Is the Princess Stereotype Harming Our Daughters?
Little girls love glamorous princesses, but as Disney launches its newest, Tiana, a study says the stereotype is harmful
August 4, 2009
Lizzie Gorham is in love. Her passion influences what she wears, how she decorates her room, and her dreams. Sounds scary? It depends who you ask. After all, Lizzie is not yet 4.
She’s also not alone. Lizzie’s world — like that of so many other little girls — is full of royalty, tiaras and beautiful dresses. And, like the other girls, her focus is not the prince, but the woman he woos: a Disney princess.
“This is my Aurora dress,” says Lizzie, twirling around with excitement in the bedroom of her home in Buckinghamshire. “Aurora from Sleeping Beauty is my favourite princess because she marries a handsome prince and because her dress is pink. I like the Princess dresses and the stories. And I want to marry a prince.”
A ninth member of the successful “Disney Princess” brand is soon to join the ranks of Cinderella and Snow White; one who, Disney hopes, will widen their appeal. Princess Tiana, who is black, appears this December in The Princess and The Frog and the trailer for the film has just been released (Tiana already takes centre stage on the dedicated princess website, disney.go.com/princess, where you can enter the world of your favourite heroine).
Ten years ago, one of the corporation’s executives had the idea of grouping the Disney princesses together. It was a masterstroke. Each princess retained her individual mystique, but gained mass-market appeal as part of a distinctive group. Sales of their merchandise, — from Cinderella dolls to Ariel pyjamas — have soared from $300 million in 2001 to $4billion last year.
But while the Disney machine is busy girding itself up for yet another multimillion dollar marketing opportunity, a report last week highlighted the possibly damaging effect of dolls on a generation of girls. The Women and Work Commission, reporting on the gender and opportunities gap, found that while girls are outperforming boys at school and at university, they still earn less than men — and the pay gap may be widening. One of the main reasons for this, says the Commission, is that little girls spend too much time in the Wendy house, playing with dolls or pretending to be nurses while their little brothers want to be Bob the Builder.
From an early age, girls are being socialised, it seems, for the caring, soft “feminine jobs” that perpetuate gender stereotypes, job segregation, and lower pay rates. The Commission, chaired by Baroness Prosser, recommended that “The Department for Children, Schools and Families disseminate national guidance for teachers and early years childcare workers on how to ensure that the horizons of children aged 3 to 5 are not limited by stereotypes of what girls and boys can do.”
Some argue that the merchandising of dolls such as the Disney princesses only perpetuates these gender divides. "[Princess dolls] are promoting a very narrow and prescriptive view of femininity, and one that ought to be outmoded in the 21st century. I think they are regressive,” says Dr Melanie Waters, lecturer in English literature and specialist in feminist theory at Northumbria University. They encourage girls to be passive, and to nurture. There is also, says Dr Waters: “an aggressive focus on beauty, hair accessories and other images that promote the idea that girls should be concerned with their appearance”.
New research, however, appears to show that the attraction towards dolls may be innate. In June, an American academic found that little girls fall in love with princesses and so-called “girly” toys from a very early age for genetic rather than social reasons. Gerianne Alexander, from Texas A&M University, showed young babies aged three to eight months a pink doll and a blue toy truck. The girls showed a definite visual preference for the doll and the boys for the truck. Girls may be biologically programmed to love Cinderella before any “self-awareness of gender identity and gender-congruent behaviour”.
Whether it is down to social pressure or biology, the fact remains that not everyone thinks Disney Princesses are charming, particularly from a feminist point of view. Snow White, for example, in the film first shown in 1937, is cleaning the dwarves’ cottage within minutes of arriving, while the key to Sleeping Beauty is her waiting to be brought back to life by a Prince’s kiss.
The more modern princesses, who arrived decades later with Ariel in The Little Mermaid in 1989, are more assertive and involved in their destiny. However, no Disney film has, as yet, been brave enough to subvert the genre entirely, like Princess Fiona in Shrek, who is, of course, an ogre.
Disney doesn’t agree, and Andrea Tartaglia, Disney’s Vice President of Franchise Marketing, Europe and the Emerging Markets, is keen to emphasise that beauty is not dwelt upon in the films. “We are talking about being kind — it’s inner beauty, not external,” he claims. “When we develop our product and our strategy for those characters over time, we always look at some specific attributes that we want to include in the product. Those are, for example, the idea of being kind, the idea of being respectful and loving animals. All these contribute to a positive message that one could give to kids and how we think they should aspire to that behaviour.”
Whether these attributes are all that’s needed for 21st-century girls is questionable and although inner beauty may matter, all the princesses are (coincidentally or not) outwardly gorgeous too. They all have very small waists, large busts and flawless skin — just what’s required to attract a prince, apparently.
“I’d like to be a princess, because I’d look nice,” says five-year-old Jessica Thompson. She loves “everything” about the princesses, particularly that they look “pretty”.
However, Karen Benveniste, Jessica’s mother, is not unduly concerned: “I don’t want to sound like I’m not into women’s rights because my daughters like Disney princesses,” she says. “I’m as feminist as they come, but I don’t analyse it that closely. I think kids are entitled to escapism at that age. In fact, I’m very sad that Alice, my other daughter, who’s only 7, is already moving away from the princesses.”
But Dr Waters can’t understand why parents aren’t more concerned about their daughters’ fascination with princesses. She’s convinced they’re bad news. “I don’t want to be the no-fun feminist, suggesting little girls can’t dress up,” she says, “but there’s something insidious about the merchandising of all this.” There are various contradictory messages at play, she says. “Mulan, for example, discovers that she’s happier in warrior garb than in a dress, but in the images that are merchandised, she’s always wearing the very restrictive feminine dress. The films may show gutsy, tough heroines, but it’s a shame a lot of that is negated in the way they are promoted.”
It’s certainly true that some of the more recent Princesses show their feisty side (Pocahontas and Mulan are usually included in the grouping, though Mulan isn’t a princess, either by birth or by marriage). Belle from Beauty and the Beast would rather read than dally with the local hunk; Pocahontas actually turns down the chance of everlasting love to go back to her people and be a leader. Yet the merchandising shows almost identikit princesses waiting for their princes to come.
Andrea Tartaglia seems surprised by suggestions of a disconnect between the heroines of the films and dolls. He also admits that he never considered the issue of Mulan’s clothing. “We tend to be very true to the original story telling,” he insists.
In reality, is wearing a dress and wanting to be kind really that bad? The princesses may be marketed at three-to-six-year-olds (the age at which the Women in Work Commission feels that gender stereotyping should be challenged) but for now at least, most mothers seem content to let their daughters discover their feminine, caring sides through dolls, Disney or otherwise.
“I can think of far worse things for them to like,” says Karen Benveniste. Suzanne Gorham, mother of Lizzie, agrees. “It’s all about a dance, a kiss, marriage, happily ever after, and some high heels,” she says. “It does worry me slightly that if something terrible happened, Lizzie thinks that she would be rescued by a handsome prince. But then again, she is only three.”