We try to raise little girls to be anything they want to be. But what happens when what they want to be is a Disney princess?
For the parents of many of those would-be Moanas and Belles, that can be a tricky question. Just a quick scan of the parenting blogs and forums reveal that existential angst that those princess costumes can scare up.
One of the loudest voices in the current conversation about so-called princess culture is Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter. In the 2011 volume, she argues that young girls’ obsession with princesses is unnatural and is a result of aggressive marketing tactics on the part of Disney. In an interview with USA Today, she calls the overwhelming quantity of princess-themed toys and attire the “princess industrial complex” and says it is the precursor to “the Kardashianization of girlhood,” referring to the Keeping Up With the Kardashians stars.
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Orenstein argues that princess culture encourages the “self-objectification” and “self-sexualization” that many girls later face during their teenage years. She says about her research in an interview with LiveScience:
What really floored me, both as a girl-advocate and as a parent, was the way that prematurely sexualizing girls or play-acting at sexy for them from a young age disconnects them from healthy authentic sexual feeling. So that they learn that sexuality is something that you perform, instead of something that you feel. And that can have implications as they get older in the culture.
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The other major criticism of princesses is that they reinforce gender stereotypes. Last June, Brigham Young University family life professor Sarah Coyne studied the behaviors of 198 pre-schoolers and measured how much they interacted with Disney’s princess products—how much they played with the dolls, watched the movies, etc. She found that 96% of girls (and 87% of boys) had viewed at least some princess media.
Coyne then observed the children’s behavior a year later and discovered that the more the kids watched and played with princesses, the more likely they were to display stereotypically female behavior. “We know that girls who strongly adhere to female gender stereotypes feel like they can’t do some things,” Coyne explained. “They’re not as confident that they can do well in math and science. They don’t like getting dirty, so they’re less likely to try and experiment with things.”
Rebecca Hains, assistant director of the Center for Childhood and Youth Studies at Salem University and author of The Princess Problem, has another take on how princesses hurt young girls’ self-confidence: “The Disney Princess brand suggests that a girl’s most valuable asset is her beauty, which encourages an unhealthy preoccupation with physical appearance. The brand also implies that girls should be sweet and submissive, and should expect a man to come to their rescue in an act of love at first sight.”
Not everyone agrees with this view. Jerramy Fine, author of In Defense of the Princess, argues that the current attack on glitter and tiaras is unwarranted and that loving princesses and pink does not make a girl less powerful or strong. “The bottom line is this: princesses are easy targets because our society dismisses anything feminine as weak or second best,” she said on the Today show. “If we want to stop the oppression of women and the oppression of all things feminine, we must also stop the oppression of the princess dream. After all, princesses are women too. ” Moreover, forbidding girls to dress the way they want to also sends the wrong message, Fine argues.“It’s not about making girls choose between pirates and princesses—it’s about allowing them to feel that it’s perfectly acceptable to love both.”
So: Should your daughter be a princess this Halloween? Even Orenstein, the original anti-princess author, says it’s best to let the girl in question decide. But if she’s rewatching Frozen five times a day, it might be time to take back the remote.