Like many mothers of girls, I’ve struggled with the rise of the princess culture. Until quite recently, we were all about princesses around here. Maya owns each of the tiny fashion dolls, a couple of the Barbie-sized dolls, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty costumes, princess underwear and several items of bedtime-wear with princesses. And my impression is that we’ve been fairly conservative in princess acquisition (the majority of which is hand-me-down in origin). We could have purchased clothing, furniture, bedding, lunch boxes, toothpaste, shampoo . . . even grapes.

Disney Princesses Are Everywhere

 I don’t remember owning much princess paraphernalia as a child. Sure, there were princesses, but there wasn’t a Disney Princess marketing machine the way there is now. There was almost a blog post here titled “Not Really a Ball Kind of Girl” (though I did get all gussied up and attend one once) where I was going to reminisce about my Cinderella dress.

When I was a kid, there was a dress at my grandmother’s house dubbed  “the Cinderella dress” because it was old fashioned and twirled very satisfyingly. The thing about it is that it was clearly the scullery maid Cinderella dress – patched, faded, ragged in spots. While I have no doubt that I would have accepted a Disney-branded dress, I’m not sure they existed. Star Wars, on the other hand, had a marketing machine and features prominently in my memory of childhood toys and games.

According to the New York Times, Disney didn’t begin marketing princesses independently until 2001. Andy Mooney, who worked for Nike before taking over the Disney Store princess line of merchandise explains:

We simply gave girls what they wanted, although I don’t think any of us grasped how much they wanted this. I wish I could sit here and take credit for having some grand scheme to develop this, but all we did was envision a little girl’s room and think about how she could live out the princess fantasy. The counsel we gave to licensees was: What type of bedding would a princess want to sleep in? What kind of alarm clock would a princess want to wake up to? What type of television would a princess like to see? It’s a rare case where you find a girl who has every aspect of her room bedecked in Princess, but if she ends up with three or four of these items, well, then you have a very healthy business.

Does the Pervasiveness of Princesses Harm Girls’ Individuality?

For most princess objectors, it’s not really the merchandising that’s a problem (though, that is sometimes hard to take too), it’s the messaging. But experts will tell you that the sheer volume princess appearances in a girls life, the pervasiveness of that message, IS a problem.

“Playing princess is not the issue,” argues Lyn Mikel Brown, an author, with Sharon Lamb, of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes.” “The issue is 25,000 Princess products,” says Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College. “When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”

The article continues:

There are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. On the other hand, there is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs — who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty — are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception. What’s more, the 23 percent decline in girls’ participation in sports and other vigorous activity between middle and high school has been linked to their sense that athletics is unfeminine.

That makes me wonder about the current state of politics and what’s become known as The War on Women.  What are the long-term implications of waiting for your prince to come as a preschooler?

Princesses Are Just A Small Part of Gender Inequality in Media

 An actress known for portraying strong women, Geena Davis, definitely thinks there’s a problem. She founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Children in the Media to document the portrayal of girls and women in popular culture and advocate for change. According to institute reports :

  • There are simply more boys than girls represented in media with male speaking roles outnumbering female roles 3 to 1 across G-, PG-, PG-13, and R-rated films.
  • Female characters are presented in a sexualized way 5 times more often than than male characters and are 3 times more likely to have an unrealistically “perfect” body.
  • Animated, G-rated programming presents the biggest imbalance, not a safe-haven for girl self image.

Girls are princess or nothing at all . . .

A Different Kind of Princess?

Not all the characters Disney categorizes as “princesses” have gotten the same merchandising as the 3 on the grapes above. Pocahontas’s story was markedly different than the others, not culminating in a wedding, for example.

Maya has asked for a Pocahontas “deluxe set” (her name for the approximately 4 inch dolls with changeable plastic clothing) like the ones she has for Rapunzel and the others, but it doesn’t exist. Did Disney just not think her Native American garb had the same play value?

Princess Merida, Disney/Pixar’s latest, is a strong character who defies tradition to control her own destiny (and doesn’t seem particularly interested in her appearance). She also seems to have received the full Disney store treatment: dolls, costumes (though a bit more frilly than her movie attire), household accessories . . . weapons. Well, that last one is unusual for princesses.

Unfortunately, Brave appears to be targeted to an older audience than the pink princesses that dominate my house and the movie is decidedly too scary for a 5-year-old.

For Maya’s demographic, Disney is launching Sophia the First. “Sofia will wear plenty of pretty dresses and sparkly shoes, but the stories will focus on the idea that what makes a real princess is what’s on the inside. The show will highlight character qualities such as kindness, generosity, loyalty, honesty and grace,” which is nice and all, but it just doesn’t seem as cool.

Moving Beyond Princesses

I have no idea what, if any, the long term ramifications of princess obsession will have. Perhaps none, because as abruptly as they took over my daughter’s imagination, princesses have fallen out of favor.

We recently read Olivia and the Fairy Princess by Ian Falconer, in which the feisty young heroine pig grapples with some of these very issues, explaining to her mother that she liked princess just fine until everyone wanted to be one. Maya’s favorite scene is when all her classmates dress as princesses for a Halloween party except Olivia, who comes as an undead warthog. My favorite part is how the book sparked conversation.

What’s all the rage now? My Little Pony, and in particular, a character I don’t remember from my generation of the toy: a very speedy, not-very-girly, very-not-pink Pegasus named Rainbow Dash (seen below in a video montage playing off the double rainbow internet meme.)

Photo credits: Princess branded grapes photographed by flickr user moonlightbulb, Olivia and the Fairy Princess book by Ian Falconer.