Somehow, princess stuff finds its way into our house. My 4-year-old has Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty dress-up outfits, Little Mermaid and Cinderella purses, princess books, a princess sleeping bag, and a plastic Cinderella play set complete with a doll-sized carriage and horses.
I did not purchase these items.
Before Megan was born, my husband and I vowed to abstain from princess propaganda. Still, kindhearted friends and relatives gave our daughter gifts, and strangers occasionally gave her stuff for free when we went to garage sales, because she’s just so cute, of course. So Megan owns a few princess items, but we don’t actively encourage her interest.
We don’t hate princesses. We actually love Disney animated movies. Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorites, particularly because it doesn’t promote the unrealistic notion of love at first sight. Back during my high school theatre days, my dream was to don one of Belle’s golden gowns and work as a cast member at Disney World. If I couldn’t be Belle, I’d settle for Cinderella.
So what do we have against princesses? Half of the trouble is the narcissistic and appearance-obsessed messages that lurk beneath the pink tulle. The other half of the problem is unrestrained marketing. About a decade ago, Disney executives bundled all their leading fairy tale ladies like Snow White and Belle into one enormous marketing exploit, and it’s now impossible to avoid princesses. They’re on clothing, bedspreads, shampoo bottles, pull-ups, crayons, vitamins, bandages, everything. Disney princesses have become synonymous with girlhood, with few other choices for preschool girls in the toy aisles, and all that pastel fluff provides a very limited view of girlhood.
Some moms love princesses and insist they’re a harmless phase young girls pass through. Others, like me, are wary. Parental opinions differ enough that the Christian Science Monitor suggests the “princess wars” may be the new mommy wars.
The case against hyper-feminine, heavily marketed princesses is compelling. The Christian Science Monitor questions whether it’s the first step down a path toward early sexualization. The Wall Street Journal ran an article a few years ago about self-absorption and the princess culture. It states that research indicates young women raised in a culture of lavish expectation have difficulty dealing with professors, employers, and spouses who don’t cater to every whim. A Rutgers article also questions whether the princess industry is somehow tied to the rising popularity of extravagant weddings, proms, and children’s birthday parties.
Princess culture doesn’t necessarily end when preschoolers grow out of their infatuation with Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Rather than dressing in sweet pink gowns, older girls want to look “hot,” which equates to wearing skimpy shirts that say “Spoiled Princess” or “Diva.” Girls often aspire to be pop stars, the ultimate in divahood.
One of my favorite books that addresses these concerns is Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter. She researches how the Disney princess industry came to be, and she looks into other trends ranging from Bratz to American Girl, to children’s beauty pageants, to spa and cosmetic industries targeting young girls, to Disney’s infamous running list of wholesome starlets turned not so wholesome. (Think Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and so on.)
Orenstein worries about what princess marketing may be doing to girls. Obviously, there’s the focus on appearance. Princesses may say that inner beauty matters, but they still send the message that physical appearance is important. Megan and I recently watched a Disney princess sing-along DVD from the library in which Cinderella says, “It’s important to look your best, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
So which is it?
Even when I ask my daughter why she likes princesses, the first answer she gives is, “Because they’re pretty.” We have since discussed how most of the princesses are also kind (with the exception of The Little Mermaid, who talks back to and disobeys her father and, in one scene, tells her friends to, “Just go away.”). Now, Megan will provide a scripted answer when asked about her attraction to princesses. “They’re pretty, and they’re kind,” she says.
I also wonder whether princesses limit imaginative play. Megan often reenacts the same scenes from The Little Mermaid, following the rote script rather than branching out and creating her own story. When princesses are marketed heavily to little girls, with few other choices among toys (or toothbrushes, or umbrellas, or underwear, or fruit snacks …), it leaves a hole in an important aspect of child development. Also consider how monochrome, er, pink, girlhood has become. Do girls believe other good imaginative toys like Legos are off limits if they aren’t pink?
What to do?
Orenstein suggests a few ways to celebrate girlhood without all the hyper-feminine bling, including throwing some gender neutral toys into the mix, playing sports, and playing outdoors.
It’s also worth delving into some non-Disneyified fairy tales. Megan and I recently enjoyed reading an illustrated version of Hansel and Gretel. The children are resourceful and solve their own problems, and of course princesses are nowhere to be found. There’s also the classic alternative-princess story The Paper Bag Princess, in which a dragon destroys the princess’ castle and clothes, and she wears a paper bag while rescuing the prince. There are also plenty of good stories that don’t involve princesses at all. Start with the picture book series based on the Little
House on the Prairie books, the Madeline series, or the Ramona series.
In our house, we obviously have not enforced a complete ban on princesses. I broke down this past summer and bought two small cases of Polly Pocket princess dolls and dresses for 50 cents each at a garage sale. Megan was excited because a Prince Eric doll from The Little Mermaid was nestled among all the rubber outfits. To Megan’s credit, Eric is one of her favorite characters. She likes how Ariel rescues him from drowning, so I suppose feminists everywhere would be pleased.
What we do emphasize is moderation. A bit of pink princess play is fine. Megan is even looking forward to wearing a princess costume for Halloween this year. Yet, as she grows up, I want her to know femininity is about more than glitz, gowns, and commercial products.
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Tags: American Girl