“Of course beautiful girls and women can be strong and powerful, but let’s celebrate them for the strength and power rather than pinpointing their beauty as their most admirable trait.” – Samantha Turnbull
Author Samantha Turnbull chats with Breathe about her “anti-princess” quest, her experiences with sexism, play choices for children and her book series.
When Byron Bay journalist Samantha Turnbull brought her first baby into the world she was shocked by the amount of princess paraphernalia that quickly piled up in her hospital room. Searching the aisles of a department store for children’s books a few months later, she couldn’t find a single item marketed to girls that didn’t have a princess or a fairy on it.
Samantha got to work writing a series of children’s books that would show her daughter Liberty that “girls and boys can like the same stuff, most princesses are kind of boring and self-worth should have nothing to do with what you see in the mirror.”
The Anti-Princess Club series, published by Allen and Unwin, features four best friends who have talents that don’t fit in with the usual girl stereotypes. There are no princesses. No damsels in distress. No fairies.
What inspired you to write The Anti-Princess Club book series?
When I gave birth to a baby girl I was shocked by the amount of princess paraphernalia that piled up in the hospital. There was the gaudy stuff like tiaras and pink wall signs, but there were also princess images on everyday essentials like nappies and baby food.
Then, when I went out looking for books for her, I went into a local department store and couldn’t find a single book marketed to girls that didn’t have a princess or a fairy in it. And there were at least 50 books in the “girls’ section.”
I just thought, “This can’t be healthy” – there’s more to being a girl or a woman than the princess fantasy.
What do you hope the books offer those who read them?
I want my readers to feel confident in being their true selves – especially if that differs to what the rest of the world wants them to be. I think that’s a message I could’ve taken on more myself when I was growing up.
When I think back, I always wanted to be an author. I was always writing fiction and winning awards at primary school for my stories but then a few adults in my life talked me out of pursuing that type of career, with one teacher telling me that if I must make a living out of writing then I should become a journalist.
So, I did become a journalist, but now that I’ve written four fiction books, I wish I hadn’t listened to what the rest of the world told me to be. I wish I tried my hand at fiction years ago, because I found it very easy and I loved it.
In one of your blog posts you refer to the “Hermione Syndrome.” What is this and why does it “get your back up”?
Hermione Syndrome is a term I’ve heard other writers use in a negative context. I heard one particular children’s writer say that they were sick of Hermione Syndrome, which is used to describe a trend towards including strong girl characters in stories (like Hermione in Harry Potter).
I guess I could be accused of having Hermione Syndrome, as I’ve made an effort to include strong girl characters in my stories.
What gets my back up about that term is that it’s seen as a bad thing. But I’m proud to have Hermione Syndrome. We need more strong girl characters in children’s stories rather than passive, prissy princesses.
We have strong, independent and beautiful women all around us – why do you think this isn’t often translated into movie scripts and children’s toys, for example?
I think we are in a period of transformation. Even Disney, which is renowned for taking traditional fairytales with strong women and reimagining them as passive princesses, is changing its approach with characters like Merida in Brave, Anna in Frozen and Maleficent.
However, I think at the crux of princess merchandising is the same problem that exists in the adult beauty industry. Marketers target female insecurities, holding up impossible ideals of beauty for girls to aspire to, and creating products to help them get there.
For grown women, we’re told to buy potions, creams and pills to make ourselves look beautiful. For young girls, they’re told they need sparkly dresses, plastic tiaras and heels to look like pretty princesses.
Can’t princesses, and real life girls, be strong and powerful as well as soft and pretty?
Yes, definitely. But in so many princess stories, beauty is held up as the most important attribute a girl or woman can have.
Look at Cinderella – she wasn’t chosen by Prince Charming for her wit, intelligence, power or strength, she was chosen for her beauty. And, it’s no coincidence that the “bad” characters in the Disney version of that story are ugly.
…Of course beautiful girls and women can be strong and powerful, but let’s celebrate them for the strength and power rather than pinpointing their beauty as their most admirable trait.
Growing up, did you struggle with gender stereotyping and sexist generalisations?
I think I have always struggled with gender stereotyping. I remember being relegated to sweeping the floors in my high school metal work class (I was the only girl who elected to do the subject). I also remember being told by a PE teacher that it didn’t matter that I didn’t have strong arms, because it was more attractive for girls to have soft “Jessica Rabbit-like” figures.
And, as an adult, I was once asked in a job interview if I planned to run off and “get pregnant” any time soon.
When I was very young, I enjoyed many Disney stories. But they weren’t a massive part of my life like they seem to be for girls today, so I didn’t give them too much thought.
I remember liking Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White, but all of the merchandise didn’t come with the stories like it does today so it didn’t dominate my play or thinking. And that’s because Disney Princess didn’t actually become a “brand” until the year 2000 – so girls in the 1980s and earlier didn’t have princesses plastered on everything they owned.
How important is leading by example when it comes to breaking down these stereotypes?
Very important. I actually don’t ban princess stuff, or even Barbies, in our house. But I make sure I talk A LOT with my daughter about the stories, the depictions of the characters and how they are not realistic.
Our family dynamic is also quite healthy, in that my husband does most of the domestic stuff yet I’m the one who mows the lawn and builds things. We’re not trying to make a statement, we just play to our strengths, which happen sit outside of gender stereotypes!
Do you have any tips for parents, and anyone with children in their lives, about how to integrate play and products that aren’t strongly targeted to one gender? Why is it important to do so?
Just make sure there is a diverse range of everything on offer, and do it from birth. My daughter naturally gravitated towards pirates and dinosaurs as a toddler, and it wasn’t until she turned four and started to become more influenced by her peers and the media that she showed an interest in princesses.
Ignore “boys and girls” aisles in stores. If you let marketing dictate to you, your daughter will never own a chemistry set and your son will never own a broom.
What makes a valuable children’s toy? Can you share some of your current favourites?
It depends on your child’s personality and age. Cater to their interests, and of course it’s always a bonus if it’s educational. I love most toys from National Geographic. And you can’t beat outside play – trampolines, totem tennis, bikes.
What kind of reactions have you received in your pursuit against princess play?
There are definitely people who are of the belief that “girls will be girls” and “boys will be boys” – but I think our kids need more credit than that. They should be treated as individuals, not lumped into two broad groups and expected to like certain things based on their gender.
Despite the name of my books, I’m not entirely “anti” princess. My message is more about everything in moderation. There’s nothing wrong with the odd game of princess dress-ups if it’s part of a broad range of play.
Have you faced much resistance from your daughter?
Yes, that’s the hardest thing of all. I feared I’d lost the battle there for about six months when my daughter became Frozen-obsessed. Elsa and Anna completely dominated her play. I found it disheartening to see her lose her natural knack for making up her own stories, and instead taking on pre-defined characters and storylines over and over and over. But I think she’s coming through it now and expanding her mind again.
Since the year 2000 when Disney Princess became a brand – and now a multi-billion dollar industry – other toy manufacturers have witnessed the success and want a piece of the pie. So, now, you can get princess-themed Monopoly, princess building blocks… I actually challenge you to find me a product you can’t get a princess version of. I’ve found princess ear plugs, tampons, corkscrews… everything.
Who inspires you?
My children. I’m also inspired by working mothers in general. Anyone who manages to raise children and sustain a fulfilling career is admirable in my eyes.
What do you love about being a woman?
First and foremost that I got to carry and birth two children. I wasn’t sure if I was entirely maternal until I fell pregnant. The bond between a woman and baby still in the womb is something indescribable. That connection, and parenthood really, begins nine months before anyone gets to hold a baby! And once the baby enters the world, the biological connection that takes hold is the most powerful force I’ve ever experienced.