Tuesday, July 12, 2011

To Princess or Not to Princess

My two daughters greatly admire the Disney Princesses and enjoy playing with their many Disney Princess toys, wearing their wardrobe of Disney Princess outfits, and watching all the Disney Princess movies.  We also have a number of other types of princess paraphernalia, including Barbie as Princess toys and movies.  While I recognize the cultural normality of this type of play, as an instructor of Women’s Studies, I am often disturbed by the extent of the Disney Princess phenomenon.  This current obsession with princess speaks a little too loudly about how girls are supposed to think about themselves in ways that don’t sit well with me.

I hope to teach my daughters how to think critically about society’s messages for people, especially the messages intended for girls and women.  While the Disney Princesses are all considered physically beautiful, appear abnormally thin, and seem to always need a prince to rescue them from an evil fate, I hope to teach my daughters that true beauty lies within, that a healthy body is also strong, and that they can take the lead and solve their own problems.  I am still working all this out of course, so if you have ideas on how to go about teaching these concepts in a princess obsessed world, please share them.

As we prepare for our vacation to Walt Disney World, I am faced with yet another princess-related dilemma.  We have reservations to dine with the Disney Princesses, and the guidebooks I have consulted suggest that all the girls who attend will be decked out like their favorite princess, complete with hairstyles from the Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boutique.  Friends who have recently vacationed at Disney World have told me that many girls wear their outfits while roaming about the park.  We did not budget for a trip to the Boutique, or to buy more official princess wear, so our dilemma has been whether to bring outfits from home for our girls to wear that day.

My husband preferred not to add more items to our packing list, and I didn’t want to carry extra clothes into the park for when the girls were ready to change.  However, my concern has been that our daughters would be upset if they were the only ones not dressed as princesses for our breakfast at Cinderella’s Royal Table.  So, we are packing one Snow White dress and one Belle dress, and I’ll be styling their hair myself that day.  The rest of the days, they’ll wear summer clothing, although we are also bringing shirts with the Disney Princesses on them, and pijamas.  Let’s hope this is enough.

Of course, you are probably thinking, why would someone who is concerned about the influence of the Disney Princesses even take her daughters to Disney World?  We were invited to go along with my husband’s family and while my children are young, I want to them to enjoy some of the cultural experiences that other children participate in.  While the Disney Princesses may not be the most intelligent role models, Disney World is good clean fun for young children.  There will be plenty of time to desensitize from the princess mentality when they are older and can start to think critically for themselves.

My husband tells me I think about this stuff too much.  I wish others would think about it more.  In any case, as a mother, I can hardly avoid considering how cultural ideas impact my children.  As a teacher, I require my students to explore cultural norms for women’s and men’s behavior as part of their class work, so it’s not likely I’ll stop thinking about the princess cultural phenomenon any time soon.  Over the years, several of my students have discussed the influence of Disney characters on society’s definitions of masculinity and femininity as part of their Advocacy or Activism Project.

Quick lesson: gender is defined as society’s expectations for men’s and women’s behavior, described as masculine and feminine, although there are a number of definitions for each and some individuals in our society do not fit into either classification.  So here’s an example of how society holds different expectations for boys and girls, related to masculinity and femininity.  At the Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boutique, “Where Little Girls Are Magically Transformed Into Little Princesses,” prices range from $49.95 - $189.95 for hair styling, make-up, nails, costume, accessories, and photo session, depending on the package you choose.  Boys are transformed into Knights with “hair styling as well as a mighty sword and shield” for only $14.95.  This speaks volumes about how girls are taught about femininity and how boys are taught about masculinity, and it demonstrates so much about societal expectations for gender grooming and behavior.  I may have to use this as an example in class this coming semester.

This is my last post for about ten days or so.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write and think about after I return from our vacation.  And, in case you are wondering which guide books I read to prepare for our trip, I’ll list them below.  They are full of great pointers and insider information for families who are not familiar with Disney World.

The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids 2011 (Unofficial Guides) by Bob Sehlinger, Len Testa, Menasha Ridge, Liliane Opsomer


  1. I think about this stuff all the time and I don't have kids yet, so don't worry! It troubles me as well.

    One of my WOST students, herself an Asian American, responded to an article criticizing the Princess and the Frog for being overly "princessy." She responded that when Mulan came out she found it empowering, even though the story was flawed and the princess had to end up with a man. For her, it seemed that representing a woman of her own heritage in such a dominant cultural phenomenon was enough of an important step.

    Have a great trip!

  2. Thank you for posting this - I am concerned about these things and my husband thinks I over think these things as well. I want my kids to enjoy the fun parts of dress up and imagination but where do we draw the line??
    Hope you have a great vacation!
    Can't wait to hear all about it!

  3. Lauran: I agree with your student; we need more diversity among the princesses. I also like Mulan because she decides to solve her family's problem her own way, even if she had to pretend to be a man in order to do that.

    Alicia: great question. Where do we draw the line? And when? For example, now that girls are interested in pirates, you see pirate princess gear. Why can't they just be pirates? Why does everything have to be princessified?


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