The problem with Disney princesses…..

As I write, the children are transfixed by ‘Brave’, which I persuaded them to watch having bought child 2 the audiobook for Christmas. I persuaded them not because I want them to watch television, but because left to herself, Ella would always choose ‘Cinderella’ or some other horrific princess-gets-rescued-by-prince tale that appalls me to my very feminist bones. Somehow my daughter and her love of all things princess and Disney has managed to change me from the sort of person who was beyond horrified by the whole pink and princess thing to one who comforts herself with the idea that at least if she’s watching feisty and strong princesses it might not quite as damaging as I feared. Or perhaps I wasn’t changed so much as well – worn down. Disney princesses, you see, are everywhere. They sneak in quietly when you’re not looking, insinuate themselves stealthily into your consciousness, and steal silently into your life until suddenly you realise that every single thing your daughter likes or wants to play with is a skinny, beautiful, long haired doll in a flouncy dress getting rescued by a prince or being trapped in a tower. Or has an image of the above stamped all over it. (There’s nothing Disney won’t merchandise – toothbrushes, toothpaste, hairbrushes, cups, plates – you name it, Disney has put a Rapunzel face on it and marketed it at four year olds) Perhaps all this wouldn’t be so bad if I hadn’t done absolutely everything I could to avoid pink and princesses when my daughter was little. I was horrified by the range of baby clothes available for girls and struck dumb by the difference between the clothes for boys and clothes for girls. Apparently boys wear jeans and t shirts (and a million variations on that theme) Baby girls, on the other hand, are dressed like mini adults – jeggings, skinny jeans, flouncy dresses and little skirts. Oh, and flowery headbands. Please don’t get me started on a flowery headbands on bald babies. I became, for a time, boringly obsessed by baby clothes, and not in a good way. Ruffles, lace and flounces were all banned from my daughter’s wardrobe. What, I wondered, does it say to little girls that their clothes are so much more important than their brothers’, who wander about in the same jeans and t shirt every day? How do we expect them to have any kind of a balanced attitude towards their appearance when they are teenagers if, from birth, we teach them that their clothes and looking pretty are so paramount to what others think of them? As she grew older and showed little interest in dolls, doll houses, or babies, (she had them but they lay untouched in the drawer), and happily played with the train track, lorries and cars, I breathed a sigh of relief. She wore a lot of blue, and displayed no preference for pink or for dresses; she never asked to wear anything different than the clothes I laid out for her, and her greatest passion was the Octonauts. The only princesses she knew were in the knights and soldiers games her brother wanted to play, and she took on whatever role he offered her. I began to think that – being a great believer in nurture over nature – perhaps we had managed to produce a non-girly girl, and I was proud of that. I wanted her to be strong. I wanted her to believe she could do anything. I wanted her to forge her own path. I most certainly did not want her believing that boys are brave and strong and adventurous while girls are vulnerable and in need of rescuing. A lot of people thought I was needlessly mental about the whole thing. ‘They’re only films,’ they’d say. Or, ‘all little girls want to be princesses.’ Or – my own personal favourite – ‘you can’t beat nature.’ They are not only films. Little girls want to be princesses because they’re fed a diet of Disney and pink. And nature doesn’t make little girls any different from little boys. We do. Think of all the male characters in Disney films – Buzz, Nemo, Woody; they’re brave, adventurous, courageous. They go out on adventures. They’re not especially attractive. They find solutions to their own problems and carry them through. But the female characters – Cinderella, Aurora, Snow White; they’re beautiful, sweet, caring. They find someone to rescue them. They are helpless. They get married at the end. These are the women there all ready for my daughter to look up to. And so we avoided them, and she watched a lot of Octonauts and her role models were Tweak the engineer and Dashi the scientist. And then she saw ‘Frozen.’ Now ‘Frozen’ by itself is not the worst thing in the world, although I do have some issues with Disney feting it as some kind of feminist masterpiece; at least the princesses are, after all, strong women who rescue each other rather than be rescued. They don’t exist for a romantic plot, and there is no sense – for Elsa at least – of living happily ever after through getting married. No, it’s not ‘Frozen’ itself that is the problem, but more the avalanche of Disney princesses that my daughter’s instant love for Anna and Elsa immediately released. It began with ‘Frozen’ and ended in ‘Cinderella’, which rapidly became her favourite. This was, of course, our fault. We let her watch them, seduced by her love of ‘Frozen’ and the way she bonded with children at her nursery over this shared obsession. We bought her an Anna doll, and then an Elsa one. And then one day I woke up and realised that I had a daughter who wanted to dress like a princess, play as a princess, and refused to wear brown tights because ‘they’re not a girl colour.’ So now, after a period of abject horror, I’ve managed to calm down, subdue my feminist outrage, and come up with ways in which to mitigate the damage. We discourage the old Disney classics about princesses, (hence why they’re watching ‘Brave’ this evening – Merida is my favourite Disney princess) and talk a lot about princesses rescuing themselves, or being rescued by their sisters, brothers, or parents. The princesses have roles other than the Kate-Middleton-esque hanging about and looking pretty in a dress in our games – they’re doctors, or soldiers, or explorers. And I try to stop myself telling her that she’s beautiful – not because I don’t believe that she is – but because I want her to understand that being kind, and strong, and clever, are far more important. And I hope, somewhere deep inside myself, that this princess phase is just that – a phase, and that in a year’s time they’ll be consigned to the same place as the Octonauts – a past which I can remember fondly, but would prefer we didn’t return. And in the mean time, I hope that we’ve taught her that there’s nothing wrong with being a princess, or beautiful, or caring, or sweet, or getting married to a handsome prince, but that she can also be brave and courageous and strong and adventurous, and, in the end, whatever she wants to be.

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15 thoughts on “The problem with Disney princesses…..

  1. This post absolutely sums up everything I feel, all little girls, and boys, should feel brave, strong and couragous and should be comfortable and bold enough in their own right to fight for everything they want and more in their lives. Such an inspiring, and motivational post to encourage all children, girls and boys to be their own heroes!

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  2. Fabulously entertaining as always! My girls and one boy grew up on a diet of Disney/Star Wars/Harry Potter with a bit of Thomas the Boring Tank Engine thrown in for good measure! So far no Space hero, wizard, train driver or princess/prince aspirations have appeared! To quote my Dad “Moderation in all things including moderation itself!” I firmly believe that children should have access to all sorts of toys – that they shouldn’t be decreed gender specific by the parents ie if it’s a house of boys hopefully early on there would perhaps be a baby,a buggy, a toy kitchen etc as role playing is such a vital part of their early learning.

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  3. The gendering of toys is one of my absolute bugbears. Who decides that girls should play with kitchens and boys with trucks? And what does it say to the children if you embed these stereotypes into their play at such a young age? Not to mention the way everything’s pink or blue – my mum went to buy Noah a walker when he was tiny and they only had pink. The shop assistant said he’d order it in blue. Mum was outraged that such notions should be applied to babies and bought the pink one to prove a point. One of Noah’s favourite presents was the kitchen she bought him her last Christmas. He did like a pram too, but used to chuck any dolls or teddies out of it to make room for his trucks. I’m very glad to hear that your children’s early viewing habits have not damaged any future aspirations (although a wizard would be a pretty cool aspiration) xx

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  4. Gender is a social construction. Th whole blue and pink thang is very recent. One of my courses a couple of years back looked at Childhood – how it’s changed and lengthened – and part of the course looked at how gender is constructed culturally. The pink & blue thing was discussed- for centuries, children wore dainty white dresses up to about age 6. This was being practical because if you dress your baby in white dresses and nappies they can be bleached. Pink and blue arrived, along with other pastels, as colours for babies in the mid-19th century but they were not considered as gender signifiers until just before World War I. And in fact at the beginning of the 20th century the colours were considered the other way round! “In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colours for girls and boys according to leading U.S. stores. In Boston, Filene’s told parents to dress boys in pink. So did Best & Co. in New York City, Halle’s in Cleveland and Marshall Field in Chicago.”
    Any generalisations applied to children based on their sex annoy me – everyone should be able to become the best they can based on who they are – not based on how their lives have been socially constrained by gender boundaries – but we have a long way to go- whilst of course being miles ahead of some other countries!
    Slightly taking over your blog space now but think we could talk for hours on this subject!

    PS Child number one probably still does hanker aspirations to be a wizard – she was so made up when HP world let her open the door to the Great Hall – one time when being in a wheelchair did pay off!! xx

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    1. That is so interesting! I also did a university course on the history of childhood as part of my degree and found it totally fascinating that most of what we consider to be ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ traits/ ideas / fashions are just constructs. Sometimes I worry about how easily we as a society adopt ideas that are actually just to make money (dressing little girls up like fashion plates for example) and start thinking they’re the norm. And I don’t hold myself exempt from this at all, although mine is about both children – I like them to look nice. It’s very pervasive and people don’t realise it. The wearing dresses until age 6 is interesting – I think even in the last 30 years baby fashions have become so different. Babies just used to wear babygros or rompers or whatever for quite a long time – it’s a recent thing to dress them like mini adults. And not a good thing either – why do we want them to grow up so fast all the time? (In some ways – in others they are babied too much!)
      Have you heard of the Pink Stinks campaign? It is so interesting – and it was partly that campaign that led to Hamleys getting rid of their floors labelled ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ which was one of the most outrageous things I’d ever heard!

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  5. Just had a quick peep – is it a bit one sided?
    “Pinkstinks is a campaign that targets the products, media and marketing that prescribe heavily stereotyped and limiting roles to young girls. We believe that all children – girls and boys – are affected by the ‘pinkification’ of girlhood. Our aim is to challenge and reverse this growing trend. We also promote media literacy, self-esteem, positive body image and female role models for kids.’
    I was brought up in a house of equality and so have my children been – I don’t like anything that goes to far one way or another. I liked that fact that Ladybird Books recently signed up to the Let Books be Books Campaign – removing the gender stereotyping.
    Self esteem and positive body image are two issues that are currently massive for teenage boys as well as girls. The whole gender issue is what needs to be taken away…
    Must stop now as think the real world hits again tomorrow, goodbye lovely Crimbo break!

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    1. It does focus more on the pinkification of everything, but not at the expense of boys. It’s more a way of highlighting that if we decree what children should/shouldn’t be by their genders, we risk not allowing them to be who they really are. At least, that’s what I’ve always understood it to be.
      And yes – the whole holiday being over thing was somewhat of a shock this morning. And after 12 hours of work it’s even more of a shock!

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  6. While I agree with you that Disney does take the princess thing a little far, I don’t believe your daughter is in any danger of becoming one of those women who feels she needs a man to rescue her. I think you’re doing a good job at exposing her to different things, allowing her to make up her own mind. I wouldn’t fret about the princesses too much. I grew up on Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Cinderella was my favorite but not because she got saved by a prince. I just happened to identify with her more because of her home situation. Then came Belle (my favorite fairytale, even before Disney got their hands on it), Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan. Now that Merida and the Frozen girls are here, Merida is definitely my favorite. FYI: My youngest son loves Frozen!

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  7. Great post I think you make a great point. I think Disney and other cartoons are doing a better job of showing kids how to be brave and strong and that you don’t need a prince to sweep you off your feet. Although I will forever love Sleeping Beauty my all time favorite Disney movie but not because I wanted to Prince to rescue me 🙂

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  8. It’s definitely good to have a mix of shows for the kiddies so they don’t get overly influenced by one of them – especially the Disney Princess. I think it’s lovely for little girls to dress up & play the pretty princess – but with that balance that you talk about being kind, courageous & other important qualities. #momsterlink

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  9. I have 2 daughters that are 11 months apart. One loves everything and anything having to do with princesses and the other one wants nothing to do with even the color pink and insists that being a super hero is the way to go. You have a lot of good points here. I grew up watching Popeye where Olivoile ditches Popeye for Brutus until Brutus is mean and she needs to be rescued and it’s Popeye the sucker to the rescue. The creators of that show obviously had no idea what impression they were leaving. Great post…thanks for sharing it with #momsterslink. Hope to see you linked up again!

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    1. I think it’s definitely become more of a ‘thing’ for film and TV makers and producers to consider the impact their messages are having on children – thank goodness! Thanks for hosting – this is only my second linky and I’ve enjoyed it!

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