The Problem with Princesses

Don’t get me wrong. I love princesses. In fact, I have a deep and abiding love for all things Disney (although sometimes they make it hard…I’m looking at you, Pocahontas). I grew up in the heyday of Disney movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King. As young women, my sister and I dreamed about having daughters who we could take for glittery princess makeovers at Disneyland. Well, now I have a daughter, but my recent work and reading around gender has me looking closer at the princess phenomenon.

In a recent study out of Brigham Young University, researchers found that higher levels of engagement with Disney princesses (through television, movies, toys and other products) were associated with more female gender-stereotypical behavior. I was always fine with the princess stuff as long as the child was choosing it, but now it appears that the princess culture itself is changing behavior in potentially problematic ways. What’s the problem with gender-stereotypical behavior? Are quiet play and risk aversion really detrimental? Maybe not in and of themselves, but our culture already emphasizes what a girl looks like over what’s in her head and heart. When girls are exposed to hyper-feminine models, they get a limited picture of gender. When those models become expectations, they, in turn, limit children. (Interestingly, the study also found an increase in female gender-stereotypical behavior in boys immersed in princess culture, but suggested that it may be beneficial to them. While it may cause girls to go to an extreme of femininity, it can actually make boys more well-rounded.)

So what’s the solution? I think one thing we can do is avoid over-saturation. We don’t have to eliminate exposure to princesses, but we do have to temper it. For example, my daughter got a princess castle play tent for her birthday, but she also has toy dinosaurs, cars, and building blocks. (And you can bet if I have a little boy, he’ll play in that tent too.) I’m personally for limiting screen time as much as possible, but I know that it’s a part of this generation’s lives. So let’s take a break from Sofia the First and watch Sesame Street (which has a diverse cast and GREAT messages of inclusivity) or Daniel Tiger. You don’t have to throw out Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, but maybe put some of the great, non-fairytale Pixar movies in the mix. I also try to avoid books that are specifically marketed to one gender (I’ll take Harry Potter or Matilda over any of that Girls’ Book of Whatever garbage, thank you very much).

Another way to combat negative effects of “all things princess” is to change the princess narrative. There are Disney movies that do this. Protagonists Mulan and Merida challenge gender roles. In Frozen, it is the sister relationship rather than the love story that drives the film. There are lots of options outside of Disney. I love Jeremy Whitley’s comic Princeless, which centers around Adrienne, a Black princess who upends the traditional narrative, saving herself and her sisters and challenging gender stereotypes as a warrior in armor. You can also try Don’t Kiss the Frog: Princess Stories with Attitude by Fiona Waters, a collection of stories with a modern slant. Perhaps my favorite is an oldie but goodie: Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess. I read it to my class every year and have already read it to my baby. It’s the story of plucky Princess Elizabeth. When her castle is burned down, she must don a paper bag and outwit a dragon in order to save the prince. In the end (spoiler alert), she figures out the prince is kind of a jerk and doesn’t marry him after all. And she lives happily ever after.

I know a lot of little girls who want to do the whole princess thing, and that’s fine. I’m simply suggesting that we try to give them some balance. As for me, I expect I’ll still take my little one to Disneyland when she’s older. If she wants to be a princess, that’s great. But she can also be a pirate, Peter Pan, Cruella de Vil, or whatever her little heart desires. Because that's what I want for her in life: to be her authentic self, the person she innately knows herself to be…princess or otherwise.