ask ourselves how to do this and where we as adults go to fill our own lives with things of true substance.