Raising Girls Without The Disney Princesses
Don’t worry, this is not meant to be an arrogantly opinionated judgmental post. Merely just sharing my experiences so far with my two daughters. They are only 2 1/2 and 4 1/2, so this post may be fairly premature but since I’ve already noticed a few results of this aspect of raising girls, I wanted to write about it.
Right before my oldest daughter was born I witnessed a 4 year old girl get gently scolded for some misbehavior. The girl hung her head and mournfully asked the parent, “Am I not pretty anymore?” Her comment shocked me, or rather the correlation the 4 year old had made between upsetting her parent, and therefore thinking her image was lessened; that if she felt disfavor, she also felt ugly. Ironically, her “confusion” and seemingly “lack of confidence” was most likely the result of constantly being told she was pretty. I’m not saying compliments are negative, but consider for a moment when you meet a little girl: their cute pig tails, sparkling hair barrettes, pink shoes, flower shirt or dress. Short of offering her a lollipop, the best way to make her smile is to tell her how beautiful she is, especially with so many items to compliment her on. Logically compliments on appearance make sense on initial meetings.
This event got me thinking and I started to research the coined terms “princess syndrome” and “princess culture”. The idea is that having girls so saturated with princesses, mainly the iconic Disney princesses (are there even any others?), can have negative long term effects on a girl’s confidence, self worth, and dependence, rooted in an over-obsession of their appearance. While I do not remember noticing these aspects as a child, when I look back on the Disney princess movies, there’s an underlying common theme that to get the Prince (best man possible) you must be the “fairest of them all”, or in other words, be beautiful with a stunning dress. Throw in tales of doing as everyone else does, defying your father, and of course being unrealistically skinny. Not only are these movies a favorite to watch, they are unforgettable because they are literally everywhere. On kids clothing, shoes, socks, underwear, toys, costumes, TV commercials, spin-off shows, Disney World advertisements. You see the same standard princesses over and over: Cinderella, Snow White, Bell, Aurora, Ariel, and even Tinkerbell. Sure Disney has tried to bring in others like Mulan and Brave, but the reality is that even if those have a more positive message, they don’t sell as well as the pretty, sparkly princesses (and now their equally ‘glammed up’ Princess Pets).
So with all this in mind, when we found out we were having a girl (and again with our second girl), we decided to attempt a more “gender-neutral” route when it came to clothing and baby items. We also made a ban on any Disney princess movies and toys until our girl was well beyond toddler and child years. The kids’ dress up box is void of all tiaras, high heals, fancy dresses, even magic wands. Without cable TV we’ve managed to effectively avoid all the princess movies (the classics haven’t made it to Netflix yet) and without commercials my two girls have actually never even heard of Disney World. Now of course they see the princesses in every store, but there is no invisible magnetic pull. They ask for the toys of other shows they’ve seen, and as far as clothing, to them it’s just a girl on a shirt. They like mermaids but have no idea that the one with red hair is Ariel and they don’t gravitate to her over other mermaid figures. Their favorite colors are still pink and purple, and they still like to wear dresses. They have a stash of play necklaces but choose to wear in random play and not as fashion enhancement necessities.
The only Disney Princess names they know are Elsa and Ana from them being a highly talked (and sang) about favorite of their friends. It wasn’t until about 3 1/2-4 years old that my daughter Evelyn really took a liking to dresses. So I was surprised one morning at age 3 when she emerged from her room in a dress. She had just spent the weekend with a Frozen-fan friend, and she spun around the kitchen loudly claiming “I’m Ana!” I was curious if she really knew who she was talking about so I asked her, “Whose Ana?” She looked confused, like the thought had not occurred to her. After a moment she smiled big and said “Ana is ME!” and commenced her twirling. A few days later when the memory had faded she came out again in a dress, this time chanting “I’m a pirANHA!”
I thought we had done pretty well, and even began to think maybe we were a little over the top with our movie ban. The girls had taken a liking to fairies from playing with some of my old 90’s “Fairy Winkles” toys and a game with their aunt that involved a magical gift-giving fairy tree. Halloween rolled around and my 4yr old wanted to be E.T. and my 2yr old wanted to be WALL-E. I didn’t have the energy this year to make these unique costumes so we settled on Charmander for the oldest and a hand-me-down Tinker Bell for the youngest.
I tried to consciously call my youngest’s costume “a fairy”, but familiarity also gave way to me saying the “Tinker Bell” label. As I began to dress her for treat-or-treating she looked down and studied the costume’s pendant on her chest that showed a picture of Tinker Bell. “I need her hair mom” she said. I looked at the picture of Tinker Bell’s hair up in a bun “Ok we can put your hair in a bun too” I agreed. “But it’s not the right color!” Confused I pointed out that she had blonde hair just like Tinker Bell. “NO!” she insisted, tugging her short blond hair in front of her eyes for a closer look, “it’s not the same!” She then continued on…“I need her eyes, and her cheeks, and her lips…I NEED HER LIPS!“ with each item she became sadder. There was my 2 year old, pouting and on the verge of tears. Reminding her of the mountain of candy she would receive in the next hour didn’t ease the distress she felt at not identically matching the pretty girl on her dress pendant. My heart hurt for her, and the power of that one little labeled picture terrified me.
After Halloween we vowed to continue our Disney Princess ban within our house. I don’t think I’m too crazy though. I don’t bat an eye when they play dress-up at friends house, and even at our own house they make claims of being a Queen, Princess, or King, and it doesn’t bother me. This Christmas they were gifted homemade wands and fluffy dress-up skirts.
I commented that their wands were like the “good fairy’s” in the children’s song “Little Bunny Foo Foo” and they run gleefully around “poofing” each other into different animal objects. I fully expected them to latch on to this skirt and wand combo as common wear, but instead it comes out of the dress-up box just as often as their ‘space cape’ and ‘bird wings’ and are occasionally mixed with other accessories like ‘dinosaur tails’.
When my girls are older, I’m sure I’ll sit down with them and watch the Disney Princess films. I just want it to be at an age where we can talk about the films and the images/unintentional messages portrayed within them. Perhaps when they start school these conversations will start sooner than later but I like that for now, they aren’t inundated with princess merchandise and story-lines.
Here are a few companies I’ve found that have further capitalized on this line of thinking.
Princess Awesome: A clothing company for young girls that acknowledges that girls can love twirling in dresses and being feminine, while also loving science, and dinosaurs, and mechanics, etc. They sell simple dresses where the skirt fabric depicts images of rockets, t-rexes, gears, etc in vibrant pink, purple, and other girlish colors. Going back to the beginning of this post about complimenting a girls prettiness, one reviewer noticed a change in initial conversation topics whenever her daughter wore the dresses. Instead of “awe, you look so pretty!” their daughter now first heard “cool, do you like outer-space!?” and was able to have an engaging conversation about planets and stars and astronauts.
Goldieblox: A construction toy company for girls with the slogans “More than just a princess” and “disrupting the pink aisle”, that features the first female engineer character. The games pair with storytelling (a proven appeal for how girls play compared to boys) to engage girls in educational games about construction and invention. You can find them on Amazon too.
Lego Friends and Lego Elves: It wasn’t until 2012 that Lego company finally had success with marketing to and engaging girls when they released their “Lego Friends” line. Their success came from realizing that girls liked building as much as boys, but they wanted to build different things. There’s also the idea that like playing house, girls like to play in a way that allows them to tell a story. So in pink Lego Friends’ boxes you’ll find female figures, tiny pets, and construction of houses, salons, bakeries, horse stables, etc all in bright girlish color schemes. Personally I think they take it a bit too far with sets like the party bus, cruise ship, and concert stage, but their variety of options allows parents alternative options. You can find many sets on Amazon.
In 2015 Lego released their Elves line, with the same female lego figures, but now in fantasy building sets. They include things like purple dragons, tree house construction, magical “tricks” and “gems”. Still feminine but a little less stereotypical than the Friends’ line.
What are your thoughts? Do you have experiences to add also? Or know of other companies like the one’s listed above? I’d love to hear in the comment section below!