My one-sided, Halloween-themed feud with the Disney princess franchise
They say your children choose you—something about vibrational frequencies and karmic energy that you both need to work out in this lifetime. I have to remind myself of this every Halloween when my 5-year-old daughter’s love of Disney princesses goes from casual mentions to hourly updates about which princess she will be this year. The last two Halloweens it was Elsa, and as of today it is “Ariel the human, not Ariel the mermaid.”
In a perfect world, I have nothing against Ariel or any of the other 10 “princesses” that officially include Snow White, Aurora, Cinderella, Belle, Pocahontas, Jasmine, Mulan, Rapunzel, Tiana and Merida. (FYI, the Frozen sisters and Moana are not considered princesses by Disney.) They all have their merits. They are kind, generous and brave. Some of them have real hobbies and talents outside of housework, and one of them doesn’t end up with a prince. They can even fill a very specific girl-shaped void that you may have experienced as the daughter of second-wave feminists. (Hi, Dad.)
But the princesses do not exist in a vacuum. Besides taking up questionable space in their own movies—where, incidentally, women enjoy the smallest speaking parts—they also have big problems offscreen.
It’s a tale as old as time that begins with merchandising and ends with you and me.
Rich as royalty
Since 2000, Disney has promoted its $4-billion “princess” franchise as a way to market its female characters separately from the movies they star in. You’re no doubt familiar with the dolls and toys and have probably seen the faces of the “top five” princesses (Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle and Rapunzel) plastered over everything from stationery to fruit snacks to dancewear. And as much as you may detest the over-the-top pink frills and sparkly plastic everything, you have to admit, it’s genius.
Marketing exaggerated femininity is highly attractive to girls around the time they are forming their gender identities. Developmentally, this makes sense. According to research by developmental psychologist Eugene Subbotsky, preschool age children are still grasping the concept of permanence as it relates to abstract ideas. Examples of this include death, moving away and even gender permanence. In her book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain, neurologist Lise Eliot expands on this magical thinking, pointing out that although 2- and 3-year-olds exhibit gender identity, gender constancy does not take hold for another few years. “According to 5-year-olds,” she writes, “You simply are male or female based on your choice of clothes, toys, hair length, and favorite color.”
Further complicating this gender proving-ground is the tendency for those in the “inflexible stage” of development to view boy-or-girl choices as black or white, blue or pink, right or wrong.
I remember the shock I felt two years ago when my then 3-year-old daughter came back from her new preschool with her first—but not her last—gender-related public service announcement.
C: “Only girls are allowed to wear pink, Mom.”
Me: “Dad wears pink.”
C: “But he’s not allowed to.”
Coupled with a culture that validates and advertises these extremes, we’re left with a mess of commodified gender roles, adamantly enforced by the children who consume them.
The worst part? Even if the princess phase is “just a phase,” this does not mean it has no effect on what follows. A 2016 study published in the journal Child Development by Brigham Young University professor Sarah M. Coyne found that the more girls engage with princess movies, toys and merchandise, the more they exhibit stereotypical feminine behavior. Girls who entered the study with a lower body image also tended to be more—not less—interested in princess culture one year later.
As far as long-term effects go, there are no studies that definitively confirm the negative impacts that princess culture has on the adult women who grow up with it. How could there be? In a sea of gender messaging, Disney is just another nonpoint source of pollution—impossible to trace back because it’s not the only cause. Rather, it’s part of what Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, calls the “cute-to-cool trajectory,” which, for girls, is another way of saying the “cute-to-hot trajectory.” It’s an escalator of girlhood that begins with Disney princesses, moves onto Disney Channel princesses, and ends up on the losing side of social media in a never-ending performance of identity.
If that sounds bleak to you, I promise you it is not as bleak as the moment I realized my daughter is—without a doubt—riding that escalator.
A few weeks ago, my daughter and I were driving up to the mountains when we fell into a familiar conversation about princesses. We hit the usual beats—whether princesses are real or not, who is the current favorite princess and which one my daughter has decided to be for Halloween. (Again, it is Ariel the human, not Ariel the mermaid.) At one point, I had an opening to ask her a question I had been wondering about for awhile.
Me: “Babe, what is it that you like about Ariel and the other princesses?”
C: “They are just so beautiful.”
Me: (stabbed in the heart with a dinglehopper)
My daughter, the swimmer, enamored of a mermaid because of pretty—nice-looking, well-meaning, gateway-drug-to-low-self-esteemville pretty. At that point, it was all I could to do to stop myself from banning every escalator, enchanted spinning wheel and princess-plastered object I could get my hands on. But I didn’t …
Although the Princess-Industrial Complex trades in impossible standards of beauty and well-meaning but ultimately disappointing storylines, it has become so ubiquitous that it’s almost useful—at least as a machine to rage against, as a shared language for talking through the insidious bias and sexism hiding inside the stories we tell our children.
It also helps to remember that the Disney princess franchise is not evil. It does not manufacture weapons of war, terminator seeds or Agent Orange. Last year, it launched a charitable photography campaign called #DreamBig that promotes some very unprincess-y images of girls playing hard in their ball gowns while celebrities like Emma Watson say inspiring things in the background. Progress? Maybe. Disney has always proven itself adaptable, but I can’t help getting the feeling that the fairytale is changing, too.
Princesses are spoiled. Parents are talking to their kids. People are buying Halloween costumes that are a better fit. As for me, I am gluing together a homemade Ariel dress, paying my karmic debt to Disney without giving them a dime.