What harm in raising a princess

Its a tale as old as time or at least the early 2000s. Woman has baby girl. Woman is overrun by pink and Disney princesses. Woman becomes annoyed. Woman swears her child is not going to be raised as a princess and goes and buys some matchbox cars.
But is this really a legitimate response? The Disney Princess line and associated culture may be overwhelming and annoying but does it actually do any harm?

Seriously, why?

To give you an idea of the impact, the Disney Princess franchise contains 25,000 products and since its introduction Disney's marketing sales has risen from 300 million to 4 billion dollars a year. It has influenced other media and products and has been pointed at as the major reason for the creation of a new concept of 'girlhood' defined by gender and the consumption of related messages and products.

Children's toys in the 80s and now

This change is disappointing to many women, myself included. You realise that your children are going to grow up in a different world than you but you hope that it will be a better one, a more equal one, where people are less stereotyped by gender. But less about my shattered dreams for the world and back to the original question, does it do any harm?
The concern many people have about it is that girls who are surrounded by 'princess culture' will internalise this viewpoint as the 'passive victim'. This will result in a struggle in adulthood in attaining their own sense of identity and maturity and cause them to fall into negative relationship dynamics where all the power is given to the 'other' and not themselves 1.  Is this justified?
Well its a little extreme, but 'princess culture' certainly can have negative effects. To see why we need to look at two things. First what it is portraying in terms of gender roles and second how does this influence children.

What Princess Culture portrays
The princesses all display some positive traits such as bravery but particularly in the older films the majority of their behaviour is negative 'feminine' traits such as passivity and emotional lability. They are largely portrayed as passive and spend a great deal of time engaging in gender stereotypical behaviour such as housework or looking after their beauty. This should not surprise us, some of these films date from the 1930s and they are all based on stories from the 16th to 18th century. We have moved a long way in gender roles since these times.
Disney has attempted to counter criticism about these roles by making their more recent Disney Princesses more active in their own stories. Many of the more recent Disney Princesses show a good amount of positive, more traditionally 'masculine' traits such as athleticism and bravery and less negative 'feminine' traits such as passivity 2. Despite this, the stories still portray stereotypical representations of gender and the male characters have had little to no change in their gender role 3.
Importantly, although there have been changes in the more recent princesses, the princesses who are the focus of the Disney Princess culture are the more traditional princesses (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel and Belle) who display the most negative 'feminine' traits and behave in the most gender restricted way. Toys involving these Princesses hugely outnumber the less traditional princesses and the play associated  with these toys have been shown to reinforce traditional gender roles so reinforcing these roles further into the children 4.

Influence on children
Children learn about society and their place in it by watching others,, including characters in the media. In fact television has been identified as the dominant source of social influence on children's gender concepts 5. The gender patterns children see portrayed controls how they expect people in the world to behave and how they respond to it and leads to the creation of gender stereotypes.
To some degree, the creation of gender stereotypes is a normal part of development. Preschoolers in particular are well known to be very concrete about gender. It is a necessary for them to have security in the world and helping in decisions making as they begin to negotiate social relationships. However stereotypes which are too concrete and 'sexist' can rapidly become problematic altering their attitudes and beliefs about what they and others can achieve and limiting their self esteem, growth and development 4. Children whose thinking is less constrained by gender stereotypes have been shown to higher levels of self esteem and identity achievement 6. Effects of gender stereotypes can be seen in young children's career aims, adolescent's academic achievement and adult's relationship and dating patterns 6.

Considering the negative effects of gender stereotyping and the fact that the Disney Princess culture does nothing but reinforce these stereotypes, I think a clear case can be made for the fact that the Disney Princess culture can be harmful particularly to girls. However since it is so ubiquitous it can hardly be avoided and it is worth remembering that watching parents and others is also how children learn gender roles. That they are a 'princess' does not need reinforcing, teach them what else they can be.

  • Play kitchen with them sure and babies but also play cars and blocks and dinosaurs
  • Get them to show you how high they can climb, how far they can jump and how fast they can run
  • Tell them they are strong and brave and fast not just pretty and kind and helpful
  • Dress up as fireman and policeman and tradies as well as fairies and princesses
  • Read them stories with nonconvential gender roles
  • Model nonconvential gender roles: let them see you fix the car and get them to bake cookies with their daddy
  • Where possible avoid 'pinkification' particularly if you also have a son. Boys are more likely to play with 'girl' toys such as a kitchen or pram if they are not obviously gendered.


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