Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Are Princesses Really so Bad?!

If you read the review or information about the book Cinderella Ate my Daughter, you may be wondering, are princesses really that bad? Are they evil? Is it wrong to let my child play with anything princess related? People also struggle with this issue when it comes to Barbie dolls.I think these are questions that many people struggle with who are attempting to critically evaluate the messages that media sends.

I’ve read and talked to a lot of people with a lot of different ideas about this issue, some of them fairly militant. So, let me say right now that you may not agree with me on this, and that other experts on children’s media may not agree with me.

The first thing I would say about both Disney Princess and Barbie play is that they do tend to be limiting to a child’s imagination. With their scripted story lines along with the pervasive nature of the toys that are sold, little girls who play with these toys may feel that there is definitely a right and a wrong way to play. Dr. Susan Linn, who speaks and writes a lot about this, talks in her chapter A Royal Juggernaut in the book The Sexualization of Childhood about how her experience as a play therapist has changed due to the extreme commercial marketing of Princesses. She provides many examples of how the little girls with whom she works often seem locked into Disney Princess scripts when they play anything that has to do with royalty. Try to give a Princess a name other than Ariel, Cinderella, Aurora and so forth and you’re in for a fight! Try to deviate from the scripts provided by the movies or TV shows, and they dig in their heels. This kind of scripted play isn’t healthy because it doesn’t allow children to actively use their imagination and to imagine and play outcomes and stories that are different from those they’ve seen before.

The other component of Disney Princess culture that Dr. Linn finds disturbing is the lack of exploration of self within this type of scripted play. Her experience and research has demonstrated that little girls who are locked into the Princess script find it difficult to deviate from the formula as it depicts females. Their stories seem to get stuck in what Disney has offered, rather than being able to make up their own stories, provide new solutions and conquer new difficulties. When constantly following a known script, this same kind of self-exploration doesn’t happen.

And, of course, it’s easy to see that females are quite often depicted as in need of rescuing, with goodness being equated with thinness and beauty, and as scantily clad. There have been some deviations from this idea with some of the princess stories, but the overwhelming story seems to remain the same. So is all lost when it comes to the Disney Princesses? If you loved these stories as a child, must you abandon them now in order to save your daughter from corruption?

In my opinion, the princesses and Barbie might be able to play a part in a healthy childhood experience given a few caveats. First of all, if your child is going to be playing with these toys, encourage them to go off script. When you play with them, push them to make a character do something that she would never do in the original story, introduce new characters and plot twists, or even change character names.

Take every opportunity to openly evaluate the stories that you see or hear around these characters and offer alternative actions. Was that really the best thing to do? I think I might have done this…what about you? Talk directly about issues that bother you, such as how thin the characters are or the fact that they fall in love at the drop of a hat. One of the funniest moments I’ve had as a mother was critiquing the movie Snow White with my oldest daughter when she was 7 or 8 years old. We talked about how Snow White fell in love with a man she met once and then rode off with him at the end. Was that realistic? She didn’t even know anything about him except that she liked his singing voice! What if people did that in real life? My daughter summed up her thoughts on the movie by saying, “You know, Snow White wasn’t very smart, was she? She takes food from a stranger then rides off with someone she doesn’t even know!”

The last thing you want to do is provide your child with lots of different stories and different play opportunities. My daughter loved princesses when she was about 4 but she also loved ancient Egypt and dinosaurs, and she played with all of those toys and themes, sometimes all at once! Providing your child with a lot of different alternatives for story lines and creative play allows them to use their imaginations and explore both themselves and the world around them. Letting them become drenched in Princess Culture doesn’t provide them with those same kinds of opportunities.

Having three daughters, one now in middle school, I take the long view. I think, in moderation and with thoughtfulness, princesses and Barbie can likely play a part in their childhood, just as they did in mine. This does take some planning on the part of parents, though. With the heavy marketing and commercialization of both of these brands, it’s easy for little girls to become consumed and overwhelmed by them. In my opinion, moderation, as in all things, is the key.

Olfman, S. (Ed) The Sexualization of Childhood (2009). Praeger: Westport, CT.

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