A recent study on the results of young children engaging in “princess culture” — specifically Disney-created princess dolls and media — has shown that, after a year, said engagement was associated with more female gender-stereotypical behavior. Sounds like everything “bad” we want to believe about our favorite childhood princesses has been verified, right? Well, I am a skeptic. In fact, I believe princess culture is actually feminist.
This study assumes that kids (or those in the study, who ranged from preschool to kindergarten-aged) will then go on to lose confidence in math and science, and avoid learning experiences that aren’t “typically feminine.” What I can't seem to take seriously and, in turn, what I consider to be the most disturbing part about the entire study, is that it calls out the exhibition of “female gender-stereotypical behavior” as negative.
I’d be worried if my kid wanted to drop out of school and, instead, find a prince to marry. I’d be worried if she perpetuated class stereotypes and her time playing was exclusively spent pretending to rule over indentured servants who were at her beck and call. I’d be worried if princess culture was the only thing she was learning, but it’s not. She’s exposed to a zillion other types of behaviors or aspirational occupations at home, in school, on the playground, and in books and (non-princess) movies. If we are worried that princess culture will swallow up our children, then we need to be doing a better job, as caregivers and role models, to balance the equation. Everything in moderation. Yes, even royalty.
We can talk about all the harm that our favorite, fictitious princesses are doing to future generations or even specific groups of kids, or we can simply focus on the good they are doing, like making this foster kid’s day by showing up at her adoption.
Is it really a princess doll or a movie like Cinderella, that encourages our girls to shy away from STEM subjects? Or, is it our refusal to acknowledge that we, as parents, are failing to offer up alternatives to the ancient fairy tale narratives, broadening our children’s view of the world and who they can be in it, while still allowing them to play with dolls and watch their favorite movies?
The best thing we can do when it comes to princesses (because, let’s face it, they’re not going anywhere) is teach our children (and, in particular, our daughters) that wearing a tiara comes with a certain amount of responsibility. That’s why I think these reasons prove princess culture is actually feminist:
Are most princesses (depicted in movies and books) saccharinely polite? Yes. Are we, as a society, finding it gross that princess characters are treating others the way they would want to be treated? Apparently.
How would we feel if a boy got bullied for acting “feminine.” Not great! So why are we chastising our girls if they have a proclivity towards historically feminine dress and behavior? To be a feminist in 2016 means, to me, not having to eschew ruffles or pink stuff. Feminism is not about holding anyone down, even if they don’t choose to lean in or lead. The respect of our choices, as long as they don’t compromise the freedoms of others, is at the core of feminism (as I define it).
Are we ever just one thing? I don’t know how all women feel, but I know I’m a pretty complicated individual who refuses to wear a singular label. That’s what’s inherently wrong with the argument against “princess culture.” It denies the co-existence of any other kind of personality traits or interests. Ask my little girl what else she likes to do, besides fantasizing about marrying into royalty, and she’ll hit you with such goals as writing a Star Wars movie and taking a job in the President’s Secret Service.
The aforementioned study also found that boys who engaged with princess media were more helpful to others and had increased body positivity. Sounds like some feminism accidentally rubbed off on these little guys through princess character play. Oops. Seriously, how is this a bad thing?
Since I’ve played with dolls, there has been a backlash against them. Well, certain kinds. You know, the ones with exaggerated hourglass figures, perfect symmetrical (and typically Anglo) features, flaxen hair and no undergarments. And rightfully so: playthings should reflect a diverse array of stories from all kinds of kids who play with them.
When Disney Princesses launched in 2000, they were met with the same reception (by grown-ups, who are not the target market for dolls). I completely agree that bombarding our girls with only one image, with the usually impossible to achieve body type as if it were the ideal, is destructive. But over the years, we’ve seen more of a variety. I’m glad there are dolls with more realistic body types and that are available in more variety of ethnicities.
Before my daughter turned two, she understood that her princess dolls were just that; things she could use to create fantastical stories that were, in no way, real life. Doll play can be the gateway to rich imaginative exploration, and it’s OK if things in our fantasies look like something out of a movie. Real life is hard. We all need an escape. I don’t think “keeping it real” is necessarily a good thing in imaginative play. Kids need to make up stories. At least, I did, and I see my kids getting so much enjoyment out of that kind of play. When explained to them, they don’t have any problem understanding that in the real world, few of us are swishing around in ball gowns under the protection of fairies.
Princess Grace. Princess Diana. Real life princesses who were the bomb. They led lives of purpose, and used their royal status to influence and inspire.
I would ask my daughter, when she would tell me she’d want to grow up and marry a prince, if she knew anyone who actually did that and, of course, the answer was “no.” Just because real life doesn’t match your wildest dreams doesn’t mean you can’t fantasize. If anything, princess culture does a great job of distinguishing that there is a safe place to have wild romantic dreams, and no expectations that they’d come true. I don’t think that’s a bad thing; if anything it reinforces that nobody needs to wait around for Prince Charming.
The princess media I grew up with (The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Snow White) is, arguably, no more. In the last decade, the depiction of a princess is definitely changing in mainstream media. Merida from Brave, Anna from Frozen and Moana from an upcoming feature release, are all princesses whose social status is almost an afterthought. They are young women whose greatest ally isn’t a knight in shining armor to rescue them or some established prince to snatch them from a life of poverty, but their own smarts and gumption and other women. It’s a bummer that it took this long, but at least my kids are part of a generation growing up with female characters whose stories aren’t stigmatizing them, based on their gender.