Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dethroning the Disney Princesses

According to newspaper reports, researchers are exploring links between a girlhood characterized by “princess culture,” and womanhood fraught with narcissism, materialism, and overspending. No adult behavior can be explained solely by one thing—human beings are complicated creatures. But these researchers are on to something. We pass cultural values on through the stories we tell and the toys we give to children. The messages they take away from what they see, hear, and experience contribute to their understanding of the world and how it works.

Much has been written about the negative impact of impossibly built fashion dolls on how girls conceptualize beauty, and how they feel about their bodies. For many parents, the Disney Princesses seem like the lesser of several evils—perhaps they aren’t quite as in-your-face sexualized as the Bratz, or My Scene Barbies, or the new Monster High Dolls. But, in addition to promoting the dream that irks so many feminists—someday a prince will come and solve all of my problems—Disney Princess films, sequels, prequels and products subject little girls to clear messages about class and entitlement.

In The Case for Make Believe, I relate the following conversation with a four year old Disney princess aficionado:
“What’s a princess?” I asked Abigail. “A rich girl,” she answered promptly, “with a kingdom.” She was a bit fuzzy on exactly what a kingdom is, however. “It’s got lots of rooms,” she explained tentatively. Then her eyes grew big and round, sparkling with excitement. “And now there’s no food in it!” “Oh, no!” I groaned. “Yes!” she said with joyful urgency. “The servants have run out of ingredients!”
In the wonderful world of Disney, the female ideal is a rich girl living in a big house with lots of servants. And while the company has given the nod girls of color—Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tiana—the crème de la crème of princesshood, the ones featured most prominently in the princess brand, are white: Cinderella, Ariel, Belle, Snow White, and Aurora.

Truth be told, I love fairy tales. While my fondness for them sometimes rests uneasily on my social conscience (the themes may be deep and complex, but the characters are not), I understand why they have so much meaning for young children. Classic stories of perseverance rewarded, good triumphing over evil, and the weak overcoming the powerful are valuable for kids as they grapple with the immense cognitive, physical and emotional demands of growing up socialized. And our exploration of fairy tales doesn’t have to be limited to the Western European versions that are so popular in the United States. After all, the original Cinderella story is the Chinese Shen Teh—and there are magical tales handed down for centuries from all over the world. In their original forms they are often explorations of important themes universal to children—sibling rivalry, family discord, loss, and redemption. But in the Disney versions of fairy tales, the deeper themes get lost amid the talking teapots and adorable singing mice. The films are enjoyable and the do what Disney does best—create longing for a magical world where virtue is synonymous with beauty and ultimately rewarded by material wealth.

Back when a movie was mostly just a movie seen only in theaters, princess values didn’t necessarily permeate little girlhood. But with miniaturized screen technology and tens of thousands of princess products on the market, that’s no longer the case. It’s not just that children see the films repeatedly, so that the scripts are embedded in their brains. Their play about the films is constricted by the plethora of princess toys and accessories. In addition, the image of the princesses—plastered on sheets, wallpaper, toothbrushes, snacks, backpacks and pretty much everything under the sun—dominates children’s experience of the stories.

One reason that commercialization is so harmful for children is that marketers exploit and pervert normal developmental stages—in this case, gender identification—so that corporate messages dominate how a child’s world view is shaped. Children, naturally attracted to glitter and longing to be so much more more powerful, are sitting ducks for gendered marketing like the Disney’s Princess selling machine. A society that does not protect kids from being immersed in advertising is complicit in their exploitation and the harms caused by it. As the father of a tiny potential consuming princess fanatic laments, unless you move to the woods it’s just about impossible for little girls to avoid the world according to her majesties Cinderella, and Ariel et al.

So what’s a parent to do? Until and unless we change the culture, you can set some limits and at least keep your daughters from drowning in The Little Mermaid and other Princess paraphernalia. Here are just a few options:

For babies and toddlers: Avoid purposely exposing young children to screen-based entertainment, at least until they ask for it, and limit exposure after that. You can at least put off instilling the expectation that the Disney princesses are essential to a happy girlhood.

For preschoolers: You might choose to avoid the films altogether. But if you love them, and want to share them, go ahead—but do so with the understanding that you’re not going to let Disney dictate your child’s post-film experience. Encourage hands-on creative play free of branded products.

From preschool on: Surround your kids with books of multi-cultural stories, including folk and fairy tales. And make sure to include stories that defy stereotypes. If your daughters love frufru and want to play princess, then haunt thrift shops and the closets of friends and family for cast off finery. Keep talking with children about your values and how they are similar and different from the commercial values celebrated by Disney and other corporations with a corner on the kid market.

Oh, and one last thing. Join the movement to stop companies from targeting children directly with marketing. Gender stereotyping and materialistic values aren’t the only inevitable harms of a commercialized childhood.


  1. We've successfully kept our daughter away from princess cartoons and movies for four years. However, this doesn't mean that she doesn't see it everywhere she goes. We used to call them "ladies," as did she, but she eventually caught on when people would correct her. Her speech therapist whipped out a Disney princess tea set and started quizzing her on all the princess names. Her dental hygienist couldn't stop talking about how all good girls get Disney toothbrushes. Everyone refers to my daughter as a princess. Her friends all want to be princesses for Halloween. Grown women refer to her as a princess all the time. Makes me ill.

  2. @MB: Thanks for your comment. That's why it's so unfair to put the burden of protecting children from commercialism solely on individual parents.

  3. We combat this as well. I get so tired of the shocked looks and judgment when I say, "We don't know the Disney Princesses," like I am depriving her. "They just aren't good role models," I say. We have found this books to be wonderful alternatives. You get the story without having to get the backpack, flip flops, hair ribbons, nail polish, tea set, pencils, know.

    When other people call her a princess, I say, "She is so much more interesting than a princess."

  4. I still love the day my daughter, probably about 3 years old at the time, looked at a Disney princess backpack she had received as a gift (ugh) and announced that her favorite princess was named Steelhead. She had no idea (or interest) what their real names were, or what they were about. A proud moment! To this day (she's 8), we still smile about that together, and it has given us a chance to talk about all the marketing and commercialism of Disney.

  5. Thanks for a great article. My 2 1/2 year old is obsessed with all things 'princess' and we are careful to avoid the Disney versions and instead find joy in the fairy tales (the Barefoot Book of Princesses is great!) and lots of imaginative play. I completely resent the bombardment of Disney princess items everywhere we go - and with any luck my daughter will prefer her hand-made Waldorf dolls!

  6. With Halloween just around the corner,there is no clearer demonstration of how far the culture has shifted (deviated?) from what is was when many of us were growing up. I can remember in the early 80's, when my classmates and I were allowed to wear out Halloween costumes to school. There was always one "princess" in the bunch, usually wearing a cardboard cone hat overflowing with tulle, a "fancy" dress worn haphazardly over her jeans and t-shirt, and if she had really permissive parents, maybe a swipe of blue eyeshadow. The "princesses" attending Halloween celebrations with my kids are universally Disney, often tricked out with full makeup and hair extensions. Kind of takes the "make" out of make believe, doesn't it?

  7. Thanks so much for a great article. At times I have felt so alone in trying to shield my children from the Disney culture. I appreciate knowing that there are others out there fighting the same battle. I am so glad that CCFC exists and stands up for parents.

  8. My almost four-year-old daughter is deep in the throes of a princess obsession. At my request, my local children's librarian put together a great list of picture books about princesses, with stories that are creative and imaginative. Anyone can access it here:

  9. I was especially struck by MB's comment about others correcting her little girl about the ladies. A friend was at swimming lessons with her three-and-a-half year old son and at the end they were playing with noodles doing some sort of kicking activity. Half-way through the instructor had him switch noodles with a little girl, because he originally had a pink one and that would go better with the little girl's bathing suit.

    Question: Without this outward pressure what is the normal age for recognizing gender differences?

  10. In general, recognition of gender differences is recognition is a component of very young children developing a sense of identity. Children as young as toddlers grapple with making meaning of who they are in relation to the rest of the world. How are they similar? How are they different? The problem with immersion in commercial culture is that gendered marketing constricts children's conception of what it means to be male or female.

  11. A friend posted this on her Facebook, I replied with the following comment and I thought it would do some good here as well.


    I'm mixed on this article. How is it racist for European folktales to feature - gasp - EUROPEAN (aka white) princesses? By that same argument, all the other folktales of the world are racist by only featuring only Japanese, African, Chinese, Hindu or Native American characters ... but no one criticises THEM. Just the Europeans and those of European descent. Hmmm...

    The author has also done no research whatsoever on the "origin" of folk or fairy tales. Cinderella was not "originally Chinese", the Chinese just so happened to have the very same tale. In fact, the Native Americans do, too!

    The point of my argument is not that she's wrong, but takes herself too seriously on something she knows too little about. All the primary Disney princesses are white (except Jasmine - who would've had her head lopped off anyway) because there were no other coloured princesses known to Europe during the dark ages, middle ages, or Renaissance. For one, there was a lot on inbreeding with royalty to begin with; two, old-fashioned xenophobia. Literally.

    It is your job as a parent (and mother) to teach your (female) child about the undertones of these fairytales, as was the original intent of having the stories at all. It's not Disney's fault that "Abigail" thinks being a princess is all about sitting on a throne and looking pretty.

  12. @anonymous: I did extensive research on fairy tales for my book "The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World." See, for instance, Joseph Campbell’s commentary on the history of fairy tales and their migration from the east to Western Europe in "The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales" (New York: Pantheon, 1972), 833–864. For more about racism in Disney movies see, among other books, "Henry Giroux's The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence." For more information about the impact of media on girls and their self-image and aspirations, there are several books available, including one of mine, "Consuming Kids." Also see "So Sexy So Soon," by Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne and "Packaging Girlhood" by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown.

  13. Hmmm... Nope. Not impressed. Perhaps I'm aiming at the wrong audience? When I think of researching fairy- and folktales, I'm remembering that Jakob and Wilhelm cleaned them up for publication in the 18th century; that is to say the stepsisters cutting off their toes and heels was more appropriate than cutting off someone else's feet and sewing them to the stubs of their own ankles (that was made up by me, not saying that ever happened). I'm also remembering that the effect of Snow White stepmother demanding the huntsman return the girl's eyes and heart was speculated to be a Pagan ritual: by consuming the heart and eyes, she would absorb the girl's essence - her beauty, primarily.

    As for racism in commercial history, again, nope, not interested. The princesses were white because they, uh, were. That's also why Blackface is black. Because he is. You would also notice that other cartoons and symbols from that time period were highly stylized and more speculation on a certain "look" or appearance than telling the truth; Tom and Jerry hardly looked like a cat and mouse in my opinion and Blackface hardly looks like an average black man and woman.

    As for the "struggle" of being a girl? I am one. A girl with a penchant for history and anthropology no less. I don't need to read a bunch of books written on opinion to know what's being shoved in my face on a daily basis, even when I choose not to leave the house. I'm also aware of what will be shoved in the faces of my children as they grow up. I'm also already planning on what I'm going to do about it -- none of which includes changing their vocabulary, teaching political correctness, writing a bunch of articles for the internet, reading a bunch of books or complaining about my son/daughter not knowing what a prince/princess does.

  14. @Anonymous When you say cartoons were stylized, do you mean like this:

    Because they *are* stylized and very, very racist. Your flippant attitude about depiction of non-white races leads me to believe you haven't thought too deeply on the topic. I would recommend a few resources for you to look into the matter in more detail, but you've already indicated that you don't like reading about these issues because they might have an opinion that doesn't jive with yours.

  15. My 5 year old son loves the great fairy tales as do I. It is shocking how Disney and others distort the original stories, which are just wonderful and deeply meaningful, in order to sell the "magic" which is so far removed from reality that I have to remind my son when we visit Disneyland that it is all fake and that the real, tangible, kissable, and huggable world is so much more fulfilling.

  16. While I really liked Dr. Linn's book Packaging Girlhood overall, I have to say that I completely disagree with the animosity towards the Disney Princesses. I don't see them as being the first step on the road towards oversexualization of girls. Yes, there's the happily ever after with a prince at the end of the story but most women *do* wind up marrying at some point in their lives. The modern Disney princesses are smart, brave, and spunky as well as kind & pretty. Really with all the toxic influences of pop culture on girls these days, it's nice to see something as wholesome as the Disney Princesses.

  17. I don't think the essence of the article is about sexualization. It's about this:
    “What’s a princess?” I asked Abigail. “A rich girl,” she answered promptly, “with a kingdom.” She was a bit fuzzy on exactly what a kingdom is, however. “It’s got lots of rooms,” she explained tentatively. Then her eyes grew big and round, sparkling with excitement. “And now there’s no food in it!” “Oh, no!” I groaned. “Yes!” she said with joyful urgency. “The servants have run out of ingredients!”

  18. Well... you could trade in all of those princesses for hmmm... maybe some nursery rhymes? 3 blind mice - "she cut off their tails with a carving knife" or "4 and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie." Wait, maybe a Tom and Jerry cartoon? No shortage of violence and bad role models out there.

    Maybe I'm naive, but I think parenting is about letting kids have fun, but explaining the important concepts at the right time. Tough job...

    Anyway, I'm feeling short on guilt. Can someone explain to me how Buzz Lightyear and Woody are bad for my son?

    I won't even get started on Ginormica

  19. What about our boys and their love of superheros...,
    Is it ok for them to think that if they have strong muscles and special powers or cool cars they can rid the world of evil... I think it comes down to imagination.... I think we need to watch our children and be active in alll they do... Let them be kids

  20. Am I the only person who sees that girls today strive to be "princesses" and think they are a princess?

    They have the princess bedroom, the princess purse, princess this and the princess that. It's not imaginative play - it's consumption and materialism. I don't have a daughter, but if I did and she wanted princess - I would give her an old box, bunch of material some glitter, glue and sequins and say - go at it - create your kingdom.

    But this is really destructive because what is a princess really - but a pretty girl, who has a nice house, who married well, and is adored. She has no special skills other than niceness, hotness, and money. If you don't happen to be pretty or rich you can't be a princess. Show me one ugly princess.

    I think almost any other imaginative form of play is better - singer, superhero, rock star, artist, dancer, even mommy - all better than princess.

  21. Anyone who thinks that Disney princesses aren't hypersexualized only needs to compare the original (Disney)"Snow White" with, say, Jasmine. Enormous breasts! and the hero--Aladdin? why doesn't he have some real clothes?

    Most children daydream of sumptuosity once in a while, but--even forgetting the bombardment of princess "stuff"--when the heck did Disney and Mattel get the monopoly on princesses? Does anyone else remember Leslie Ann Warren in the tv play that we saw on TV--ONCE a year--pretty; but we weren't hit over the head with princess stuff every minute of every day.

  22. Wow, what interesting dialouge this topic has opened up! It is true that comercialization in this country is a powerful force in our everyday lives, but I think this article proves something even more powerful-that as parents, we are all trying to safely navigate our families through each and every day. We may have different opinions on what is racist or what toys are acceptable to play with at what age, but at least we have the freedom to choose, and the freedom to speak freely of our choices. Having said that, I believe the materialism and obsession with celebrities in our country is helping to ruin the country. It has taken our attention away from more important issues at hand. I originally linked
    to this site from a post from an old friend's FB page. She and I are completely opposite on politics, but at the end of the day we both have worked our bottoms
    off to feed, protect, and nurture our kids. Let's continue to have honest and
    respectful dialouge in all aspects of our lives.

  23. This is ridiculous... I cant help but feel sorry that all of your children have been brainwashed by you, their crazy phsycho parent(s).