Princess Culture – Bring it On

Recently, it was that time of year again when everyone wanted to know what my kids would be dressing as for Halloween. Let’s start with my son. Aside from a two-day period of telling me he wanted to be a roly poly or a cement mixer, he hadn’t really expressed a preference for any certain costume. He’s three now and by next year, he’ll probably have an opinion. This year, I got to decide which means he went as quirky, sidearming, Aussie Royals relief pitcher, Peter Moylan. My daughters, though? When asked, I’d start with a defeated, heavy sigh. “Disney princesses.”

Listen, it’s not my fault. I don’t want my girls to admire the idealized Disney princesses. “Princess” is not an occupation or a goal to which they should aspire. I never refer to them as “my little princess” as if it’s synonymous with “my sweet daughter.” I see one as a complimentary term of endearment and the other as a thoughtless cliché, evoking the stereotyped, impossibly thin damsel in distress whose sole purpose is to find a husband. I was once adamant that my older daughter would never be so unoriginal as to dress as a princess for Halloween. I dressed her in cute, gender neutral costumes, her favorite color was yellow, she preferred the movie, Cars, and the show, Thomas and Friends. I was proud of us, resisting conformity to gender stereotypes and I maybe, possibly rolled my eyes at all the other little princesses and their parents. But then, somewhere between ages two and three, there was a shift. If I were to pinpoint it, Frozen was released to DVD/Blu-ray, and it was all over.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the damaging effects of princess culture on little girls. In retrospect, I realize that my favorite 90’s Disney movies have not-so-great plots with downright degrading female characters. I mean, Ariel gives up her family, her home, and her ABILITY TO SPEAK for a man. Belle falls in love with her violent captor because he allows her into a second room of his castle. Oh, and the conflicts in both of these movies are solved by murder (followed by marriage!). There is a popular belief that by introducing these stories to our daughters, we are perpetuating gender stereotypes, body image issues, and low self-expectations. I understand the concern, but I think we might be overestimating the influence fictional characters have on our kids and underestimating the impact of real-life role models.

I grew up in the height of the Disney princesses when, within a four-year period, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin were released. With the incredible music, fancy dresses, detailed dolls, impossible romances and magic, it’s not hard to understand the appeal. And yet, now well into adulthood, the feared effects of princess culture have not manifested in my generation. On the contrary, it has been the people that grew up on princesses that have been demanding changes in the portrayal of women in Disney films. Princesses are now warriors and leaders; strong, smart, independent women who don’t need to be rescued. 

Even with our improved heroines, however, sometimes kids are still drawn to the ornately dressed damsels of the past, and that’s OK. My 6-year-old made a perfect Moana this year in her dress-up costume, but it isn’t sparkly or poofy enough for her liking, so she went as Rapunzel instead. I don’t like it, but the way to combat female oppression is certainly not by telling her she’s wrong to like pretty things. She feels powerful in the dress (sometimes leaning tyrannical, but we’re working on it). Besides, there are positive qualities to emphasize about any princess, particularly their strong will and determination to go after their dreams. But more importantly, we should remember that we, as parents, make a much larger impact on our kids and how they view themselves. 

Rapunzel doesn’t have to iron her dress. She KNOWS she’s fancy.

Endnote: My younger daughter is going as Elsa for Halloween and I have absolutely no defense for that.

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