Can we change princess culture?

Posted by

By: Kevin DooleyCC BY 2.0

When I speak of my disdain of the Disney-fication and/or princess-ification of girl culture, I am often met with a “Oh just you wait,” or a knowing “You’ll see!”, intimating that of course Disney and all its sexist princess-y glory is, you know, a given for all girls. And it got me to thinking. Maybe it is.

Certainly, once my kiddos head out into the world without me they are going to be immediately bombarded with all of the things (Disney princesses and morals included) that I have tried my absolute damndest to avoid.

So – if a princess phases is really somehow a given can we re-message and re-package what “princess” means and looks like in a way that makes princess life empowering and not merely about external appearance, wealth, and netting a hot young prince?

Can we revise the message of Snow White, for example, that tells girls that their beauty will make other women hate them? Can we find something empowering amidst prevalent messages that men fall in love with women for what’s on the outside, that men are women’s rescuers, that a heterosexual marriage (preferably to a wealthy, handsome prince) is the most important life goal?

I remain entirely unconvinced…but I’m open to suggestions.

Comments on Can we change princess culture?

  1. I taught my daughter something that I didn’t learn for myself until I was a teen. You can be a badass AND wear pink! She loves her princesses, but I don’t think she’d ever consider not being fierce and independent. There are also great stories out there where the girls are the heroes. Miyazaki films like Spirited Away are known for their heroines, and there are great old fairy tales where the girl has to save the kidnapped or enchanted prince.

  2. One of my favorite princess books growing up was “The Ordinary Princess” by M.M. Kaye who was inspired by Andrew Lang’s Fairy Book collections. Andrew Lang was less a story teller and more of a translator, writing down stories as they had been told through generations but his books are definitely worth seeking out if you prefer the older versions of popular fairy tales.

    Modern day princess books, where still fantastic and less Disney-fied stories are told can be found with “Princess Ben” by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (also check out the Dairy Queen trilogy) and Gregory Maguire’s books.
    Or to go way off the beaten path, what about “White Wolf Woman” by Teresa Pijorn, or “One-Hundred-and-One Celtic Read-Aloud Myths and Legends” by Joan C. Verniero.

    There are plenty of stories with strong female (and male!) characters that haven’t been corrupted by Mattel and Disney.. whether or not there’s a MOVIE about them.. that’s another story.

  3. Can we not just let kids play with what they want without getting het up about it? My girliest girl never really went through a princess stage. Did get bent out of shape about brides for a while (that could have been whispers from concerned onlookers about our status though). My second daughter dressed up as princesses or spider/superman on alternative days and now wears pink and has her hair just perfect before she steps onto the rugby field where more often than not, she’s player of the day. Kids will ultimately be who they are and their interests will vary. I think as a parent if you don’t latch onto an interest on their behalf (ie at the mention of Snow White run out and buy all the dolls, accessories, matching bedspreads for them) then they will have their fun and move onto the next thing quite easily until they settle into who they are.

  4. I think if parents don’t make too much of an issue about it, kids will outgrow it. One of our friends has a girl who was all about disney princesses from age 2-4. now she is into star wars, and wants to be a wolf for halloween.

    my sister was the biggest princess EVER – barbies, ballet class, bride for halloween, etc. and at 27 STILL likes to try on prom dresses at the mall “just for fun” — and she is in the Army and such a badass you can’t imagine!!!

  5. It’s not the princesses I’m worried about. It’s tabloids, reality shows, and certain entertained shows. That kinda stuff I worry influencing my daughter. I grew up with disney and wasn’t influenced by it

  6. I think that hiding disney princess movies from your chldren is too drastic of a step! As an adult I see what you are saying, however I feel that if you expose your children to many opnions, and always let them know that they are perfect the way they are, there really should be no issue.

  7. Our solution – dress up in a brown paper bag.

    Why? Keep reading:

    I agree, and as there are so many pages of comments, see that there are many who do or have modified opinions (often because they were raised with the pretty pretty princess pink plastic crap consumerism). Saying you’re 30 and were raised “after” the Disney-fication of princess pop-culture is accurate in that the merchandising had a surge in the 1980s on, but the message is age old.

    The most helpful suggestions have been to influence your children (boy or girl) with positive role models. I was even anti-pink; demanding to know why even my BABY clothes had to be pink, purple or teal and labeled with princesses, crowns, cupcakes and unicorns? What if I wanted my little girl in red with dinosaurs? I bought up all sorts of sale items after Christmas in various sizes hoping they’d get me through the year. I was lucky with some, unlucky with others.

    I have successfully survived my daughter’s first birthday without a solitary pink princess thing added.

    But who was the culprit? ME! I bought a pink ballerina leotard and tutu for her to wear on her Grandmother’s 69th birthday, since my husband’s Mother had been a dancer in her youth… I knew it would be meaningful for her to see my daughter dancing about. I have to admit, it was adorable, even if against my idea of gender role indoctrination.

    That’s not to say that we ought to teach our children that boys and girls, men and women are all the SAME. Being the same, is not the same as being equal. We are wonderfully unique, we women. We can celebrate our woman-hood without denying ourselves the full-spectrum of being our own identity.

    I don’t know what your solution is, but mine is to keep careful watch on what items and media are brought into the house, and when the time comes, have conversations about what is seen/experienced elsewhere. I don’t want to get all Miracle on 34th street (where the Mother teaches her daughter there is NO Santa Claus, and stifles her)… but at the same time, to find a balance between the inherent expectations of night in shining armour? We don’t read Disney, but the “Paper Bag Princess”. To buy on Amazon:

  8. I plan on telling my daughter, should I have one, that being a princess is a pretty big job! It’s not all crowns and puffy dresses! She’ll have to learn many languages and be a role model for her whole country. It’s a big but awesome job to have!

  9. I think the princess or queen culture can be suitably rehabilitated.

    I somehow got exposed to stories both colourful and dramatic (but basically factual) about various Real Life and mythological princesses along with the usual (including Miyazaki); also, as far as ‘the usual’, I can’t think of any of the classic stories that didn’t come to me by being read aloud from sources like the Brothers Grimm *before* I could see the (pretty disappointing-to-me, naturally enough) Disneyfied versions. That really helped.

    I did spend some time playing at being a princess or queen, but as often in the style of Boudicca (as written by Rosemary Sutcliff) or Grainne O’Malley or Elizabeth the First or Rhiannon of the Birds or the Princess (of …’and the Goblins’) by George MacDonald as otherwise. There seemed to be lots of war, piracy, intrigue, succession issues, magic, and exploring involved.

    (Part of a larger theme, I guess, as my Barbies ended up married to my Ninja Turtles and riding dinosaurs into the constant war taking place against the evil Star Wars Guys and a motley crew of other baddies.)

    I had the essential elegant dresses (recycled formals), tiara and ‘glass’-heeled slippers, but I also had a sword, shield, and helmet and used them. Good times; good times.

  10. Instead of fighting the princess culture why not embrace it and find the good morals that the movies teach? Cinderella never complained about anything. She was responsible and thankful when she got help. She didn’t expect more than she worked for and didn’t need a prince to be happy. She was thrilled with the evening out and the prince came looking for her. Ariel didn’t like her situation and found a way to fix it. Jasmine wouldn’t let men make decisions for her. Belle took care of her father.

    These women were strong and brave while still being feminine. I think thats a more important lesson.

  11. I don’t know if this has been mentioned yet, but what about A Little Princess, by Francis Hodgson Burnett? Yes, it’s old-fashioned, but the main character in the story defines a princess as someone who has a responsibility to help those less fortunate than herself, and as someone who holds herself with dignity, treating others with respect and kindness.

    I think those are wonderful ways to redefine “princess.” I like focusing on the responsibilities we have toward others to act kindly and respectfully, instead of focusing on the privilege of being a “spoiled little princess.” When you think about the actual position of a princess, she in fact has greater responsibility than the average, non-royal girl because she is a role model and has a political duty toward her subjects. That is the side of princess-ness which is highlighted in Hodgson Burnett’s book, and I think little girls could benefit from this leadership and responsibility model of princess-ness.

    Also, Princess Leia is pretty darn awesome. 😉

  12. Super late to this discussion and I’ve not much to add as so many comments have totally nailed what I want to try and say. I think contextualising the message is so important, and teaching our daughters/nieces etc to take the right message – see how brave he/she is rather than ooh pretty pink dress. Someone already picked up on the portrayal of men which is just as important for girls as well as boys.

    Anyway the one thing I don’t think anyone else has exactly said that I wanted to add: I was brought up by a single, fairly feminist, mother. Now as an adult I pretty much espouse all the same views (at length given half a chance) and I definitely would have had my childhood than not I guess, but what I would do differently is not the message itself but just how that is passed on to my kids.
    Maybe I was just different – I was precocious as, and more interested in sucking up to the adults than getting to know kids my age – but all these academic points about feminism that mum explained to me as a kid, I internalised and parroted back, and it pretty much alienated me in a lot of ways. I got made fun of because I would tell my friends that barbies are stupid, or I don’t want to be pink power ranger, or the spice girls were made up by marketing men, or whatever it was at the time.
    I guess what I’m going to have to learn to do is embody the messages as much as possible, and emphasise the good messages that can be found in media – not explain all these complex arguments about why the media is bad in an age-inappropriate way.

  13. There is a tension between the bad messages in these films and the resilience of kids to interpret them. What’s important is that YES, there is an attempt at pushing girls into a submissive, prone gender role in these films, and YES, many girls internalize these messages way too deeply. What is needed is alternative stories, more Pippis and movies such as Brave. On the other hand, we should give kids enormous credit for how they mix, remix, and edit these stories in their lives.

    My own position as a young transgender girl watching The Little Mermaid was filled with the tensions. I was the only “boy” watching the movie with other girls during a play day at school once. I felt impatient with Ariel’s determination to marry that blank slate of a man. I edited all that out, even fast forwarded through those bits. But I read Ariel’s determination to journey up above, change her body to fit her heart’s desire, as profoundly inspiring and resonant with my own hope to someday be physically transformed into a normal girl. To this day I can’t hear the song, “I want to be where the people are…” without crying. Ariel was a girl like me, smothered in her gender ghetto under the sea, yearning to live her own life in the sunshine as a real person.

    Kids deserve empowering stories. They will find them where they can, but why sublimate them under all the heterofascist baggage if one no longer needs to? Why weigh them down when booster rockets would help? I’d prefer to give any kids I have all the leg up on the gender morass that I can. So, yeah, scratch Disney. Hello Studio Ghibli.

  14. There’s always ‘Anastasia,’ too. She starts out a princess, at eight gets into an accident and forgets who she is, becomes a poor orphan (and looks it), meets up with two con men (one of whom she does eventually get into a romantic relationship with, but it takes almost the whole film to do it as they fight at first and then there’s a time where her love interest believes they shouldn’t be together because she’s a princess and he’s a con man who used to be a kitchen boy), and then most of the film is her journey and struggles to find her home and family. There is one scene where she gets rescued from something, but then later during the last battle with the film’s main villain, the same guy (her love interest) tries to rescue her again. He provides a bit of distraction to the bad guy and aid for Anastasia, but ends up in a battle of his own with something the bad guy conjures up, leaving Anastasia to defeat the bad guy herself. There are other scenes where she works side by side with her future love interest, and even one time saves him. Another time he manages to get a person who is her relative to meet with her, but it’s Anastasia who in the end convinces the relative that she’s the real thing (there had been lots of fakes). There are nice songs and beautiful dresses just like the Disney princesses, but the heroine is so much more.

Read more comments

Join the Conversation