When I was a teenager, I didn't dream of marrying a Hollywood star. I dreamed of marrying a prince. Like a real one. From Europe. Preferably from England.
And can you blame me? The boys that filled my junior high school consisted of three types: arrogant jocks, tiresome Bible-thumpers, and rambunctious cowboys. And when forced to choose, my answer was always "none of the above."
I wanted an alpha male (what girl doesn't?), but I also wanted an old-fashioned gentleman. A guy who was confident, chivalrous, courteous, and kind. I saw no reason why I couldn't go after my prince rather than waiting for him to come to me. And I saw no reason why (once we fell in love) we couldn't go through life as equals. I would be the benevolent (and subtly fashionable) princess at his side, looking after the well-being of our kingdom and dedicating myself to its service. Our co-regency would be compassionate, generous, and merciful; empowering others would become our regal raison d'etre.
This was my royal fantasy as I lugged my books back and forth through the crowded halls of junior high. My parents just rolled their eyes and went with it — to them, my prince fantasy was ideal because it wasn't interfering with my education like real sex with a real boyfriend might have.
But a lot of people called me crazy. Worse than crazy — delusional. They also called me silly, shallow, and immature. Because modern women aren't supposed to want a prince. Not really. Not if we're intelligent with any sense of self. And we're definitely not supposed to believe in the old-fashioned fairy tale of true love. Forget that. It's much more acceptable for independent, well-educated women to pretend that our dreams of happily ever after don't exist. But I'm afraid that doesn't make them go away.
Fairy-tale dreams come under constant attack because they make a lot of us nervous. After all, is it healthy for women to think that a mythical prince can save them? Shouldn't girls be focusing on careers instead of snaring powerful husbands? And shouldn't we be eradicating the myth that marriage is the ultimate goal in life?
But these questions completely miss the point. Because, deep down, aspirations that hinge on "prince charming" aren't about rescue or social climbing. They're about knowing that whatever your circumstances, you are worthy of a prince. He may be rich, he may be poor; you might marry him, you might not — but he sees you, and loves you, for the princess that you are.
Image Source: Jerramy Fine
It is so often misunderstood, but the truth of the matter is this: when girls set their sights on finding "a prince" (real or metaphorical), they are actually making a very strong statement about their own self-worth.
In her book Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert explains that we choose our partners to express the deepest aspirations that we have for ourselves: "your spouse becomes the gleaming mirror through which your emotional individualism is reflected back to the world." It really boils down to a simple Jungian impulse: I want this person because I want to be like him.
I am unique in that my belief in fairy tales lasted well past my childhood. But most girls are born believing everything is possible and see no reason why they shouldn't aim for the stars. It's only when cynical grown-ups start telling them that princes only exist in silly fairy tales that girls begin to accept that perhaps they should settle for less.
But if a 25-year-old girl confided to you, "My boyfriend isn't really what I'm looking for, but I don't think I can do any better" — would you let her get away with thinking that? Of course not. So why is it acceptable to tell 5-year-old girls that princes are imaginary and that settling is the only way forward?
Not all men are charming, they rarely show up on white horses, and nothing guarantees happily ever after. But — if "prince charming" was the minimum standard women would accept — maybe men would have to up their game. Maybe things like chivalry, courtesy, gallantry, and valor would become givens — not optional extras.
When Prince Harry's Las Vegas photos were published (strip billiards, anyone?), everyone laughed. But looking back on it two years later, Harry remarked, "It was just a classic case of me being too much army and not enough prince."
I was struck by the wisdom of those words: not enough prince.
Imagine if all dishonorable male behavior could be labeled as "not enough prince." Imagine if boys seriously took that sentiment to heart and became genuinely disappointed in themselves for not living up to this noble ideal. Maybe things would start changing. Maybe men would start realizing that codes of chivalry don't just belong in Arthurian legend but create the foundation for behavior in this day and age as well. Maybe men would understand that real courage and real honor is not only refusing to demean women but speaking up when others do. Maybe one in three women would no longer be raped or beaten.
We worry when our girls play with pink princesses. Mothers get anxious if their daughters watch too many Disney princess movies. Even grown women feel embarrassed if they read royal gossip. But I think the focus here is wrong.
Perhaps instead of telling girls that their brains are filled with too much princess, we should focus on telling boys that their brains don't contain nearly enough prince.