Blame it on Disney. Or on the miniature-sized bejeweled crowns, sparkly gowns, and tiny glass slippers that magically find their way into the dress-up chests and tickle trunks of little girls. Or simply call it inevitable. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying the allure of princesses for many young girls. Even for some grown women, the idea of a modern day fairytale romance evokes sighs of delight.
Each generation seems to produce its own cultural icon, from Princess Grace in the 50s, to Princess Diana in the 80s, and more recently, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. Let’s face it; we love a good love story. So it’s no surprise that the engagement of Prince Harry to American television star (and honourary Torontonian) Meghan Markle captured the imagination of young girls everywhere.
My students have come to know that there is usually a message in everything we talk about in chapel. So it was likely no surprise to the students when I raised the topic of Meghan Markle’s engagement, and challenged them to see beyond her beauty, her clothes, and her celebrity – everything the media focuses on. Who is she? And who was she long before she met her supposed Prince Charming? What drew them together? And is Meghan Markle a role model for young girls? The answers were surprising.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Markle reportedly enjoyed a happy middle-class life. She attended Immaculate Heart, an all-girls college preparatory school that focused heavily on social justice and civic responsibility, encouraging its students to become “women of great heart and right conscience.” (Quick shout out to the value of an all-girls education!) Those teachings must have paid off because throughout Markle’s life, she has shown a sincere commitment to helping others. As a Global Ambassador for Canada’s World Vision clean water campaign, or an advocate combatting menstruation stigma that interrupts the education of girls in developing countries, she used her celebrity status to shine a flashlight on important issues around the world. Markle is a longstanding proponent of gender equity, and has spoken often about the racism she experienced growing up as the daughter of a black mother and a white father. But it was her actions at the age of 11 that really struck a chord with our students.
Together in chapel, we watched Markle’s inspiring speech at the 2015 UN Women’s Conference. She recalled how, at the age of 11, her class was shown a video that happened to include a commercial for dish soap. The tagline, “Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pan,” prompted a few boys in the class to joke that the kitchen was “where women belonged.” Outraged, Markle shared the story that evening with her father. He encouraged her to do something with her anger. And that’s how a young activist was born.
Markle decided to write to the most powerful women she could think of at the age of 11. They included First Lady Hillary Clinton, feminist lawyer Gloria Allred, and the host of Nickelodeon’s news program for kids, Linda Ellerbee. And of course, she penned a letter of complaint to the dish soap manufacturer, Procter & Gamble.
Weeks later, Markle received letters of encouragement from Clinton, Allred and Ellerbee, praising her for taking a stand. And not too long after that, Procter & Gamble changed the tagline to say, “People all over America…”
In her UN speech, Markle shared these inspiring words: “It was at that moment that I realized the magnitude of my actions. At the age of 11, I had created my small level of impact by standing up for equality.”
After listening to Markle’s speech, the questions we pondered in Chapel were these:
What matters to you?
What do you care about?
We talked about the importance of finding one’s voice, as girls and young women. But we also acknowledged that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of some problems, and therefore, do nothing. We asked ourselves: How do you know where to begin? How can one person make a difference? And we discussed the notion of starting small – of learning to use our voice a little bit at a time, like a small muscle that grows stronger over time. As one student insightfully said, “It doesn’t have to be about changing the whole world. It’s about changing our world.” And thus we reminded ourselves that even baby steps move us forward.
What I appreciate most about Meghan Markle is this: She’s no damsel in distress. She isn’t the fair maiden in the tower, awaiting rescue by her knight in shining armour. And she certainly hasn’t needed the help of any Prince Charming to make a positive difference in the world. In fact, we decided that Prince Harry is the lucky one!
So to any parent who shares my discomfort with the fairy tale stereotypes that bombard our girls, I encourage you to have conversations that challenge the idea that girls need to be rescued. Help your daughter think deeply about the issues that are important to her. Remind her that many small changes, over time, can do great things. And above all, give space to her words. Whether or not you agree with them, let their sound resonate as she learns the power of her own voice.
Note: If you’re interested in exploring books with your daughter (or son) that challenge the typical princess story, take a look at these great reads!