With Disney hyping its long lineage of princesses to young girls, there is much fretting in Parentland about princess-ness as a commodity that preschool girls think their parents can buy for them. True, Disney's film princesses are pluckier and more well-rounded as characters now than they used to be, but Disney can't sell pluck and well-roundedness in shrink wrap in the kids' section at Walmart; Disney can, and abundantly does, sell frilly clothes and sparkly plastic jewelry.
Although my son does know enough about girl-culture to identify anyone in a frilly pink dress and a tiara as a princess, he has an entirely different idea of the distinguishing features of princess-ness that matter most.
For him, the foundational princesses are from an episode of The Backyardigans in which the female characters pretend they're princesses escaping from a tower. They're not only brave and resourceful--they have MacGuyveresque skill at inventing equipment they'll need for their escape, and concealing that equipment in their frilly dresses, glass slippers, and Princess-Leia-parody hairdos.
How did I find out that my kid's definition of the word princess was about physical heroism and engineering prowess?
I heard him declaring, "I am a princess!" and when I turned around expecting to see him cross-dressing, I saw him standing on a stepladder, poised to swing, Tarzan-like, from the string of the venetian blinds.
(Yes, I know, no blinds with strings in a house with small children. Childproofing is one of those projects that never ends.)
There may not be much help for my nieces until they're old enough to read Robin McKinley's novels and Jack Zipes's wonderful collections of revisionist fairy tales, but at least the reimagining of princesses that's happened for older audiences has trickled down enough to reach some boys. When Katherine, Zoe, and Eleanor are old enough to wear their frilly dresses for male eyes rather than their own or their female peers', there will be at least a few boys out there, and maybe more than a few, whose buried childhood mental associations for those dresses are with martial arts moves and rocket slippers.