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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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?