Princess Mania?

Last week, I attended the workshop given by Peggy Orenstein - author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter (New York: Harper, 2011).  After recently becoming the mother of a little girl, the workshop was helpful in highlighting the problem of “too much princess” and finding solutions (or at least moderate responses) to the “girly-girl” culture that seems to be taking over our daughters. I decided to write this article in a Q and A format…enjoy!

Q:  Haven't little girls always wanted to be princesses? Is there really anything new here?

A: Yes, some little girls seem to be wired toward things sparkly and pretty but know that current media and consumer culture have blown the exposure to particularly the Disney princesses way out of proportion.  Whereas before the year 2000 Disney would bring out a princess (like Snow White) every seven years, and for two weeks Snow White, including all her products, would be on the market and then go back "in the vault" - now the princesses have joined forces, making it possible for the marketing and products to be constantly out 365 days a year.  The facts: there are currently 26,000 Disney princess products and they are making $4 billion per year off of our daughters.  Young girls are being more than inundated with this one way of being a little girl.


Q: What is the problem with the princess culture anyway?  

A: Besides the scripts that it gives to children because of its link to the movies (vs. more open ended princess/fairy play) there are a couple of key problems with this “over emphasis” on the princess. First of all, it focuses on outer beauty - sending a strong message to our daughters that the way to success is through your looks.  This leads, as you can imagine, to a whole host of other problems (think about self-esteem!) as princess culture turns to make-up culture for seven year olds, and an over-sexualization for pre-adolescents and adolescents.  Second, it teaches our girls that those looks alone will lead them to being rescued by prince charming for a life of “happily ever after”.  Yikes.  As one wise woman once told me, "We didn't fight through Women's Liberation so these little girls could aspire to be princesses when they grow up!"


Q: But why does my daughter looove the princess thing so much?  

A: Orenstein talks about preschoolers being in the state of gender impermanence - meaning they believe their gender can change at any moment (e.g. if you make me where pants to school I will actually become a boy!)  So, they often cling to whatever culture gives them to hold on tightly to their BOY or GIRL identity.  There is nothing wrong with this gender expression, or conversely, with the girl who experiments with what it would like to be a daddy when she grows up.  These are a normal and healthy part of growing up.  However, the author suggests we give them some other narratives of gender expression to experiment with, rather than say Snow White, Cinderella, and Ariel.  Read on…


Q: Won't censoring my little girl from the princess culture backfire though? 

A: Yes, it is true that completely sheltering your child (even if it was possible) from the princess mania could lead to the “forbidden fruit” narrative.  What Orenstein suggests instead, are a couple of well balanced approaches.

  • Allow the princesses without comment, whereas express genuine excitement and enthusiasm about other interests.
  • Take her to see the movie when she begs, but talk with your preschooler about the messages in the princess movies.  
  • Tell her your concerns - even the youngest children can surprise us with their insights and understandings. 

You may not be able to take all the princess away but you can add in other strong feminine, yet imaginative, narratives - like wizards and sorcerers, Greek goddesses, and what ever happened to queens?


Q: What are some other practical things parents can do to counter the values of this new "girlie-girl" culture?

A: Provide gender neutral toys like legos, blocks, tinkertoys, trains, firefighter dress ups, balls, etc.  

Encourage cross-sex play through playdates or commenting positively when you see this happen naturally.  The research says that cross-sex friendships are critical to the emotional and psychological health of our children (boys too!), and even impact their future romantic and professional relationships. 

Orenstein has the “fight fun with fun list” which includes books, toys and activities that offer alternative portrayals of princesses and feminine identity.

In honor of all the women who fought for us so we could be where we are today...let’s keep up the good fight!

-Rebecca Walsh