By sheer coincidence, I have a number of friends with preschool aged daughters. As a result, over the past couple of years I have engaged in numerous conversations about princesses. As a researcher of Girls’ Studies I had already thought a lot about princesses and read some great pieces of research examining the impact of them of children (one of my favorites being “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” by Peggy Orenstein ). Despite this, I have often found myself amazed at the scope and depth of princess mania. Just this summer I interacted with friends’ children in Northern Ireland, Colorado, and here in Pittsburgh, and all of them brought up the movie Frozen. Maybe I was inadvertently prompting them, but mostly I just asked them the standard kid-questions: What are you doing? Watching Frozen! Do you want to play a game? Let’s play Frozen! and on and on.
Every conversation I have with a parent about their child’s (usually, but not always their daughter’s) interest in princesses is unique, as every family is unique. But there are some important themes I have heard: 1) parents are concerned about princess mania and the possible negative impact on their child, 2) parents sense that banning princesses outright will not be effective or possible, and 3) parents wonder if they are overreacting to princess mania. Each family has found their own way to cope with their concerns, but the fact that I have had so many conversations about this topic suggests to me that there is a lot of continued anxiety about what to do.
Now, of course this is a limited scope of people (my friends!) but these themes mirror those raised by parents during more systematic and scientific data gathering approaches (i.e. research studies).
Parents might wonder if they are worrying too much because any one princess story is not that bad (ok, except for the Little Mermaid. I mean, come on. She has to give up her voice so she can find a man?!? Using nothing but her good looks and her infantile charm that is a product of the fact that she just learned to walk!!) But I digress. Many of the traditional stories do contain nuggets of positive features. Belle is able to see the best in the Beast and help him become a better man (of course, she is his slave—but there I go again!).
Now, obviously princesses are not new. Most of the princesses that children today are exposed to are the same ones that Disney portrayed when I was a kid—most of those existed as legends shared in spoken and written formats for centuries.
If I am in a charitable mood, I will even say that Disney has made some attempts to add in non-traditional princesses to their lexicon. Mulan wants to be a warrior (of course that movie sets ridiculous expectations about masculinity); Repunzel is clever, and Tiana was the first non-White princess.
Despite these new (and improved?) princesses, it is the ways in which princesses haven’t changed and the ways in which princess mania HAS changed that gives parents reasons to be concerned.
Princesses continue to reinforce traditional gender roles and the sexualization of girls and women, almost without exception. Even those princesses that are given opportunities to demonstrate strength and courage are often drawn with traditional notions of beauty in mind. It is this persistent presentation of a limited view of girls, women, and femininity that is the problem.
One example of this that I found rather startling was in the film Frozen—yup the one that kids seem to love. There are certainly many great points about the movie. Personally, I get the biggest kick out of the snowman who loves summer.... The film’s hit song “Let it Go” has received critical acclaim and even won an Oscar for best song. It is a catchy song and has an empowering message about being yourself and not hiding who you are from others. Great, right? Kids around the world seem to be obsessed with this song in particular (I know my friends’ daughters do an amazing rendition of it).
If only it were that simple.
Recently, my husband happened to catch a glimpse of the film during the performance of the song (how he managed to avoid it until now I will never know) and asked with all genuine curiosity, “Why did the princess suddenly transform into a skinny blond?”
Yup. That she does. Well-sort of.
You can watch for yourself—the transformation takes place at about 3: 15
She was actually always blond, but suddenly in the song she shakes out her hair (really!), is suddenly wearing a slim fitting dress with a long slit up the leg, and sways her hips while she walks.
Of course parents are worried about princess mania!
I get that the filmmakers wanted to demonstrate her transformation in a visual way. Fine. But there are SO MANY options they could have taken. But they opted for the classic hypersexualization approach—because being sexy means being empowered, right?
Wrong--that’s what we call “empowertainment"--using themes that appear to be empowering but with the intention of entertaining others or selling something.
So. That hasn’t changed much. Now, what has changed?
Princesses mania is not new but seems to have grown—likely as a result of increased focus on consumerism. Scholars have argued that the big change we have seen is an increase in marketers working to sell stuff to children, and reinforcing many traditional ideas about gender in the process. (See the books Packaging Girlhood and Packaging Boyhood for examinations of the intersections of marketing and gender). These days it seems almost impossible to go anywhere without seeing products being sold that have a “princess” spin on them.
This summer I visited Yellowstone with my family. I grew up in the Western USA and we went to Yellowstone almost every year during my childhood (sometimes more than once a year). One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to participate in the “Junior Ranger” activities that were available in the visitor centers and earning a badge for doing so. This year, I noticed a “new” line of products: Park Princess. In one gift shop there was a big section of Junior Ranger gear and another section next to it that was covered in pink “Park Princess” gifts. They even have vests: a green one labeled “Kids’ Park Ranger Vest” and a pink one called the “Girls’ Yellowstone Park Princess Vest.”
I was sad to see that princess mania had invaded my beloved national park.
If you have read this far into the blog, you might not believe what I say next, but it is true.
I have nothing against princesses. Or the color pink. I think hearing fairy tales and playing princess can be a healthy part of any (female or male) child’s development. It is the mania part that concerns me. The emphasis on one way of being in the world that has permeated all areas of a kid’s life. The exclusionary nature that sends the message that girls should focus on being pretty above all else.
Luckily, some people are working to challenge this narrative.
The Princess Free Zone includes a blog and a brand designed to provide options for girls beyond the typical princess gear. Rejected Princesses is a new blog developed by an illustrator who is developing pictures and telling the stories of women who are too powerful or offbeat to fit into most people’s definitions of a “princess.” My husband and I love the show "Once Upon a Time" which puts a new spin go
Sadly, there are few other female protagonists in children’s media, so it makes sense that lots of girls would be drawn toward princesses. And princesses can be part of a really good story. But girls deserve to have a wide range of female icons to look up to—they deserve to see diverse perspective about what it means to be female and to imagine themselves in lots of different roles and excelling in many different areas. Kids have the potential to dream big--both for themselves and the world. Let's stop limiting them with our need to fit everything into a tiny, pink, princess box.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.