Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Passing on the Princesses ...

I have nothing against pink.

When I was seven, pink and purple were my favorite colors. I'm sure it violated every piece of fashion advice ever written, but I especially loved to wear them together.

So where do authors like Peggy Orenstein get off telling us this recent wave of pretty, pink, and princesses are some newfangled trend or, even more controversial, dangerous? Little girls have always loved pink, right? Perhaps. But not to the tune of the $4 billion Disney is raking in every year off the brand. That's right -- BILLION. Pink is no longer a girl's favorite color because it's a girl's favorite color ... it's the only color anything girl related comes in. I know. I tried. My friend recently had a baby and I thought big sister might like a gift, too. Finding anything non-princess, non-pink, and even remotely related to imaginative or constructive rather than scripted or "brand-centered" play was impossible. In fact, the Disney brand was on EVERYTHING. I finally had to go the "crafts" section to pull some paint and sidewalk chalk from the back of the shelf. How could a little girl walk though an aisle and think she was anything but abnormal if she wasn't interested in pink, glittery, Disneyfied princesses. In a day and age when doors should only be expanding for our daughters, the mighty world of Disney has come in with one of the most successful campaigns in marketing history and chosen for them. Think I'm overreacting?

A couple years ago I came across this fabulously funny Sarah Haskins video. And then I came across another one you can watch here. My interest was piqued. I was only four at the time, but I still remember the day when I FINALLY got to go see Little Mermaid. For years afterward my friends and I would pretend our legs were mermaid tails and splash around swimming pools with crossed ankles. And what girl who lived through the '90s hasn't splashed up the slanted back of her bathtub singing "Part of Your World"? I was no stranger or even enemy of the Disney princess. But it seemed even more intense. My friend's little girls had princess nightgowns, backpacks, headbands, coloring books, shoes, sleeping bags, and TVs. I just didn't remember any of that stuff existing when I was four.

Turns out it didn't. My Google search yielded, among others, this article and this blog. Basically, the princess "brand" didn't even exist until 2000. Before that there were a few individual items specific to each character, but the princesses had never been "grouped" together before. Disney threw them all together, came up with a consistent color scheme -- Pantone pink No. 241 was the pink of choice -- and with the motto of "What would a princess want?" began marketing everything from alarm clocks to silverware with the royal images. And the world of little girls changed overnight.

One mother, whose blog I linked above, tolerated it all until she noticed changes in her daughter's play. Her normally active, boisterous little girl was now walking around saying "Princesses don't run or jump" and sighing helplessly explaining that "Princesses have to wait for their prince." So she did something I think most mothers with four-year-old girls (especially one whose most favorite princess is Cinderella) would be terrified to do. She threw it all out. She replaced the Cinderella Disney-made gown with a generic dress from Toys R Us. She got rid of the Patone pink No. 241 and replaced it with fairy tales and science kits and dress up. There were tantrums. At first, her choice made her as popular as an evil stepmother. But after just a little while into "Disney Princess Recovery" she noticed positive and lasting changes in her daughter. She was calmer, less concerned about what she looked like, more concerned with having fun and experiencing things. She still loves Cinderella, and pretending to be Cinderella, but the way she plays Cinderella has completely changed and is much more child-appropriate.

These mothers aren't anti-materialism hippies. They've resorted to bribes just like any other parent: "A princess eats all her vegetables." "Princesses use the big girl potty, too!" "Princess bedtime is at 8 o'clock." Their call is not for a complete ban on all things magical or make believe, but to do what for your child what she can't do for herself -- be smarter than the marketing.

Because the danger is real. When a company that has the hearts and wallets of little girls buying into this image:

partners up with the folks trying to get your pre-teen and teenage girls to buy into this:

(the description for this item reads: "From the shadows of the grotto, the lovely Ariel looks like a femme fishtale with a sultry secret. Ask her nicely and she just might sing it to you.")

or this:

there's a problem. These companies are literally cooperating to make the transition from one to the other seamless. And girls (or more accurately, their parents) are buying right into the trap. The Disney princess brand might appear safe, naieve, and a way to keep girls sheltered from ending up like slutty celebreties like Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, or Miley Cyrus (ironic they all got their start at Disney, isn't it?). But the constant reinforcement that a girl should always be dressed up, pretty, and in wait of a prince is the last thing a girl growing up in the age of Internet porn needs to hear. Is it any wonder that articles like "How To Talk To Little Girls" are so needed? (And if you follow only one link in this post, please, please, let this be it. Please ... I'll even wait for you to click on it ... GO!)

I would love to tell my friend about the "Disney-free" experiment. Or tell her how uncomfortable it is her daughter is so well versed about the adult relationships around her. Or express dismay over the fact she talked dad into getting her daughter a "princess makeover" on their trip to Disneyland last year (have you SEEN these things?!! They are putting MASCARA on FOUR YEAR OLDS!!). But I have a feeling it will turn out a lot like this.

Because here's the deal. The people who are already on board with me on this don't need to hear it. And the people who need to hear it will tell me I'm crazy. That I'm taking this and myself way too seriously. "Just wait until you have a daughter and her favorite princess is Sleeping Beauty. Are you really going to tell her no?" And most of all, they will be convinced their daughter does not have a problem. That tantrums over princess related behavior is normal. That it's fine for every single item they get for their birthday or Christmas to be princess related. That their vain and scripted behavior is cute, not stifling their development of compassion and adventure. That it's just a phase.

But as for me and my house ... when Baby #1 finally makes their appearance around here, and should we be blessed enough to have a girl, please pass along all the pink, purple, and the feminine you would like. But we'll be passing on the princesses. At least any of the Disney variety.

(Ready, set, comment ...)


Emilie said...

I love this, Brooke.

I don't know if it was purposeful or just because my parents were dirt poor when I was little, but we didn't do the Disney thing. My family never went to Disneyland, we didn't even own a VCR to watch the movies, I didn't dress up as any Disney character for Halloween, and I was never even into pink. (I liked the colors that no one liked because I felt BAD for them, which probably suggests issues with me, but that's another story.)

But I'm glad. I should thank my mom for this. I hate that girls now — in 2011! — thinking that this type of behavior is normal.

(By the way, someone should send this post to Ted and Brenda. They'd be proud.)

Miranda said...

I'm so glad that I had a boy first. Alana is showing every sign of loving all things pink and frilly, but since our house was littered with cars and trains first, she's definitely interested in those too.

Andrew and Becca said...

I totally agree with you on the princesses, and I have a niece that I worry about a bit because she loves princesses so much and has so much STUFF. But, she also loves cats and volcanoes, so that makes me feel a little better. BUT... how do you think this translates over obsessed boys? Her little brother thinks of NOTHING but trains. He watches a train show every time he's allowed to, has millions of toy trains and train tables, wears train shirts and a conductor's hat every day, and constantly talks about what he's going to do when he grows up to be a train driver. Is it less of an issue than princesses because there isn't as much of a concentrated brand he's obsessed with (besides Thomas the Tank) or because it doesn't really have anything to do with his body image? Or is it the obsession with one thing to the exclusion of all others that is damaging?

Even if girls are shielded from princesses at home, it kind of attacks them by the time they are 3 or so. Even if they don't watch commercials, my niece has been to DOZENS of "princess themed" birthday parties and tea parties for her friends, where everyone is required to wear their princess dress (because of course, they each have several in their closet) and get tiaras and makeovers, etc. etc. Wouldn't it be just as tough on girls and their self esteem to always feel left out?

Kristen said...

I like that last outfit. Where can I buy one? Have you ever read Pink Think? Nothing new or out of the box, but entertaining.

Jackie said...

It was sad to me when every Monday at library time 6 or 7 little girls would always pick the ginormous Disney Princess books. You know, the one that is literally a complete narrative of the movie? Call me controlling, but I'd tell them, "That's too big for your cubby, make a different choice."

As for Maxine. Never. It won't be something she feels she's lacking, because we just won't ever discuss it. There are so many wonderful toys, books, projects, interests that don't center around outer beauty and high heels. It's fine to like the movies and sing the songs. I have nothing against that, obviously, I already own most the DVDs. But, I never want her to shape her personality around fantasies. It will happen eventually, in her teens maybe, but I'll do all I can while she's young to let her be herself.

Great post.

Brooke said...

@Becca -- I'm not a child psychologist, so I don't really know what I'm talking about ... but the books and articles I've read by experts on the subject seem to agree that the problem is the focus on body image, not the fact that the kid is really, really into something. That what girls are learning from princesses actually have long lasting and damaging effects. Since this whole phenomenon has been around 11 years now, they've been able to study how this princess craze is impacting pre-teens and teens. I think most kids obsess over something. But obsessing over trains isn't going to change the kind of man your nephew is going to become because he's obsessed with an object and learning about an occupation. Girls who are obsessed with princesses are learning about a lifestyle and a gender role -- a very limiting, hyper-feminine gender role.

As to your question about girls feeling left out. I wonder and worry about that a lot. In fact, Peggy Orenstein talks about it in her book and in her article. Her daughter finally asks her, "Why do you hate princesses Momma?" She worries that her distaste for the princess brand will be perceived by her daughter as a hatred of something that everyone else so obviously finds normal and that she'll think her mom hates girls or femininity. I'm not sure what the right balance is there. I think allowing them to see the movies (though I would much prefer Toy Story 2 over Cinderella with awesome heroines like Jessie over a princess movie) by Disney is fine. And I certainly wouldn't keep them home from a party just because it was princess themed. They might just go in a homemade dress (yay for mother-in-laws who sew) instead of one from the Disney store. For me, as a non-parent who is engaging in this purely as a hypothetical exercise, it's the monopoly on their imagination that's frightening.

Di said...

I like this too. But you knew that, since we talked about it :)

I thought it was interesting how much blowback a friend of mine got because she and her husband do not watch TV if their daughter is in the room. Furthermore, I was the ONLY person out of a good 10+ people that commented against Disney on her facebook post about saying she and her husband disagreed about whether their daughter should watch Disney. She was opposed. He didn't see the big deal. Everyone else said, "We watched Disney and turned out fine." And for some people that's true. I think I did. But as your post points out Disney at that time wasn't pushing the princess brand at anywhere near the same degree they now are.

Miranda said...

On the flipside, this might make you feel better:

Brooke said...

@Miranda -- A little, but only a little. =)

Cari said...

I can see what you are talking about, but I LOVE and support Disney, (and don't mind giving them copious amounts of money) because they are the most family friendly company out there. I find that their actresses are the most modestly dressed (on their tv shows) and have the least controversial story lines.

I get that my 3.5 year old may see all of these princesses and may think she has to look to exactly like them, but just like sex ed in school, I know that I'm going to have to take it upon myself to teach her that looking normal (not too skinny but not obese like a large number of children are these days) is what she should do and should be proud of what she is.

We can't just blame Disney for their good business tactics in marketing this stuff. It is parents that should teach their kids that everything can't be a fairy tale. But I really don't think hoping that you life turns out like one is so wrong.

Oh, and I'm planning on running the Tinker Bell Half Marathon in 2013 (can't make it this year) wanna come :)

Brooke said...

@Cari -- You are superwoman for running a half marathon. Seeing that I'm still working on the couch to 5K program so I may have to join you in 2015? =)

I really appreciate your comments. I definitely can't fault Disney for having good marketing tactics. I completely agree with you that it's a parent's responsibility to teach their child reality from fantasy and to be comfortable with who they are. But I still worry that a parent who constantly feeds their daughter the princess image is inadvertently teaching them something about gender roles they may not be intending to teach. What do you think? And I do feel like it's fair to criticize Disney for combining powers with companies like Hot Topic and selling the marketing rights in a way which allows their princess brand to be sexualized. But, like you said, the Disney brand is still pretty family friendly compared to so many other companies out there. Given the choice between a fully-clothed Disney princess and a Bratz doll in a belly shirt, I'll choose the princess every day.

In the interest of full disclosure, I really enjoyed the family vacation I went on with my parents and younger siblings to Disneyland. And there are quite a few Disney movies I really enjoy. It's just all the STUFF and the obsession with looks that comes with princesses I hesitate to embrace.

Terry said...

And before princesses, there was Barbie . . who was absolutely forbidden in my home . . . and my daughter didn't miss not having one (or 37 like all the other girls had). Why? Because we talked about why I disliked Barbie and what she symbolized. And I guess it made sense. And she wasn't shunned b/c she didn't own a Barbie and she turned out just fine.

@Emilie . . . I liked the less desirable colors as well b/c I felt badly for them; they got left out, you know! To this very day, I hate blue and only allow it in my home in eye color and jeans.

gurrbonzo said...

I'm late to the party but DON'T GET ME STARTED. I have been pretty careful about keeping our home and life relatively free of Disney princesses. The songs are catchy and the movies are fun; I'm not anti-Disney at all, but like you said, Brooke, it's the materialism and the gender roles that are alarming. And my girls are still SO little, I'd rather we focus on other stuff for now. However, like earlier comments suggest, it just takes ONE friend's birthday party (Cinderella-themed, in our case) for my 3-year-old to get the message loud and clear that that's what's fun. We spent a few weeks reading the princess book she brought home as a party favor, and just made sure to read several other books before and after. I'm grateful her interest has faded (for now). As long as Disney princesses are just one of many varied stories, interests, and themes my girls are exposed to, I'm fine with it. It's the "monopoly on imagination" you mentioned that I find concerning.

And I am working on being go-with-the-flow, careful-but-calm about most things, but the little effects are real. My kid has a friend, for example, with a play vanity and I cringe every time I see it. Is it snooty that I make efforts to avoid going there because of that toy? Not a play kitchen or train table or tool shed, a VANITY. With a plastic hairdryer and combs and pretend makeup and everything. To watch 2 and 3-year-olds flock to it and comb their hair in front of the mirror and take turns with a plastic curling iron is heart-breaking and frankly, terrifying. They'll get the primping message their whole lives, but does it have to start at 18 months?

P.S. I can't find a non-princess or non-fairy backpack anywhere. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. While I agree with so much of what you said, I also worry about the my-child-will-never-play-with-this-or-that attitude. It is some unwritten law that kids only want to play with the taboo item. You may do a fantastic job of teaching your child to play with one toy and not another, only to have it completely undone when they go over to so-an-so's house to play. And what did the little girls play with at the friend's house? Barbies and Disney princesses. And they probably had a fantastic time.

And all of the public and personal analyses of what to do with the princess problem fail to address little boys, who want to play with princesses... but that's even more taboo.

I have one daughter that loved princesses. Santa brought her a Barbie because she knew her mother refused to buy her one. She bought one at a garage sale with her own hard-earned money. She played with them, sewed clothes for them with Grandma, and then moved on to other more favored toys. My next daughter, though only 20 months younger and surrounded by the pink and frilly and "girly" that her older sister adored, rejected all dolls from the time she was 18-months-old. She has always preferred cars, blocks, animals, Legos, etc.

How do you mold children's preferences? How do you limit their interaction with targeted marketing campaigns and gender stereotypes? My solution is to turn off the television... pull girls away from the mirrors and dress-up bin... and get them outside. Get them camping. Get them hiking. Experience nature. Play with them at the playground. Let their imagination take over. Get them physically moving. Even the genteelest princesses will get dirty, and appreciate nature, and see wildlife firsthand, and love every minute of it.

One other disjointed thought I had, is that we add our religiously skewed cultural issues to the equation and we have a real mess. We have "Daughters of King" events for our young women. We have "gender is eternal" phrases interpreted to mean that gender roles as we think we know them today will never change. We try to define what it means to be "girl" or "woman" and we try to say that it is sugar and spice and everything nice... including pink princesses with a Disney logo... and we have some saying it's more... or it's different... or it's relative. We hear from the pulpit that women are more spiritual, and they are natural nurturers, they fit this pink-loving-princess-prefering mold and those of us who don't fit in that little box don't know where exactly we fit in the cultural/doctrinal framework. But his goes off on a tangent to what your point was in your original post. It's interesting to me the thoughts that Disney princesses stir up.

Maria Hart