Princess culture. It’s been a whole hullabaloo since Peggy Orenstein’s 2011 book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and before that, too. But that’s also the year my daughter was born and I fully tuned in.
Like any parenting debate, it’s a touchy one. Criticizing the princess industry implies criticism of those who (literally) buy into it. A quick scan of The Huffington Post‘s actual “Princess Culture” subsection offers the following: a grandmother nostalgic for the patient and kind Cinderellas of yesteryear, discussions about how boyhood intersects with princess culture, critiques on the morality of sanitizing fairy tales, and more than one parent wondering what the big, frilly deal is anyway.
Reviewing the battle, I’d say that, on one hand, princess culture is improving. We no longer encourage young girls to sweetly and quietly wait around for life to reward their quiet sweetness with wedding bells. You’d be hard-pressed to find a recent animated tale of a fair damsel bedeviled by her evil stepmother/queen and ransomed by a princely bridegroom.
Instead you have Brave, a story of a rebel princess whose archery skills put her suitors to shame, and who doesn’t marry any of them. Or Frozen, in which a princess-turned-queen learns to celebrate her power, “true love” is found between sisters, and the prince is a dirty fink. Mulan saves China from the Huns. And even Jasmine, back in Disney’s 1992 classic, literally tries to escape her patriarchal palace life.
Part of me feels like enough aspersions have been cast. And enough rejoinders thrust back. Maybe we should just close the bedtime story (or browser window) and get some rest.
But then there’s this:
I mean. Just look at this.
How does this make any sense? What are they doing removed from their narratives and posed together in the eye of some strange Pepto Bismol storm? There’s no story here. And every analogy that comes to mind is suspect:
- Beauty pageant contestants?
- Models posing before the catwalk?
- An elite clique of popular high schoolers?
You can tell subversive princess stories with feminist subtexts all you want. But if you also extract their flesh and gowns from those stories and those identities, then blanket girls’ clothing, lunchboxes, backpacks, pencils, and shampoo bottles with their vacuous group shots, you’ve lost the whole message. In fact, you may have overturned it.
I’m not here to criticize parents who buy their girls (or boys) these items, because we’re under tremendous pressure to do so. Little girls really want them. Their friends all have them. Not the end of the world. All kids will suffer from questionable taste. I did. You probably did. Our kids do, too, or will.
And on one hand, those parents fed up with the whole controversy are right. This is not such a big, hairy deal. Our girls are probably not going to be less strong and secure as women because of some early princess infatuation. Maybe this is a helpful purging.
Besides, there’s big money making sure that the Princess Posse remains the sovereign
centerpiece of corporate gender-pandering. (…At least, on the pink side. Over on the blue side, it’s usually pirates. As though one cannot be both.)
So I don’t think parents are corrupting their girls by indulging their interests. But I do think Disney’s princess industrial complex is corrupt. It’s a campaign lacking creative integrity and any constructive message. I’m not calling for a boycott. But I would prefer to opt out.
And for a time, we were able to neutralize what my husband calls “pink pressure” with our own daughter. Before starting preschool, she was exposed only to Disney movies featuring either an all-animal cast or a naive, wayward puppet. Her favorite movie was The Jungle Book and her favorite color yellow.
Then came peers. Now I nightly perform a lullaby version of “Let it go” (which I do with feeling and don’t altogether mind) and have to haggle with her about how many layers of dresses she’s allowed to wear to school all at once.
I see that many children take keen interest in their gender differences. As a child, I was also drawn to ballerinas and fairies (still am) and teenybopper romance. I remember memorizing songs from The Little Mermaid, begging for jewelry and dolls. I loved dressing up for Sunday school.
Are girls taught to be more appearance and relationship-oriented and boys more active and mechanically inclined? Or are those legitimate general tendencies? Our daughter has always hovered around people, picking up speech and telling stories. Our boy immediately runs off to explore (and disassemble) objects. Is that chromosomally informed? A response to our subtle, unconsious prompting? Related to birth order? A total fluke?
While I never quite know where the cultural stops and biological picks up, I’m not a strict cultural constructionist. I accept that there are general biological differences between men and women, maybe even our brains. That seems logical to me, in fact.
But I see her wanting not just to categorize, but to polarize and separate. “Dogs are for boys,” she’ll say. “Cats are for girls.” She should have the pink bowl, and he the blue.
Girls over here, boys over there.
Because she’s trying to figure out who she is, and where she goes.
And I’m trying to figure out my role in this. Because I don’t know who she is. And I don’t know where she’s going.
I have no doubt that this kind of tribal thinking is natural for kids at this age, probably even healthy. And I’m not here to tell her she’s wrong, or scoff at her interests. But I will be gently honest if she asks for my opinion. And I will question the segregation of playthings, and offer different narratives.
Because I also can’t help but notice that she still imitates and seeks validation from me. I don’t know how much longer I can influence her so directly, and I’d like to keep her options open.
So, yes, the pirate Halloween costume was my idea, but it didn’t take much coaxing. (Our boy was a swan, which was his idea. The next day, they swapped costumes.)
I guess my only point here is that I resent having to compete against the seduction of a multi-billion dollar never-ending glamour shoot of be-gowned teenage Disney princesses.
So yes, please: more stories of young ladies with courage, talent, and heart.
But I’ll pass on touring Princess Follies.