The Problem with Princesses

October 10th, 2012

 I’ve found myself plagued by feelings of growing concern about The Princess Thing.  Despite our low-TV lifestyle, Miss Mouse is still an (almost) four-year-old girl and loves all things Disney Princess.  (And by Disney Princess – or DP – I’m specifically referring to the rise and marketing of the movie heroines as a collective group apart from their movies.)  While I confess to indulging her at times — we did, in fact, buy her a princess bed when we moved — I’m less and less comfortable with the World-o-Princess.  At the request of several friends, I’m trying to put down a coherent explanation of what the problem is for me.  Here ‘goes (and I’m warning you now — it’s a long post).

Commercialism

The lovely ladies are everywhere.  EVERYWHERE.  That in and of itself bugs the heck out of me.  Take a stroll through your nearest Walmart and you’ll find Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty hawking everything from fruit snacks to bedding to school supplies to fresh produce.  You can’t by a tube of toothpaste anymore without being confronted by those bitches.

 Princess grapes

One of my favorite non-profits is Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and they believe — as I do — that children have a right (yes, a right) to be protected from the constant barrage of marketing that is heaped upon them from the time they’re born.  And even before.

By 2009, annual sales from Disney Princess merchandise were already at $4 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b”) and somehow I doubt things have dropped off in the last three years.  And the DP idea was created explicitly to sell stuff, which is yucky.  In 2000, Roy Disney went to a Disney on Ice event and was horrified to discover little girls wearing home-made princess costumes.  Oh no!  He recognized a ripe marketing demographic when he saw one and the rest is royal history.  Why create your own costume when you can buy an officially branded one?

So, the commercialism of the DPs bothers me, though that’s really not a problem specific to them.  They’re the largest brand aimed at my daughter, but certainly not the only one.  I hate the other ones, too.  Leave her alone, you soulless corporate executives!

Creativity

But the evils of commercialism by themselves probably wouldn’t put me into a froth if the DPs had more going for them.  But they don’t.  One problem is that they’re a black hole of creativity.  Little girls who are deep into the DP world have a hard time engaging in creative play.  They reenact story lines.  They don’t make up their own.  And woe be to the independent thinker in the group who tries to suggest a change to the plot.  Most of the evidence for this is anecdotal — I don’t know that there have been formal studies — but many teachers in the Waldorf and Montessori schools of education have noticed this same phenomenon.

I can see it in Miss Mouse.  My girl is very grounded and quite literal.  She likes a set story-line and once she has one, she doesn’t diverge much from it.  I tried to get her to come up with a name for a princess today and all she would give me were Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.  I could not make the child come up with a new name.  It kind of freaked me out.

Beauty

Then there’s the last, and biggest, problem.  I think the Disney Princesses are horrible role models.  The lessons they teach little girls about beauty, relationships, and their own self-worth flat-out suck.

I think a major part of the problem is that the DP marketing has divorced the princesses from their stories.  Sure, some of them had cruddy stories to begin with (Do we need to rehash the plot of The Little Mermaid wherein the heroine gives up her voice — her voice! — in her attempt to win a man’s heart?), but some were pretty good.  Some of those gals were independent and spunky in addition to beautiful.

But not once they’re pried from their surroundings.  The feisty feminist Belle who loves to read and tells the arrogant Gaston where he can put his chauvinistic ways is replaced by a one-dimensional beauty in a sparkly yellow dress.

When you use just the princesses’ images and not their stories, all that remains is their looks.  The only thing they’ve got going for them is that they’re pretty.

And think about who The Disney Princesses are.  Ariel, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Cinderella.  Sometimes Tiana.  Sometimes Rapunzel.  Where’s Pocahontas?  She’s awesome.  And what about Mulan?  Technically, she’s considered a DP but I defy you to find her on any merchandise.  No, the girls who make the cut are the stereotypically beautiful blonds and brunettes with sweet features and pretty smiles.

Now What?

There are probably more reasons why I’m not comfortable with the pink ladies.  But the three I listed are biggies.  The issue of course is, now what?  What’s my next move as a mother?  Do I ban the broads from my house?  Stand firm against the pleas and tears of my daughter when all she wants on earth is a pair of princess sneakers?  Force her to only play with featureless wool dolls?  Burn the princess bed in a backyard bonfire?

Probably not.

I think my best course of action is one of alternatives.  I don’t want to demonize the princesses, but I do want my daughter to be exposed to other imagery.  I want to read books with strong female characters (check out the website A Mighty Girl for some great reading lists).  I want to talk about the qualities that make a princess awesome — other than her looks.  If she wants a princess doll for her birthday (which she does), I want to find her one that is cool and funky but NOT a Disney creation.

And, as we’ll see in an upcoming post, I want her not to dress up as Rapunzel for Halloween…

So what are your thoughts?  Have you wrestled with the Princess Thing?  Where do you come down?

 

13 responses to “The Problem with Princesses”

  1. erin says:

    Interested blog to read! I agree on some of your points. One of my daughters was big into the DP’s , but she always had and still does a vivid imagination ! She has no trouble coming up with her own princess names and plots!

    Also, if you are looking for good dolls, my daughter LOVES the Heart for Heart dolls ( you can buy them on line or at Target. ) and they have cool stories about real girls from different countries. Very neat!

  2. Mandy says:

    Great points! But cannot a Princess be a President? Are princesses less important than presidents? I like the idea of moderation even with DP. My 7 yo girl already sees DP as being babyish but continues to enjoy fantasy.

    • Kate says:

      You raise a couple great points, Mandy. One is the age thing. Your daughter’s experience really captures the KGOY thing in marketing — “Kids Getting Older Younger.” Everything that was once marketed to “tweens” has trickled down and is now marketed younger and younger. The seven year old no longer wants to do Princess things so she moves on to the Disney Channel and Hannah Montana and very quickly you’re immersed in the world of sexuality and the early sexualization of our girls. That’s it’s own problem that is intricately connected to the seemingly-innocent princesses.

  3. Hobbes says:

    It was my understanding that Christianity has always been counter
    cultural and can anything be more counter cultural than resisting
    Disney and its attempts to dictate the values of children? So consider
    yourself in a very small, wise, and powerful group which is committed to
    showing this world there is another way to live life. You are doing it
    for your own princess and there is nothing you could do which would
    be of greater value. Children are “on” every waking moment and she
    will be forever influenced for the better for your concerns and actions.

    • Kate says:

      Thanks for your comments! Great reminder that kids are sponges — they’re always absorbing what’s around them which is why it’s so important to be aware of what their environment is telling (or selling!) them.

  4. Ruth Bosley says:

    Fear not, dear one. This, too, shall pass. My girls are now 21 and 25 and emerged from Disney’s clutches with healthy identities intact. We regulated television pretty strictly but as graphic designer parents, were both suckers for anything animated and bought ’em all: Mulan, Beauty and the B, Aladdin, etc. Jourdi lusted after Jasmine one year and loved her Jasmine doll madly…until she didn’t. Maren wore a Jasmine costume once for Halloween and the next year, dressed as some weird, androgynous druid thing — about the same time her favorite toy was a black stuffed poodle named Percy. It was all just for play. They knew it and I knew it. But we also played with rocks. We played with flour. We played with beads and blankets and feathers and dirt. We laid down in the gutters after it rained and built dams with our feet, and then went inside and painted our toenails. It all evens out in the cosmic wash.

    My girls also went through an unbearably snotty, materialistic phase when brand name clothes were to die for. Neither budget nor brain could indulge them, but I’d buy a few small things from the store-du-jour so they’d have bragging rights at recess and then found the bulk of their wardrobes elsewhere. It wasn’t until they were in college that they could fully appreciate Goodwill.

    I don’t have the slightest concern about Miss Mouse precisely because you do. It is your attentiveness that will create the balance she needs. Glorify what is glorious about the DPs, snark about what isn’t and then go outside and play rocket scientist.

    P.S. Re: storylines: Did I ever tell you that my favorite thing to play when I was maybe 5 was “Man from Uncle”, recreating elaborate spy plots that put the TV series to shame? In a pacifist household, what on earth was I doing making guns out of pencils? I have no idea. My parents never commented.

    • Kate says:

      Thanks for the sage words from someone who’s been there! Your girls are certainly great examples of strong women – I hope Miss Mouse grows up to be like them. And I’m loving the “gutter dam” game idea. We have got to try that some time.

  5. Isa says:

    Funny–I remember being that age and always wanting to play ‘peasant’. So much nicer! I think even our mermaid pool games were before TLM, because I don’t remember any of us reciting story lines. All of that marketing grosses me out (grapes! for Pete’s sake!) to no end. I’ll be reading with baited breath to see how you get through it all so I can be ready when the pink sparkle-tiaraed monster starts to raise it’s frilly head at my house.

    • Kate says:

      I also don’t remember playing out story lines at all. And I think that it was indeed the marketing (or lack thereof). Sure, we watched the movies. Occasionally. But we weren’t surrounded 24/7 by the imagery of those movies.

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