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Brits get The Royal Wedding: We have a princess problem

April 28, 2011 – 3:11 PM
















By Katie Culver

Given the frenzy surrounding The Royal Wedding and future Princess Kate Middleton-Windsor (we feminists can only hope for the hyphenated name), it seems prudent to consider the implications of “princess mania.”

To mothers of 4-year-old girls (I am one of those), the term needs no explanation. To those needing a definition, it describes the overwhelming popularity of princess culture that bombarded our nation long before the Royal Engagement.

Now, I have thus far resisted, refusing to buy princess gear (as if it’s a sport!) or let my daughter watch Disney princess movies (am I so cruel?).

So while the airwaves will be filled with Brits parsing The Royal Wedding, I offer an alternative go-to source: Peggy Orenstein’s recent book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. In it, she explains our society’s problematic obsession with princesses, particularly those with Disney lineage. She substantiates my hesitance to soak my daughter in “girly-girl culture.”

What did I learn from Orenstein that will get me through all the princess talk?

·         Disney Princesses are not harmless. In fact, when you consider the dominant characteristics, it’s plain scary: Sure they have beautifully made-up faces, impractical and sparkly gowns and tiaras, but they are also friend-less, mother-less, and non-action-oriented individuals waiting to be saved by a prince (and pining for marriage). They are victims unable to escape cruel step-mothers, and spend their time tidying up and looking after others. Ariel of The Little Mermaid even gave up her voice (!!) to be with the Prince of her dreams (I didn’t know this before Orenstein pointed it out).

·         The emphasis on appearance – the central feature of Princess gear — sends a powerful message:  How you look is more important than what you do (or think, for that matter). The princess phenomenon establishes a dangerous path focused on image, pleasing others, and finding the right man to seal a happy ending.

·         Yes, many (especially moms) defend their daughter’s obsession with all things princess by describing an unstoppable drive. You hear that, “She is so into princesses, it’s all she wants to play,” that “everything has to be princess (or PINK).” Is this nature? Is it destined? NO! It’s a $4 billion Disney enterprise supported by sales and marketing of more than 26,000 Disney Princess items on the market. As Orenstein puts it, “…it’s a little hard to say where ‘want’ ends and ‘coercion’ begins.” One Grandmother told me that if she wants her granddaughter to like her gift, it has to do with princesses. Have grown-ups lost their ability to think for themselves?

·         Part of the “princess problem” – if I may call it that – is what the scripted play with princess dolls, books, movies, music, furniture, light fixtures, etc., excludes: opportunities to be the hero of their own stories and to develop non-princess skills of athleticism. After all, princesses rarely run, jump, climb on the swing-set, kick a ball, or ride a bike.

I, for one, wish Kate Middleton all the best, and hope maybe she can transform the future of princesses—with a career, strong mind and seemingly subdued nature (o.k., she’s gorgeous too, but what can you do?). However, I am nearly dreading the Royal Wedding (and poor Kate—what a spectacle the event has become!). Middleton’s dress color is a well-kept secret (ivory? champagne? lilac?).  Let’s just hope it’s not pink!

  1. 4 Responses to “Brits get The Royal Wedding: We have a princess problem”

  2. Katie: I applaud your article and understand the ambivalence of this whole problem, including the review of Peggy Orenstein’s book to which you linked. I just got back from Masters Nationals in Mesa, Arizona, and the vendors there – mainstream swimming and athletic companies – all stress PINK, mostly hottie pink – in their athletic lines. How did this happen?
    Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge (not the Princess of Wales, like Diana), does break the mold: she is educated; she seems bold; and she openly cohabited with her new husband. Perhaps we are redefining princess, after all? Time will tell.
    But, as an athlete, it is upsetting to see the hot pink apparel in all the stores and the little girls’ wanting to be princesses. Maybe I am oversensitive to pink and also to the idea of all princesses being subservient. How do other people feel about this issue?

    By Ellen Shockro on May 1, 2011

  3. Is there a princess problem? Or is it a matter of being well rounded and having options? I am a competitive masters swimmer, a biologist who specializes in biomechanics (science and engineering anyone?!?), and I have played the violin since I was in elementary school. These days, you are likely to find me in the lab covered in fish guts after a dissection, and there is a good possibility that I will smell like chlorine. Thirty years ago, I was an avid watcher of Disney movies. Actually, I still like them. I had a canopy bed that was light pink and about every Barbie doll ever manufactured. Why so much pink? For one reason or another, it was what I liked (although everything I own now is blue!). My parents didn’t fight it, but they did give me many options. I started swimming competitively when I was four and I participated in many other sport activities including gymnastics, dancing, softball, and soccer. I didn’t only have Barbie’s to play with… I had about 100,000 Lego and a lot of required time playing outside with my friends. I had strong female role models including my mom who, as the ultimate tom-boy, is very athletic and does not ever (I mean EVER) wear makeup. So, I don’t think there is anything wrong with little girls wanting to play princess. I think it is up to their parents and role models to explain that movies are make believe and give them many options to explore with their creative little minds. Fast forward thirty years and this little princess loves the color blue, has found her own version of prince charming but was in no way shape or form ‘rescued’, and rather than playing with Barbie’s, I build my own robots. Clearly, the Disney movies and pink canopy bed did not prevent me from becoming a strong independent person.

    By Marianne on May 1, 2011

  4. Marianne,

    I think the most important point you make is that your parents provided you with lots of options and got you involved in a variety of activities, including sports (MUCH research supports the benefits of playing sports for girls)! I played with dolls, barbies and other “girlie” things growing up as well, and while I don’t support the disney princess craze, my daughter is not denied “girlie” toys either. The problem is, when we were growing up, we didn’t have the same Princess-mania, as I have dubbed it, that has completely overwhelmed our society at present. Furthermore, parents today don’t seem to possess the ability to think critically when it comes to their purchasing, and end up going princess crazy, as are their daughters. The result is princess underwear to princess bikes and helmets to princess balls to princess backpacks. It’s ridiculous, really. What girl wouldn’t be happy with a bike–it doesn’t have to be a princess one. And finally, most problematic is that parents fill their houses with princess everything and girls are not exposed to the variety of toys and activities that you mention influenced your development. Today’s girls are missing out on so much, and we have Disney and Toys-r-us in addition to parents who succumb to their marketing ploys to thank for that. See Orenstein’s book for more on the problems with “Girlie Girl” culture today, and not just in Princess paraphanalia. I really only touched on it in my post!
    Thanks for your comment!

    By Katie Culver on May 2, 2011

  5. Ellen,

    In response to your insightful comment, we need to vote with our wallets and not support the hot pink, sexy sports apparel marketed at girls (I mean, short-shorts that can pass as underwear do not belong on any sports field–or anywhere for that matter!) Orenstein talks a lot about the persistent marketing of inappropriate clothing and early sexualization of girls and the of course, negative affects of this. I can’t stand when parents defend buying trashy clothes with any excuse. Just say no. Just as we have a rule in our hosue, “sneakers for playing outside (not crocks or sandals),” as my daughter gets older, I will continue to add to the rules such as “clothing must cover your body!”

    I am a big fan of Kate Middleton and was really sick of hearing all of the news coverage stating that this must be her fairytale come true. What about it being Prince William’s fairytale come true?! I did hear that after being tired of hearing how lucky she was to have found Prince William that Kate did finally say, “Maybe he’s lucky to have found me.” I am anxious to see how Middleton continues to update the “Princess” character as we know it. Hopefully she will keep challenging the status quo and be a wonderful example for little girls. Maybe she’ll even set Disney straight!
    Oh, and for the record, I just let my kids watch Mulan, a Disney movie with an uncharacteristic heroine (Orenstein mentions how it is overlooked since it strays from the typical princess story). It was really well-done and I was very impressed. Also, see one of my previous posts for suggestions on children’s literature featuring strong female characters. One more to add to the list: Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls (Jane Yolen). http://www.amazon.com/Not-One-Damsel-Distress-Folktales/dp/0152020470

    Thanks for keeping the discussion going!

    By Katie Culver on May 2, 2011

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