The Princess Problem

Not everyone is thrilled about the reemergence of the princess movement, of course. Some feminists have been clucking nervously about it for years. Indeed, a vigorous debate has been occurring among professors and others in academia who fear the fantasies are undermining politically correct ideology. Writer Jennifer Dowd worries, for example, that princesses convey to children "that women are weaker than men."4 The last thing these critics want is for girls to read about damsels in distress who are rescued by handsome princes. But the dilemma for them is that their daughters love the princesses.

Peggy Orenstein called the movement "troubling" and admitted she is conflicted with regard to her own child. She says:

As a feminist mother . . . I have been taken by surprise by the princess craze and the girlie-girl culture that has risen around it. What happened to William wanting a doll and not dressing your cat in an apron? Whither Marlo Thomas? I watch my fellow mothers, women who once swore they'd never be dependent on a man, smile indulgently at daughters who warble "So This Is Love" or insist on being called Snow White. I wonder if they'd concede so readily to sons who begged for combat fatigues and mock AK-47s.

More to the point, when my own girl makes her daily beeline for the dress-up corner of her preschool classroom— something I'm convinced she does largely to torture me—I worry about what playing Little Mermaid is teaching her. I've spent much of my career writing about experiences that undermine girls' well-being, warning parents that a preoccupation with body and beauty (encouraged by films, TV, magazines and, yes, toys) is perilous to their daughters' mental and physical health. Am I now supposed to shrug and forget all that? If trafficking in stereotypes doesn't matter at three, when does it matter? At six? Eight? Thirteen?5

Sharon Lamb, a professor of psychology at Saint Michael's College, came right to the point:

What you're really talking about is sexual purity. And there's a trap at the end of the rainbow.6

Lamb is objecting to the fact that purity is making a comeback, at least within the princess movement, and that development is disturbing to her and other liberal commentators. That is strange. I find it difficult to understand how any mother would be disturbed by her daughter's exposure to purity. Modeling virtue is one of the reasons I like the movement. In a subtle way, the Disney stories present a wholesome image of virginity until marriage and then lifelong love thereafter. They also promote femininity, kindness, courtesy, the work ethic, service to others, and "good vibes" about one's personhood. Where else in the popular culture do you find these values represented in such an attractive way?

Rachel Simmons, of Girls Leadership Institute, writes approvingly of princess play. She lauds the way it avoids tough, street-gang behavior that was popular a few years ago. She also likes traditional princess clothing that encourages little girls to be children and is not blatantly sexualized. Cinderella and Snow White do not wear low-rider jeans or thongs, Simmons says. She continues:

So what does the princess phenomenon teach our girls? That it's fun to dress up. That the prince may drop by the castle to give you a kiss or dance with you, but after that, he's out of there. He is peripheral to the whole princess scene.

Princess culture is a matriarchy. See you later, Prince Charming. The shoe may fit, and the carriage may be waiting, but these princesses are very, very busy. The tea water's boiling and the phone is ringing off its hook.

The princesses have a lot to do before the stroke of midnight.7

Orenstein and other feminist writers have raised two additional concerns that deserve consideration. The first deals with the eternally optimistic theme of the stories. Everything works out wonderfully in the end, and then "they all live happily ever after." She wants girls, hers and ours, to live in reality, not fantasy. She asks, "Will the girl who is wearing 'Princess' across her chest when she's three be wearing 'Spoiled' across her chest when she is six, and 'Porn Star' when she is 12?"8

I've seen no evidence to support the supposition that little girls who think of themselves as princesses are more likely to become brats or strippers when adolescence approaches. That strikes me as ridiculous.

Admittedly, however, life is not always a Cinderella journey, and Orenstein is not the only parent who worries about pretending that it is. But we are talking here about children, after all. There will be plenty of time for them to learn about pain, sorrow, and other intricacies of adult life. Or as one mother put it, they have the rest of their lives to become jaded. Let's let children be children while they are children.

Orenstein raises a final concern about the princess movement, which I think has validity and is worth considering in depth. Not every little girl can be "the fairest in the land" and look like Ariel or Sleeping Beauty. There is, therefore, an aspect to the princess fantasy that parents should recognize and respond to with wisdom and sensitivity. An overemphasis on physical attractiveness throughout childhood can create an expectation that some kids will never achieve. We'll offer some suggestions along that line momentarily, but in the meantime, let me just remind you that there is a downside to just about everything in life. Toys, books, cartoons, video games, and the Internet each have their uses and abuses. We could throw them all out like babies with the bathwater and try to shield our kids from everything that is not perfect.

The better approach, I believe, is to carefully scrutinize and select that which will be allowed into the lives of our children. Our job is to teach and interpret for them what they need to understand. They will learn far more directly from us than from storybook fantasies. The princess movement can be handled in that manner. Ultimately, mothers will have to decide whether or not to introduce their girls to this and other forms of make-believe. It is my belief that the good outweighs the bad in the princess movement, and it is certainly better than Bratz dolls or the adolescent world of Barbie.

Parents do need to be very aware of pressures that children face from the culture. The worship of beauty is so pervasive that it influences every aspect of childhood. It will continue to have an impact throughout life.

I have written about this subject since my early years as a psychologist, and it is still one of my greatest concerns for the well-being of children. I wrote about it in my book Building Confidence in Your Child, and I believe my counsel is still valid today.

Very early in life, a child begins to learn the social importance of physical beauty. The values of society cannot be kept from little ears, and many adults do not even try to conceal their bias. [Every child can figure out] that the unattractive do not become "Miss America," nor do they become cheerleaders or movie stars.

It is surprising just how effectively we teach our small children to accept the beauty cult. Indeed, we seem obsessed by this system of valuing human worth. For example, the approved fourth-grade reader adopted as a California state textbook at one time carried a fairy story about three little girls. Two of the girls were very beautiful, with lovely hair and facial features. Because of their beauty they were loved by the people and given kingdoms in which to rule. The third little girl was very unattractive. No one liked her because she was not pleasant to look at. The people would not let her have a kingdom of her own. She was very unhappy and sad. The story ended on such an encouraging note, however, because this little girl was given a kingdom with the animals. Isn't that a wonderful resolution? Her homeliness got her banished from the world of the elite, as it often does. Her physical deficiencies were described in considerable detail for the fourth graders, so that similar children in the classroom would be pointed out. It is a dull child who fails to notice that nature has created haves and have-nots, and every child in a class can tell who fits where.

. 4.Jennifer Dowd, "The Princess Debate: Are Fairy Tale Princesses Really Bad for Our Girls?" see (accessed September 2, 2009).

5.Orenstein, "What's Wrong with Cinderella," 34.

6. Ibid.

7.Thames, "Pretty in Pink," F2.

8."Princess Image for Girls Debated," United Press International, (April 23, 2007).

Book: Bringing Up Girls

By Dr. James Dobson

Group Created with Sketch.