The Girl Who Cried Disney Princess


Disney just isn’t my thing. Not Disney World, nor Mickey Mouse, not even the man himself Walt Disney, but Disney Princesses. Disney Princesses will never be my thing. Every time I utter the words “I’ve never seen [insert Disney Princess movie here],” I seem to offend a troop of college girls around me. In fact, my first instance of social suicide occurred during my freshman year of college. The movie: Beauty and the Beast. It was decided that I would sacrifice a few hours of my college education to watch Princess Belle for the first time. So I sat through the thing listening to my roommates belting memorized lyrics at the top of their soon-to-be-hoarse lungs, smiling and swaying as if Maroon 5 were in our very dorm room. Meanwhile, I sat squished between them on the couch while I wondered what the big deal was. I waited and waited for some epiphany, some a ha! moment to bestow itself upon me until finally…I got bored and left. Now, I can proudly tell people I’ve half seen the movie and half heard it.

Already receiving the reputation of “not having a childhood,” it would be in my sophomore year that I would become a repeat offender. The movie: Sleeping Beauty. To this day, I still haven’t watched the thing, though I’m sure to come out of it with the same results. Despite this, there’s still a part of me that wants to see what all the fuss is about. Sadly, though, I know I won’t care. Movies like that just don’t interest me. I guess…I’m just not a Disney Princess kind of girl. But it isn’t just Disney. It’s the color pink, it’s dresses, and high heels. Disney movies when I was growing up were Jungle Book, The Lion King, Alice in Wonderland, and Bambi to name a few. There were no princesses and the stories were more interesting than the usual “Damsel in Distress” saved by “Prince Charming” plots. Unfortunately, Alice in Wonderland seems to be the only one in which the protagonist is strictly female, and she doesn’t really save anything. Kind of strange, isn’t it?

Some context: I come from a family of all boys, and so I considered myself a tomboy growing up. Fictional badasses like Wednesday Addams and Raven (Teen Titans) have been my role models. They were the exact antithesis of Disney Princesses; they were more than the stereotypical Disney Princess, but they were girls nonetheless. Although I’m not ridiculously sporty or the cliched “girly girl,” I’d like to think I’ve maintained some of my tomboyish charm. But what components make up a little girl? And what is so abstractly different about another little girl that makes her a tomboy? According to Peggy Orenstein, renowned best selling author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, young girls feel the need to prove their girliness through reinforcement of the things they own: clothes, toys, and favorite colors are just few of many examples. To do this, Orenstein suggests, girls “will latch on to the most exaggerated images their culture offers” as a means to assert their femininity—and Disney Princesses are becoming the signifiers of girlhood. Orenstein calls this the Princess-Industrial Complex, while others call it the Cinderella Complex or Princess Culture. Whatever we call it, it’s now become a sort of pink and sparkling plague of Disney doom that’s about a generation away from turning into an official stage in child development. And that’s scary. Disney’s basically manufactured a mandatory phase in every little girl’s childhood.

A broadcast on HuffPost Live featured a panel of parents, all in different fields of study, discussing their personal experiences and research on the Princess Complex. The panel consists of sociologist Professor Laurie Essig, psychologist Dr. Vivian Diller, author Laura Vanderkam, and two blogging Dads, Al Watts (National Dad Network) and Andy Hinds (BetaDad). Each has raised or is currently raising small children, and all have daughters. They all seem to agree on one thing: it’s all about how the parents raise their children. As one commenter (robinplemmons) on the broadcast said: “…I agree with Dr. Diller, we ultimately lead by example. It’s all in moderation & we should be talking to our daughters about unrealistic expectations.” If parents simply lead by example, should they reinforce gender stereotypes at home? Or should they teach the difference between fantasy and unrealistic expectation?

BetaDad is a blogging site geared toward, well, Dads. The blog’s creator, Andy Hines, wrote an article for The Atlantic expressing his determination to keep his twin girls away from the princess complex. At first, his will was strong: “I made sure to put anything with princess logos or imagery into the giveaway pile. The princess trope represented passivity, entitlement, materialism, and submissiveness, and no daughter of mine would wear a onesie that celebrated such loathsome values” (Hines). However, he found the word “princess” was impossible to keep out of his little girls’ dictionaries, as it was the “default term of affection total strangers [used] when addressing them.” He went to such lengths that the p-word (“princess”) was to be from then on called a “little lady.” That failed of course. Parents like Hines go to such extraordinary lengths to beat the Princess Complex, but things aren’t that simple. On the outside, Disney Princess merchandise are merely a harmless and innocent addition to a child’s playtime; on the inside, Disney Princesses carry with them unfortunate implications.

How so?

Girls wanting to play princess are no different from boys wanting to play as Batman, or Superman, isn’t it? One commenter on HuffPost (Et_cetera_Et_cetera) seemed annoyed at the prospect of naming a little girl’s dress-up game as a problematic complex: “Why is society always trying to fix stuff? Little girls wanting to be princess’ are no different than boys wanting to be superheroes, lets stop over thinking things people.” And that’s what it feels like to a lot of us. Why do we read so carefully in between the lines at something so innocent as a little girl playing princess? It’s a part of growing up, little girls are princesses while little boys are superheroes. Some of us argue that the messages being sent to little girls versus the messages sent to little boys are alarmingly different. Another commenter (alwaysSTRIVE) responded to the above comment with this: “Boys want to be super heroes but how many grow up to say i am going to keep trying to scale a wall with my spider senses, but girls say I will find my prince charming, I deserve to be a princess and spend ridiculous amounts of money on my looks etc.” The problem isn’t that little girls want to pretend to be a princesses—this should be okay. The problem is, why does Disney only make a particular kind of princess for young girls to emulate? The problem is that Disney offers no alternatives to their princesses, no superhero princesses who save the day. As one mom’s little girl once said: “can’t princesses have swords, too”?

Some Disney girls that kick ass: Mulan, Pocahontas, and films outside the genre, such as Disney Pixar’s Brave (Merida). Mulan saves all of China by posing as a male soldier and taking down the Huns. Once her superiors denounce her for being a woman, she saves all of China again with both perseverance and intellect. But even Disney Princess Mulan is stripped of her warrior attire she wears throughout her entire film, and marketed in the appropriate Chinese feminine wear. Whereas Pocahontas is independent, brave, and risks everything for both love and doing what is right. In the end, she lets her love interest go on to England, and stays behind with her family and friends. Somehow, her products don’t appear to be very marketable. Why? It would seem that Mulan and Pocahontas are quite different from their traditional princess counterparts:

“[Mulan and Pocahontas] rarely appear on merchandise – less, perhaps, due to their ethnic origin than the fact that neither fits well with the “princess aesthetic;” in their movies, Pocahontas appears in tolerably realistic (if somewhat revealing) Native garb, while Mulan actively rejects feminine attire in order to masquerade as a male soldier.” (Johnson)

In the marketing posters for these princesses, Ariel has legs, Mulan’s hair is down and she’s wearing the aforementioned dress, Pocahontas has on more Native American garb than in the movie, and both Tiana and Cinderella are in dresses (though they don’t get their “Princess dress” until the end of their movies). What’s going on? Is marketing Disney’s Princess franchise reason enough to rob these characters of their context and defining characteristics? We’re all aware of the messages these actions send to young girls, so much so that it’s a tale as old as time. Yet Disney continues pumping out another princess every other year.

Here’s where it gets interesting. When I was about five or six, I decided to dress up as Cinderella for Halloween. I remember that big puffy blue ball gown of faux silk, complete with foam crown, white stockings, and a chicken net skirt that gave the dress its shape (how it itched and scratched my tiny six year old body…but I was Cinderella!). Three years later and I started trick-or-treating in costumes more like Wednesday Addams, yet I still found myself as the pink power ranger and things of that sort. Looking back on it all, it seemed no matter how much I managed to derail myself from the Princess Complex, I still fit society’s version of a girl. And if society pushes gender stereotypes on children as eagerly as it does, it’s near impossible to escape this princess phase. As Orenstein writes:

“What if, instead of realizing: Aha! Cinderella is a symbol of the patriarchal oppression of all women, another example of corporate mind control and power-to-the-people! my 3-year-old was thinking, Mommy doesn’t want me to be a girl?” (Orenstein)

To see a parent like Orenstein (an expert in the field of raising daughters) struggle speaks plenty about the deeper problems surrounding the Princess Complex.

But what’s the harm? Why shouldn’t girls be allowed to have their princesses? There have been plenty of tedious studies on gender roles and how a child’s gender identity forms, and the answer seems to stem from the same root: the world of media. As a Media and Communications major, I’ve found countless articles and have read enough books to know that kids don’t care about forming their gender identities! They want what their friends want, which is usually something on TV or in a toy store. At age nine, the last thing I was worried about was whether or not being a pink power ranger would negatively impact how I viewed my gender identity. And at age six, I highly doubted being Cinderella would lead me to a life of bending my will for the benefit of the patriarchy. I just wanted to do what everyone body else was doing, and everybody—to me—were other little girls. Just how the world today is separated by what’s “black” and what’s “white,” children are separated by what’s “boy” and what’s “girl.” It’s like the first prejudice we learn, that “boys are from mars and girls are from venus.”

On the comments section of the HuffPost Live video I found three consistent points of view. Where one commenter (LauraHenri) would defend the playtime habits of little girls: “People who have a problem with little girls dressing like princesses are putting their own hangups on their kids,” another commenter (IbrahimSapien) would disagree: “The princess fantasy is for a world where girls are given to some young man by their father who then gives them a home and the means to survive. That’s not the real world anymore, and so that fantasy really has no place today.” Commenter Aleach68 calmly rationalized between both points of view: “I think the entire “Princess Complex” is outrageous. It’s okay to let your daughter fantasize but also keep them in touch with reality. When my daughter says I want to live in a castle – I make it clear that it’s not impossible but will more than likely will not be her reality.”

After psychologists, sociologists, and any other professional with their doctorate explain to us what “the harm” is, there are many who still think that a girl should be allowed to be a princess. It’s creative, and it’s imaginative, and these girls should be allowed to be the girls that their hearts tell them to be. After all, the Disney Princesses all revolve around the theme of hope and love. With song lyrics such as “go on and kiss the girl” (The Little Mermaid), “I’m wishing for the one I love…and I’m dreaming of the nice things he’ll say” (Snow White), and “So this is love, so this is what makes life divine” (Cinderella), how can little girls not be living their happily ever afters?

Well, here’s the real story of the Disney Princesses. Once upon a time in January 2000, Andy Mooney was made chairman of Disney Consumer Products, or DCP, officially joining the Walt Disney Company. For those of you who don’t know, Mooney was the guy who originally birthed the Disney Princess Franchise. Mooney, in an interview with the New York Times, revealed the idea came to him after seeing little girls in the crowd of a “Disney on Ice” show. Each of the little girls were wearing brand-less princess costumes and dresses, and Mooney saw that as an opportunity to make “Disney Princess” into a brand. From Disney Princess dolls and mugs, to Disney Princess coloring books, perfume, and bedding. From Disney Princess costumes and key chains to Disney Princess stickers, book bags, shower curtains, and multi-vitamins. And all for the low price of keeping your daughter happy (that’ll be $39.95 plus tax). The Disney Princess Franchise was worth four billion dollars, and that was just in 2009. It’s obvious Disney Princess Culture isn’t for or about the little girls, it’s about the money. Now who’s really living the happily ever after?

There are two distinct cultures today: that of the male and that of the female. To the marketing world, these two things are as different as night and day. Disney is making a conscious effort to market what they believe little girls will love, however, by marketing their products to little girls they are inadvertently creating this love and need for their products. Adjectives like “sparkling” and “magical” decorate princess advertisements, and a good blindfold game of “pin the tiara on Rapunzel” are just two examples of the many ways Disney commodifies the happiness of little girls everywhere. According to Cinderella, “a dream is a wish your heart makes,” but the dreams of little girls everywhere aren’t coming from their hearts. Instead, they come from the minds of Disney’s executives looking to deepen their profiting pockets. Peggy Orenstein, along with authors Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown (Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes) are one of the few handfuls of people noticing these marketing tricks aimed at young girls. Here’s what an article on Psychology today had to say:

“The obsession of young girls with pink is not really a universal stage of childhood development, but a commercially produced one. […] According to Orenstein, it is precisely because advertisers, especially Disney, decided to sell pink princess dresses and tiaras and fairy wands to our children that our children are so obsessed with having them. Orenstein argues that because these products are the most extreme signifiers of being a girl and because young children are still unsure whether their sex will stay the same throughout their lives, they latch onto these items like magic talismans.” (Essig)

It’s all about the marketing and sales. The article, by Laurie Essig (a Ph.D. professor in gender studies), criticizes both capitalism and the parents who chose to “fetishize” pink. What we’re dealing with is a lack of a critical standpoint in both parents and the media. The princess phase seems mandatory for all girls, and usually hits at about age 3. Now, whether this stage lasts into early adulthood, or until age 4 when they find something else, it’s up for the child’s upbringing to decide.

In a magazine article by Matthew Johnson, the director of education for the Media Awareness Network, he encourages parents to not blatantly say no to princess merchandise, but instead to ask questions and avoid confrontation. Let us count the ways:

“Do you think you can really change an angry person into a nice person, like Belle does to the Beast? Is it worth it to give up your voice and your family for a boy, the way Ariel does? If Mulan spends most of her movie dressed as a boy, why is she in girls’ clothes on the merchandising? Why do you think Disney changed the title of ‘Rapunzel’?” (Johnson)

There still seems to be one question we’ve forgotten to ask ourselves: are parents really the ones at fault? As much of my research details, people feel as though issues like this ultimately boil down to how parents treat their daughters versus their sons. If parents place emphasis on their girls playing with toys marketed to their gender, it should be the parent’s responsibility if the princess complex is an unfortunate result.

If society is so obsessed with buying him the color blue and buying her the color pink, then he will want sports toys, trucks, and building blocks while she wants baby dolls, dollhouses, and plastic kitchen and cleaning utensils. If society conditions us to segregate based on gender, isn’t it society’s fault? Let’s think about this. Who takes the blame for the millions of grown women that spend countless amounts of money on the perfect Disney themed wedding? Who takes the blame for the troop of college girls that habitually consume Princess DVDs and chastise other girls that don’t? Some may think blame belongs with the parents of young girls. And some blame the media. Maybe it’s Disney’s fault. Or maybe it’s society. Disney saw a way to use already existing gender stereotypes as a tool, commercializing princess culture. There is an entire society reinforcing that Disney’s actions are perfectly okay; society’s resistant to any other definition of a girl than the one it’s already created. Disney knows it, and now we know it, too.

But now what?



Works Cited:

  • “Does Our Princess Culture Impact Development?” HUFFPOST LIVE. N. p., 23 Jan. 2013. Television.
  • Essig, Laurie. “The Princess-Industrial Complex.” N. p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.
  • Hinds, Andy. “One Dad’s Ill-Fated Battle Against the Princesses.” The Atlantic. N. p., 11 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.
  • Johnson, Matthew. “The Little Princess Syndrome: When Our Daughters Act Out Fairytales.” Natural Life Magazine. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.
  • Orenstein, Peggy. “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?” The New York Times 24 Dec. 2006. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.
  • Paul, Annie Murphy. “Is Pink Necessary?” The New York Times 21 Jan. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.

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