This week, I found myself in a position to read The Princess and the Pea aloud repeatedly. I also found myself squeamish about it.
The version I had in hand was very basic: Prince is "miserable" because he can't find a bride he's sure is a princess; royal family takes in a rain-soaked woman who claims she's a princess; queen hides a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty quilts; guest complains about her "dreadful" night's sleep; wedding bells.
Many if not most fairy tales value royalty, and while I often find that problematic, I imagine that many young readers and listeners realize on some level that this is a fantasy world. Just as wizards, hobbits, and aliens act as stand-ins for real people in many stories, princes and princesses stand in for the people most readers are likely to encounter or become. "Princess" can allegorically mean "good person." But in that case, I want some evidence that she is one, and the sensitive sleeper in this story just comes off as whiny. Not that she can't politely express discomfort, but should a guest - especially a desperate, last-minute guest - really launch into a tirade about the terrible accommodations? Shouldn't the queen have to worm it out of her a bit? Shouldn't the prince want to know she's nice before he marries her?
I think other versions I've encountered placed more emphasis on the fact that the title character was a princess even though she didn't look like one at first. That was what made the story fun when I heard it as a child: there was something going on that the characters didn't expect, and that I could kind of predict.
Teaching lessons is not the job of a fairy tale, but if kids are going to hear these stories over and over, let's have heroes and heroines they can root for. Fancy clothes and sensitivity to peas make a well-dressed character with a backache. Consideration, appreciation, graciousness... Now, those make a princess.