According to newspaper reports, researchers are exploring links between a girlhood characterized by “princess culture,” and womanhood fraught with narcissism, materialism, and overspending. No adult behavior can be explained solely by one thing—human beings are complicated creatures. But these researchers are on to something. We pass cultural values on through the stories we tell and the toys we give to children. The messages they take away from what they see, hear, and experience contribute to their understanding of the world and how it works.
Much has been written about the negative impact of impossibly built fashion dolls on how girls conceptualize beauty, and how they feel about their bodies. For many parents, the Disney Princesses seem like the lesser of several evils—perhaps they aren’t quite as in-your-face sexualized as the Bratz, or My Scene Barbies, or the new Monster High Dolls. But, in addition to promoting the dream that irks so many feminists—someday a prince will come and solve all of my problems—Disney Princess films, sequels, prequels and products subject little girls to clear messages about class and entitlement.
In The Case for Make Believe, I relate the following conversation with a four year old Disney princess aficionado:
“What’s a princess?” I asked Abigail. “A rich girl,” she answered promptly, “with a kingdom.” She was a bit fuzzy on exactly what a kingdom is, however. “It’s got lots of rooms,” she explained tentatively. Then her eyes grew big and round, sparkling with excitement. “And now there’s no food in it!” “Oh, no!” I groaned. “Yes!” she said with joyful urgency. “The servants have run out of ingredients!”
In the wonderful world of Disney, the female ideal is a rich girl living in a big house with lots of servants. And while the company has given the nod girls of color—Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tiana—the crème de la crème of princesshood, the ones featured most prominently in the princess brand, are white: Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, Snow White, and Aurora.
Truth be told, I love fairy tales. While my fondness for them sometimes rests uneasily on my social conscience (the themes may be deep and complex, but the characters are not), I understand why they have so much meaning for young children. Classic stories of perseverance rewarded, good triumphing over evil, and the weak overcoming the powerful are valuable for kids as they grapple with the immense cognitive, physical and emotional demands of growing up socialized. And our exploration of fairy tales doesn’t have to be limited to the Western European versions that are so popular in the United States. After all, the original Cinderella story is the Chinese Shen Teh—and there are magical tales handed down for centuries from all over the world. In their original forms they are often explorations of important themes universal to children—sibling rivalry, family discord, loss, and redemption. But in the Disney versions of fairy tales, the deeper themes get lost amid the talking teapots and adorable singing mice. The films are enjoyable and the do what Disney does best—create longing for a magical world where virtue is synonymous with beauty and ultimately rewarded by material wealth.
Back when a movie was mostly just a movie seen only in theaters, princess values didn’t necessarily permeate little girlhood. But with miniaturized screen technology and tens of thousands of princess products on the market, that’s no longer the case. It’s not just that children see the films repeatedly, so that the scripts are embedded in their brains. Their play about the films is constricted by the plethora of princess toys and accessories. In addition, the image of the princesses—plastered on sheets, wallpaper, toothbrushes, snacks, backpacks and pretty much everything under the sun—dominates children’s experience of the stories.
One reason that commercialization is so harmful for children is that marketers exploit and pervert normal developmental stages—in this case, gender identification—so that corporate messages dominate how a child’s world view is shaped. Children, naturally attracted to glitter and longing to be so much more more powerful, are sitting ducks for gendered marketing like the Disney’s Princess selling machine. A society that does not protect kids from being immersed in advertising is complicit in their exploitation and the harms caused by it. As the father of a tiny potential consuming princess fanatic laments, unless you move to the woods it’s just about impossible for little girls to avoid the world according to her majesties Cinderella, and Ariel et al.
So what’s a parent to do? Until and unless we change the culture, you can set some limits and at least keep your daughters from drowning in The Little Mermaid and other Princess paraphernalia. Here are just a few options:
For babies and toddlers: Avoid purposely exposing young children to screen-based entertainment, at least until they ask for it, and limit exposure after that. You can at least put off instilling the expectation that the Disney princesses are essential to a happy girlhood.
For preschoolers: You might choose to avoid the films altogether. But if you love them, and want to share them, go ahead—but do so with the understanding that you’re not going to let Disney dictate your child’s post-film experience. Encourage hands-on creative play free of branded products.
From preschool on: Surround your kids with books of multi-cultural stories, including folk and fairy tales. And make sure to include stories that defy stereotypes. If your daughters love frufru and want to play princess, then haunt thrift shops and the closets of friends and family for cast off finery. Keep talking with children about your values and how they are similar and different from the commercial values celebrated by Disney and other corporations with a corner on the kid market.
Oh, and one last thing. Join the movement to stop companies from targeting children directly with marketing. Gender stereotyping and materialistic values aren’t the only inevitable harms of a commercialized childhood.