Just For Thought… Princess Wars

PrincessIf there ever were something that could divide parents, who thought it would be a princess? Sweet, gentle and kind is usually how they are described. Divisive, contentious and inflammatory are definitely not supposed to be part of their storybook image. But alas, there can be a strong line between parents who do and do not allow their children to partake in the 4-billion dollar a year fantasy world that Disney has so brilliantly trademarked.

As my eldest daughter grew into prime princess years (2-6), I hadn’t thought much about where I stood on the princess debate. I was a little surprised that after only a short vacation with her older cousin she was fully mentored, educated and engrossed in the glittery world. Costumes, books, CD’s, tiaras, backpacks and so many more of Disney’s 26,000+ princess related products seemed to show up in our house over night. I admit I contributed to Disney’s profit margin too, but hand-me-downs, presents, and the general culture seemed even guiltier.

As my daughter pranced deeper into the Magic Kingdom I wondered, was it okay she now thought the words “handsome” and “prince” could only be spoken in quick succession or that when she and I donned tiaras, the next step was getting married and dancing? Was this land really so magical or was I setting up my daughter for a not so “happily ever after” ending? Around the same time I learned of author Peggy Orenstein’s new book “Cinderella Ate My Daughter”. She too had obviously questioned the Disney affect upon her daughter and took the extra step of writing a book about it. Those type A Moms!

After reading her book I came away with the conclusion that there is no definitive trajectory for our little princesses. Sure it could affect their self-esteem, or pigeonhole their idea of femininity or even encourage materialism, but there is no research that definitively links princess play to any of those possible side affects. The positive benefits, such as fantasy play and the ability for parents to relate to princess play, could also be the outcome. So parents on either side of the debate must recognize it comes down to their internal feelings and their ability to balance any possible princess-side-affects on their child.

What really fascinated me about Orenstein’s research was that Disney did not mastermind the creation of the princess line. To my great surprise, Disney was actually following our children’s lead when they created it. In 2000, Andy Mooney became the head of Disney’s faltering consumer products division. When he attended his first Disney on Ice show he saw young girls wearing homemade princess costumes. A light went off and the next day he started working on developing the princess line. A mere 11 years later it is the largest franchise in the world for girls ages 2-6. Andy Mooney himself acknowledges how surprised Disney was by its success. He also acknowledges that princess love is fleeting and by about age 6 most girls have moved on, phew.

So I wondered, what propels our daughters (and some sons) to immerse themselves in this magical world? Well, I had to go no further than chapter 4. Orenstein suggests it is because of the general culture and also because it is a way for girls to experience their sexual identity. Young children do not view being a girl or a boy the same way adults do. They do not base it on anatomy but rather superficial characteristics, which they can readily identify, like hair length and what someone wears. Toy choice happens to be one of the prime ways to identify gender and as research has pointed out, is one of the greatest inborn differences between the sexes. Not only do human boys and girls show a marked preference for masculine and feminine toys but so do primates! Male primates will gravitate toward a truck while females gravitate toward a cooking pot. This gender related toy choice persists over the entire lifespan – think remote controls and mechanical gizmos. So the next time your daughter insists on a having a purple princess cell phone, research is saying it’s not all you.

As comforting as I found it to be that Disney did not mastermind the princess world and shove it down my daughter’s throat, and that there was some purpose in her play beyond mass-marketing, I did decide to make sure that although she may don a tiara from morning to night, I would still encourage and provide opportunities for her dig in the dirt, play with blocks and climbs trees. Even Orenstein cautions parents not to narrow their daughter’s play by reinforcing princess world to the exclusion of other worthy activities. Besides, shouldn’t a princess be able to have her cake and eat it too!