Taking on the princess problem

princessproblemLOADED TOPIC DISCLAIMER: Let me apologize in advance if you or your loved ones are fans of the Disney princesses or the “princess phenomenon” in general. I don’t mean to unduly demonize princess culture or depict it as though you must either be for or against princesses. Please bear with me because you might find something useful here after all.

I’m a relatively new dad. My daughter is just over two years old. Her mom and I love her with the heat of a thousand suns and we want the best for her. We want her to become faithful, independent minded, strong-willed, kind, and courageous. We want her to be herself. I used to always call her my “little baby” or “the tiniest baby in the whole wide world” and other diminutive and cute phrases parents attach to their little (there I go again) sweethearts. Over the past few months as she’s become more aware of the media and merchandise all around her my anxiety has increased. The Church’s For the Strength of Youth pamphlet understates the problem this way:

“Choose wisely when using media because whatever you read, listen to, or look at has an effect on you.”[1]

The bulk of the section on media discusses pornography. While I understand this is a problem that girls as well as boys can struggle with, I confess that when it comes to my daughter I’m more worried about the more subtle and apparently more acceptable messages she will constantly receive as she matures—especially the messages about what it means to be a girl. My referring to her as little and tiny was done with affection. But lately I’ve tried to switch things up. Now I call her my “mighty girl,” a descriptor I borrowed from a website featuring media and toys for “smart, confident, and courageous girls”: www.amightygirl.com.

On that site’s recommendation, I recently bought a copy of The Princess Problem: Guiding our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years by Rebecca C. Hains.[2] If you’re curious about why parents might feel uncomfortable with princess culture, this book will get you up to speed. I don’t personally know any parents who want their daughters to grow up passively waiting for Prince Charming to gallop along to take care of them for the rest of their charmed lives. I recognize it takes no bravery on my part to say I hope my daughter isn’t saddled with anxiety about her appearance, or impeded by a reluctance to speak out or to take risks. The trouble is that the media and toys I expose my daughter to might bring such consequences about unless I help her navigate the right and wrong, the good from bad. It’s in our best interest—and in the best interest of our daughters—to stop and think about how the apparently innocuous things our daughters become attached to might negatively affect them. This post includes a brief overview of the book and a few tips especially for dads like me who want to help their girls be mighty girls.

So what’s wrong with princesses?

In The Princess Problem, Rebecca Hains describes four main problems of princess culture: the beauty ideal, the gender stereotypes, the racial stereotypes, and the pervasive marketing that spreads princess culture far and wide. First, think about the marketing.

The pervasive marketing. Here’s the thing: it works! Try as you might to keep your daughter away from princesses. You’ll almost certainly fail. And Hains points to research suggesting that princess marketing is particularly potent because it exploits a normal childhood stage of development (80). By the time they hit preschool, kids are paying attention to gender. They’re mapping their little worlds and categorizing like mad and most of them (with some exceptions) pick up on the cultural clues about what’s “right” for boys and girls. The options can be as simplified and rigid as boy=blue, girl=pink. In contrast to a variety of boy-aimed products, though, girls are offered mostly princess products thereby limiting their options.

What’s wrong with that? According to Hains, contemporary princess culture is hyper-focused on appearance. The positive reinforcement little girls receive from adults and friends helps solidify their self-perception as princesses. A little girl dressed in a little princess dress will hear compliments about how pretty she looks more often being praised for her interests or abilities (110). This mentality persists through adulthood. On a recent People magazine cover I saw stories about four different women. All of them pertained to a woman’s weight, make-up choices, grooming habits, or relationship status. Not a single mention of a woman’s hobbies or interests apart from looks. The standard for princesses and for many of these women on magazine covers is perfection. Girls need a variety of women role models to emulate, women who have struggles and failures and who take risks, or else they may find themselves too afraid of thinking outside the box for fear of being perceived as imperfect (149).

Speaking of role models, it only takes a moment of reflection to see that knocking down Disney princesses is like shooting fish in a barrel. Snow White’s value stems from being the most beautiful girl in the land and she’s fulfilled primarily by playing housekeeper to a group of single men waiting until her handsome suitor rescues her. Belle falls in love with an emotionally abusive beast. Ariel literally gives up her voice and alters her body in pursuit of a guy she just barely met. Jasmine acts sexy, using her body to fool a villain. Most princesses are white, with a few minority princesses included presumably to represent their entire race. The women in these stories spend more time being acted upon than acting (see Hains, 11-12).

Sounds pretty bleak. On the bright side, Hains found that more recent princesses buck some of the stereotypes perpetuated by the classic princesses. Compare Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty (sleeping beauty!) to Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine. Then compare them all to take-charge Mulan (despite the movie’s racial stereotypes), hard-working Tiana (The Princess and the Frog), spunky Rapunzel, and independent-minded Merida (Brave). Remarkably, Merida is the first Disney princess who doesn’t get married at the end of her film. Then of course there’s Frozen‘s Anna and Elsa. These latter-day princesses still perpetuate a few negative stereotypes (is anyone’s real-life body shaped like that?), but Hains says things have nevertheless improved. For instance, these women matter even apart from their connection to a male figure even while the importance of healthy relationships with others is not overlooked (164-165).[3]

This takes us to the crux of Hains’s book. She didn’t set out to merely catalog all of the problems with princesses. She writes:

“The goal is not to persuade girls that princesses are bad or to ‘de-princess’ them. Rather, it is to help girls reason through the problems with princesses and see that there are many other ways to be a girl–to help unfetter their imaginations and help them dream a multiplicity of dreams.” (xvii)

Yes. This book is actually about teaching your children to be savvy media critics. See, I actually plan on letting my kids watch films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and other classics. Disney princesses don’t invariably display unworthy ambitions or characteristics. Long-suffering, kindness, inquisitiveness, and other positive things are also on display. Girls can benefit from imperfect media. Rather than protecting children by filtering out every potentially problematic toy or show, parents can empower their children by teaching them to be smart media consumers. Hains wants us to become pop-culture coaches who are “explicit about the messages we want our children to internalize, [who] model the kinds of behaviors we want them to practice, and [who] expose them to diversity” (236).

I recommend reading the whole book to get the full effect, but the basic steps pop-culture coaching are:

1. Identify your family’s values.

2. Establish a healthy media diet for your children. (This includes the amount of screen time kids are allowed as well as the types of programs they are allowed to watch.)

3. Watch and talk about media content with your children.

4. Teach your children about media creation. (63)

The book gives a lot of tips for each step, but steps three and four seem the most important to me. Hains encourages parents to use media to directly address stereotypes and difficult issues rather than forcing children to avoid all media:

“Remember to be attentive to anything she has to say [while watching a show]. Acknowledge her comments and answer her questions. Always let her know that you are listening to her, and that her ideas are important to you. This will make it clear that you value the opportunity to talk about media with her, establishing healthy patterns of respect and dialogue for your family” (269).

Hains says that by verbally addressing stereotypes you see on-screen and soliciting your child’s perspective, you invite a dialogue that helps your child become more aware of the messages media sends to her. You empower her to employ critical thinking and you show her that you value her perspective and that you have an important perspective to offer as well. Hains argues that one of the best ways to communicate our values to our kids is by discussing them in connection with books, movies, and toys. In order to help our children “choose wisely when using media,” as For the Strength of Youth advises, we should teach them to think wisely when using media, “because whatever you read, listen to, or look at has an effect on you.”[4]

Finally, teaching your daughters to be critical and wise regarding princess culture can be especially helpful in the event that people outside the home employ princess culture for parties, educational purposes, or other reasons. While I hope the Church’s Young Women organization and those who oversee it on the local level find better ways to teach girls about our values, I can’t guarantee that princesses won’t infiltrate there. (See Tracy’s magnificent post about teaching the YW values using remarkable female role models and Neylan McBaine’s post about a recent church magazine feature.) Princesses are everywhere. The best I can hope to do is give my daughter options—to help her become more assertive and critical (in the thoughtful sense), to empower her to be the mighty girl I know she can be.[5]

Rebecca C. Hains’s virtuous and praiseworthy book The Princess Problem: Guiding our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years contains plenty more tips for pop-culture coaches. I strongly recommend it.

_________________________________

NOTES

[1] For the Strength of Youth, “Entertainment and Media.

[2] Rebecca C. Hains, The Princess Problem: Guiding our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years (Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2014).

[3] It can’t be coincidental that Frozen is the first feature-length animated film that lists a woman as co-director (174).

[4] For the Strength of Youth, “Entertainment and Media.

[5] Hains offers some particular suggestions fathers can take into consideration: (1) Don’t discuss women’s bodies around your daughters. Especially avoid “fat-shaming” and call it out when you see it. (2) Demonstrate admiration for the achievements of real women including their mother, relatives, and especially outside the home. Provide alternative role models instead of princesses. (3) Be kind to yourself. As with mothers, dad’s body image can be perceived by the kids. (4) Model the sort of egalitarian marriage you hope she will enjoy by changing diapers, washing dishes, and by being a partner to your spouse in general. See pp. 143-144.

Comments

  1. Blair, just bought this. Thanks.

  2. WI_Member says:

    One of my daughters is majoring in neuroscience. She is on fire considering what contributions to the world she can make. Just this morning I got a message from her about a TED talk she had watched talking about the future of neuroscience. Then these words followed…”Mom. MOM. I can do this!” I never want that fire to go out. And I certainly don’t want it to be extinguished at church.

  3. “parents can empower their children by teaching them to be smart media consumers.”

    I sure hope so because my experience with a two-year-old thus far is not encouraging.

  4. Real words of wisdom here. Thanks for this. As the parents of four daughters, I fear that we might have been too laissez-faire with princesses and barbie movies (which are just terrible but the girls loved them when they were little). But we have open discussion about media and about the negative messaging in the princess and barbie films, so perhaps it will work out in the end.

  5. Great post.

    “Hains says that by verbally addressing stereotypes you see on-screen and soliciting your child’s perspective, you invite a dialogue that helps your child become more aware of the messages media sends to her.”

    From my own personal research, the same is said for media violence and children–it’s vital that we stop and have these conversations with our children.

    Also, I appreciate that today we can pick and choose our media with so much more ease. My daughters have not been exposed to the countless hours of commercials/marketing that I had been exposed to by their age.

  6. This is very practical and solid advice, even for families with kids who are older and entering the tween/teen years. Thanks, Blair.

  7. Love this, Blair. This book sounds wise in its pragmatism: we can’t keep girls out of princess culture, but we can teach them to be savvy media critics. And invoking For the Strength of Youth on this point FTW.

  8. WI_Member, being a media critic means being critical of media the Church produces as well. It’s not unfaithful to point out that not everything Church leaders say applies in every situation. Learning how to recognize what works or doesn’t work for you and allow it to work or not work for others is an important part of this kind of criticism. “Individual adaptation” and all that. I didn’t like princess stuff, even as a child. My daughter has never been interested in it, either, so we never went through any of this. However, I have friends who are all about the princess for themselves and their daughters. I am all for self-awareness about it (which I think is one of the points of the OP), but I also think that lots of pain can be avoided if we are less one-size-fits-all for ourselves as well as for others. I hope I can help my daughter and my sons have the courage to buck the social expectations that don’t work for them.

  9. LDSnudnick says:

    [fat-shaming deleted]

  10. LDSnudnick: In the spirit of my fifth footnote, I’m calling out your fat-shaming. Stop. As Hains suggests, as well as many other health care oriented specialists, parents should focus on general principles of eating healthy, exercising, etc. for the purpose of healthy living in general without fixating on weight. Women have so many unrealistic expectations flooding them wherever they go, they’re not going to get it here.

  11. I just added to my post a tip of the cap to Neylan McBaine in the post, who just yesterday blogged about a problematic New Era feature from February 2015.

  12. “we might have been too laissez-faire with princesses”

    What about the Queen of the Night?

  13. She is two. When she says, “I not little, I BIG” you’ll know it is time to change how you refer to her, and she will. Getting rid of the TV altogether would help considerably so there cannot be a daily diet of princess media. You choose the books she reads. When my oldest was little our weekly trip to the local library was a highlight of excitement and we read the books avidly until the next trip. The rest of the time he played his own games and exercised his imagination, sometimes based on the stories we read. By the time our daughter came along the TV was back, but we had few videos and watched them seldom. She watched “Annie” at lunch time with her dad every day for a while when she was 3 and grew into a lady just as spunky as Annie is, don’t know if there is a connection or not.

  14. Raising a little princess focused on her looks is never the right move.

    My daughter went through a little bit of a princess phase – we tried to balance it out with other classics of Western civilization, like Brigadoon, The Wizard of Oz, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Add in some Shakespeare, Kurosawa, Pink Floyd, Queen, and The Who, and you’ve got the makings of a balanced media diet. I’d take her to the archery range so we could practice our superhero moves, and we’d discuss the concept of protecting others. We’d go on canoe trips and discuss running a business, taking risks and enjoying the rewards of hard work. She’s now a little baffled by the whole girly-girl culture – she’d much rather put on a fencing mask than a pink dress.

    I pointed out to her at a young age that the early Princess movies had marriage to that prince as the ultimate goal (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella). Later movies often carry the implication that girls should not listen to their fathers, because fathers are wrong (Little Mermaid). She can often come home from Young Women and complain how activities and lessons often resemble a Disney movie, where a temple wedding to a returned missionary is the ultimate goal in life and if one achieves that, the rest is easy and automatic. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, but it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us or that He finds us unworthy of the ideal.

  15. If you haven’t already banned Disney and Barbie from your daughters’s lives “The Paper Bag Princess” http://www.amazon.com/The-Paper-Bag-Princess-Annikins/dp/0920236251 is the disarming antidote.

  16. Well, Queen of Night goes without saying Peter — the girls have loved her arias and the entire opera since their earliest cognizant days.

  17. I have two girls. We managed to avoid the princess stuff. Neither of my girls were obsessed with princess stuff.
    It can be done!

  18. Most of you will probably disagree with me, but I don’t think it is that big of a deal in the long run as long the princess thing doesn’t get out of hand. I remember really liking to dress up as a princess in some of my Mom’s old clothes. I din’t watch many Disney movies, but I got the ideas from books, so I wouldn’t blame Disney for all the princess trouble. It was a fun stage and I grew out of it. My young daughter likes princesses, but not princes. She doens’t see the point in them yet. I would discourage parents from letting them watch too many movies of any sort too often. Help introduce them to other interesting things like science and nature. Read to them about many other topics. This is good advice for boys as well. I’m sure your daughter outgrow this stage and move on.

  19. I’m not sure I agree that the “latest” princesses like Mulan and Tiana are any different: are they? Every Mulan toy you’ll see in the store has her wearing the corseted getup that made her miserable for 5 minutes of the movie. Tiana is wearing her ball gown, not her “hardworking” restaurant gear. They’re the same old princess toys, with just enough edge to make parents feel like they’re not.

    I highly recommend the book So Sexy So Soon. The book has a lot of similar themes: little girls immersed in princess culture learn that it’s important to be “pretty,” which translates into being “hot” when they grow older. It’s no accident that Disney created the slightly sexier, slightly edgier Disney Fairies line pretty much out of thin air to keep a hold of its market when they started aging out of Disney Princesses.

  20. rk: I’m trying to suggest in my post that princesses are not necessarily either good or bad, but rather princess culture is one of many opportunities parents have to engage directly with their children in critical thinking.

    Jenny: in the book, Rebecca Hains discusses the disparities between the films and the toys. The most infamous example was the redesign of Merida when she was inducted as a Disney princess and sexy’d up.

  21. Adam K. K. Figueira says:

    I think some of the crossover between princess and LDS culture comes from the way the “daughter of God” concept is taught. Of course many positive things can come from the idea that we are children of the highest, however you interpret that phrase, but I’ve often seen those teachings focus on status (you’re a heavenly princess) and innate beauty, which is “reflected in your countenance” (read: appearance). Our stake has had entire camps built around that theme. The girls are taught to think of their princess status when choosing clothing, hairstyles, attitudes, and behaviors and they still end up looking in the mirror for validation of their choices. Leaders try to reappropriate rather than counter or even balance princess culture. They think they’re reaching out to the girls on their own level – giving them new context for familiar things – but I worry they’re just infusing some of the harmful messages of princess culture with perceived gospel infallibility. The girls come away uplifted, believing that because of their divine heritage God will make them into the princesses they want to be and are deep inside. Just like a Disney movie.

    I don’t mean to denigrate the efforts of YW leaders. They have such a challenging job. As a father of six daughters (one son) I can appreciate them in ways I never could have before I had kids. I’m merely commenting on the possible outcome of their well-intentioned (and probably desperate) attempts to get through to the struggling teens and tweens in their charge.

    I want to add an AMEN! to the comments about talking with kids about media. As a filmmaker/teacher, I consider it my primary goal to get my students (and children) to think more deeply about the media they engage with, whether as a creator or an audience member. I rarely tell anyone to avoid a specific production, but I try to always counsel thoughtfulness, personal awareness, balance, and responsibility.

    I also want to put in a good word for the media creators out there who are trying to make things better. It’s hard. It’s so easy to fall into stereotypes and harmful tropes without even knowing it. I disagree with people who assert that men can’t write (or direct) compelling, healthy female characters just as much as I would disagree with the reverse, but the difficulty (probably on both sides of that coin) is enormous. I’ve had to remind myself that while I want to avoid the worst pitfalls, there is no single ideal female role-model, and my characters can experience emotional growth, including overcoming some of the problematic cultural norms. I suspect that for me and for the industry as a whole it will be a far more gradual process than I’d like to see, but it’s a worthy goal nonetheless. So, those of you who are trying to make a difference in this from the production side, carry on.

  22. Adam K. K. Figueira says:

    Oh, by the way, Brenda Chapman wrote and is credited as a director on Brave. That was at least one before Frozen.

  23. Xander Harris says:

    Mulan was such a badass.

  24. nedquimby says:

    And why isn’t Badassery one of the YW values?

  25. I’m pretty sure “Virtue” is supposed to be a synonym for Badassery.

  26. Excellent work. I don’t have girls (or boys, for that matter), but I think parents taking an active role in watching things with their kids and playing “critic” with them is vitally important in healthy development. ( I wrote a bit on that waaaaaay back, from the perspective Brigham’s directive that we should “study evil” and its effects vicariously through media, here .)

  27. Thanks for linking, Ben. I had a section of the post that pointed to 19th century LDS leaders and their views on novels that suggested some of the same things Hains suggests but the post was already too long.

  28. My daughter is well immersed in the Princess thing, but is very independent about the way she does it. It’s quite likely that in her play that Sleeping Beauty will release Charizard to battle Team Rocket.
    Earlier this month we were at Tokyo Disneyland. On previous visits we’ve brought her the Princess’ dresses because she wanted them and loves dress-ups. This time around we wanted to get her one of the ones from Frozen and the only way to do so was to go to the Bibbity Bobbity Boutique. We tried getting them just to sell us the dress, but noooo the only way was to do the whole make-up, hair and photos shemozzle. It was ALL about churning out replicas. Heck, they even had to get special permission from high up to plait the girl’s own hair rather than adding a hair piece. This is why the Princess culture is damaging. It’s not about even encouraging girls to follow the stereotypes and tropes: they actually have to become the princesses being sold.

  29. If you can’t fight it, join it. It seems to me that the problem is buying into the current depiction of princesses, not in being a princess. A princess has to be able to rule a country. That requires all kinds of skills, economics, city planning, transportation systems, protecting the environment, etc. A soon to be queen doesn’t need to be married but if she does she has to carefully choose her consort…who will receive a title but no power. So what projects will she give him? Does it matter that she does all this in a ridiculous frilly dress?