Princessification

All you mamas of girls out there, I know you are already nodding your heads.

It’s incredible how it happens, the first position of royalty in a girl’s life. We’ve never watched Disney (well, except for Pooh.), and the only book we own that mentions the P word is The Paper Bag Princess, the most anti-foofy princess tale ever. Fern’s been exposed to empowered role models…Satsuki and Mei, Miss Piggy (Hei-YA!), Dorothy and Ozma.

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My Beauty, in four tutus and Blueberry Lassi stained shirt and mouth.

But like a drug dealer waiting around the corner from school (what a tired cliche, does that even happen?), the Princess Archetype is so culturally pervasive that my daughter has been hooked after only a little exposure. The neighbors across the street that scream “Hi Princess!” whenever they see her. The tutus that have found their way into her wardrobe as gifts (don’t get me wrong here either, I love a good tutu). The few times she’s been to a mall or Target with all the Cinderella everything. And most recently, the exhibit at our beloved Discovery Museum, about the world of Fairy Tales that predominantly featured…Princesses. With tot sized dress up gowns and everything! Ugh.

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I’m probably preaching to the choir here, so I’m not going to write a thesis on why I have a problem with Bibbedy Bobbedy Boo.

Instead, I’ll write you a list.

1. The princess is the primary archetype of power offered to little girls through media and advertising. It can be argued that underneath all the pink and sparkles, is a girl who can command the world and find her heart’s desire. But unless I want my daughter to be a Real Housewife , I would prefer it be modeled to her that she can just be a Person. With a Heart and Brain. Who is Capable without the zero sized waist and the boob job. Given who her mother is, it’s obvious that expression through fashion is not an issue. But there’s personal expression and then there’s emulation, and the latter is worrisome.

2. There’s this thing called cradle to grave that Disney figured out. Use cartoon characters and archetypes that children find attractive and put them on Everything with your brand on it, starting with diapers. From the time they are infants, entrain them to associate those characters with safety, pleasure and fun, and the business insures that the individual will feel compelled to buy their cheaply made plastic crap for the rest of their lives. Fuck you Disney.

3. Happily Ever After. I would almost buy the “Feminine form of Power” interpretation if it wasn’t for the way almost all princess stories resolve. Princess goes through major ordeal. Princess almost dies at the hand of hardship and challenge. Princess is brought back to life by the perfect dude. Princess lives happily ever after. As in, a girl’s life ends once her relationship begins. It can be argued that The Prince is the marriage of the young woman with her inner masculine. Which is a nice idea, but that’s not really how the mind integrates the message.I would almost laugh at my seriousness, if it wasn’t for the fact that I watch my twenty-something female clients do battle with this absorbed story line over and over in my office. Women have to find meaning for themselves through livelihood, vocation, empowerment and spirituality. Most of us try to eschew that by finding Mr. (or Mrs.) Right. Fairy tales send very strong messages to young minds, and I think this one is a big problem. Thankfully, this is beginning to change, just a little.

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Fern’s very first drawing of Mommy. Note that I seem to be wearing my tutu on my head.

From this amusing article…

No, I see a more insidious development: the systematic marketing of princess-emblazoned junk to an extremely vulnerable, impulsive demographic prone to violent public displays of displeasure when its parents don’t buy it everything it wants.

The fact is, if you have, or if you are, a little girl in today’s America, you can’t get away from princess culture. Not even in Juneau, perched at the edge of a 1,000-square-mile wilderness. In fact, we recently met a family that lives in a cabin with no running water out in Gustavus, and mirror, mirror on the wall, theirs were the princessiest daughters of all.

It’s as if Disney’s licensed itself to the entire country of China. Princess products are everywhere: princess placemats, princess camping chairs, princess toothbrushes, princess toothpaste, princess sheets, princess pillowcases, princess pillow shams (btw, what’s the purpose of a pillow sham, aside from providing yet another surface upon which to silk-screen Snow White?). We own several singing princess books, as well as a princess phone, which, when left alone for 10 minutes, rings itself to remind my daughter to play with it. I’d remove the batteries, but honestly, I think it’s one of those toys that runs on pure evil.

Alright, I could go on and on, but what I want to know is this…

What are your own recommendations for offering role models to little girls? What stories and books and movies do you recommend? What myths have you found, particularly ones that feature rockin’ women? Two that I really like are Spider Woman and Artemis…but I haven’t found any good images or books, especially ones that can compete with glittery rainbow everywhere toys. Mothers of little girls everywhere… I want to hear from you!

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31 thoughts on “Princessification

  1. how bout mamas of boys? 🙂 i think about this too…..for all the same reasons. i want them to see all females (big and small) as strong and independent. this is a good place to get ideas for books…

    http://www.amightygirl.com/mighty-girl-picks/independent-princess

    i also want to educate my little guys and give them good information so they can share it with the little girls they come in contact with. my closest pal has a 4.5 year old daughter who they play with several times a week. she is veerrrrrry princessy and mostly wants to play ‘i’m the princess and you come save me’. they don’t love that game……it’s so boring for them. i like to think i’m giving them good info so they can influence those games…turn it around to something else. she can still wear her princess clothes and little high heels while being a spy, a pirate, or playing ball.

  2. Indeed. When I was little the whole princess thing was just one of the many characters in our array of play, along with pirates like Anne Bonney, mama’s with our babies, teachers, moomins, Indians (i had some sort of book on plains indians and due to my extremely myopic understanding of genders I somehow presumed that all those long-haired dudes were hunter warrior girls. with the help of mom, I made myself a bow and some arrows and stalked our yard as Burning Heart, a fearless and clever buffalo hunter. i was like four…), winnie the pooh and wind in the willows characters, beatrix potter characters, all kinds of animal characters in general. Later, Laura Ingalls wilder, Alice in wonderland (where we all always wanted to be the evil queen because, you know, “off with their heads!”) Bilbo Baggins, nurses, business women (this was the 80s), shopkeepers, Russian witches, witches in general, Jaques Cousteau, oh man there were so many people to be.

    I’d recommend anything Miyazaki to watch, as well as old Moomin movies (the ones that Clover likes) and books. There were lots of really weird 80s kid shows that I sometimes got to watch at my grandma’s and we loved to play those. Like Tao tao, the super moralistic panda, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taotao_(anime)
    nils holgersson, the boy that flies with super moralistic geese
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wonderful_Adventures_of_Nils_(anime)
    around the world in 80 days
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Around_the_World_in_80_Days_(1972_cartoon)
    and this weird cartoon about two bear cubs somewhere in america (which lots of I’m guessing inappropriate Native American stuff-cringe) that must have never been shown anywhere but finland cos I can’t find a trace of it. I think all these things were made in Japan in the 70s and I remember them being super pg, kind of may be like Dora used to be. I have NO idea if they’re any good, you just got me remembering. My grandma and I watched a lot of nature shows too. Oh and later, Captain Planet.

    I don’t know, it’s just so odd how all the focus has shifted to princesses and action heroes. A lot of the shows I remember were really gender non specific.

    1. moomin! of course! we are downloading some now and i am excited for super moralistic raccoons and geese. haven’t seen nils either. all the stuff i remember was non-gender too. but i also remember that there were no girl role models, and whenever i wanted to play adventure, i was always a guy.

  3. Disclaimer: I have no human children of my own. However, I have a niece and 10 nephews I adore and want to have good role models, both male and female. I realize that some of these may need to wait a few years.

    When I was young, my awesome grandmother gave me a copy of “Great Women Paper Dolls,” which my dad photocopied so I could color them repeatedly. It included Eleanor of Aquitaine, Boudicca, Amelia Earhart, Madame de Pompadour, Sappho, Susan B. Anthony, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie and more. Each paper doll had a mini history, and the two outfits provided were nicely detailed. (I would suggest the photocopies so you can keep the originals fresh and clean.)

    Tom Tierney has several books of paper dolls of women that are beautiful.

    Vicki Leon has written several books including “Uppity Women of the New World,” “Uppity Women of Ancient Times,” “Uppity Women of the Renaissance” … you get the idea. In them are loads of synopses of the lives of women who were strong, independent or fierce in their own ways.

    Have you thought about “Xena: Warrior Princess”? Or “Doctor Who”? The latter has a lot of strong female companions.

    There are some Studio Ghibli films besides “Totoro” that are great: “Ponyo,” “The Secret World of Arrietty” and “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” all have strong female leads. (“Nausicaa” may have some scary parts for little ones, depending on the little one.)

    Lastly, Disney does have some good role models. “Mulan,” for example, takes her father’s place in the army disguised as a man; after she’s discovered, she saves the emperor as herself. She has a thing for her commanding officer, but she doesn’t need him to be complete. There are also some nice messages about being true to yourself and not having to fit in. (That said, yeah, there are a lot of older movies that make me cringe.)

    I hope some of this helps, sweetie. xo

    1. paper dolls are great, i hadn’t thought of that at all. i see those sometimes at cal’s books. we love all the ghibli films and i can’t wait until she is old enough for kiki and arrietty. it all helps molly and i always love to hear from you.

  4. How about Wonder Woman? Or Princess Leah? My five-year-old has a HUGE crush on Princess Leah, and I’m OK with that. She’s a strong, intelligent woman, fighting for her ideals. I think she’s be a great role model for any little girl.

  5. I feel like I could write a very long long post on this topic having two girls and one boy. Our dress up has always included an assortment of clothes…but the ones used 99.9% of the time (until recently) have been anything princess or ballerina. It catches their eye, mesmerizes and makes them feel something that other clothes just don’t. And because my family enjoys adding to it, we’ve gotten many more as gifts that I’ve kept until ratty and torn and then joyfully tossed out or thrifted when grown out of.

    That said, now that they’ve had free range for a handful of years (oldest is 7, middle is 5, youngest is 2), they are reaching for others things at last. Capes. Cloaks. Aprons. Vests. Ties. Gloves. Not always, but more often. I’m glad to see this. That they can be naturally attracted to something, follow their heart, and then branch out as they feel the need to. And I want them to learn that i trust them to play and test and decorate and glow on their own…even when they are wearing a polyester cinderella dress, Cinderella’s gleaming face glued to the chest on a button and all. Though I can happily say those cheap Disney dresses wear out really really quickly and find their way to the garbage sooner than anything else. Which of course leaves you feeling yucky to throw things away too. Ug.

    Also, my youngest, a boy, loves the shiny sparkley shimmery costumes too. Hand him the fireman jacket with axe and he lights up…until he sees the pink sequined gown next to it. So, I let it be innocent since at this point it is. They are innocently dressing up in what captivates them.

    Anyhow, just to completely muddle all reasoning, my one firm rule around all of it is, dress up is fun and imaginative…but I don’t actively allow commercialized characters on their clothing unless it was given as a gift. Much luck to you as you navigate the path.

    1. it’s a little bit ironic that i am SO OK with our boy leo playing princess…such different connotations! and thank you for the reminder that the sparkly foofy phase has much to do with novelty and that true expression has yet to filter down. also, i LOVE hearing from you and feel like a bad blog friend for not commenting on your blog more, but i’m still peeking in on you. love to you jeanine. xo

  6. my older daughter alex never really cared about princesses. we had disney dress up clothes that someone bought her for her birthday which she would wear occasionally , but she wasn’t obsessed like some little girls. it never bothered me. we didn’t really watch many of the movies and she could take it or leave it. sometimes i feel like the more emphasis we put on these things (especially the things we don’t want our children to like) the more they like them. i also don’t think there’s anything wrong with little girls wanting to dress up and be pretty. i always make sure to tell my daughters that look beautiful along with telling them they are smart and so forth.

    we love anne of green gables. it’s probably a little too old for fern but in the future i’m sure she’d enjoy it. and of course little house on the prairie. alex and max read the books and loved the tv series. we also read about heroic saints. there are many incredible women, like joan of arc, that are wonderful role models 😀

    1. i don’t comment much, for just the reason you state, even when fern uses the P word. but i do a lot of internal teeth gritting. there are so many rad girl characters, but so few that appeal to the burgeoning feminine. i can’t wait to share anne and laura, but most especially jo, from little women. xo

  7. You’ve got a ton of great suggestions already Mary, so interesting to read. I’m really interested in this topic too as a mother of one multiple-tutu wearer and one unicorn obsessive! We haven’t watched Disney stuff either (except for Pooh!). I think they have seen some princess movies in their grandmothers but it hasn’t seemed to have much of an impact yet as they were both given fancy, bejewelled, hot pink princess dresses by their aunt for christmas and they are still sitting in their dress-up drawer with the tags attached. They are interested in dressing up as fairies and, ahem, ladybirds (ladybugs)… but that’s a bit different… fairies are pretty cool and ladybirds are just wonderful, so it’s all good.
    Actually, when Sábha got interested in Unicorns I remembered that I had been given a dvd on the subject when they were small and dug it out. It’s called The Last Unicorn and it’s about a (female) Unicorn who goes looking for all the other Unicorns and she has to face a terrible foe. She gets turned into a human ‘Lady’ at one point and though not a princess in name she’s got all the princess looks – she does fall in love, but she doesn’t need him for her happy ending. It’s quite a cool movie and, to me, it more or less ticks the “glittery, rainbows everywhere” box in terms of imagery.
    Also, I’ve read about this book and it’s on my ‘must get when the girls are a little older’ list: http://www.amazon.com/Maid-North-Feminist-Tales-Around/dp/0805006796
    For now, most of our books are based on animals having adventures and kids learning how to share and rabbits who don’t like washing their ears! Also, this cartoon is on TV over here and they watch it sometimes. She’s also an anti-foofy Princess: http://www.channel5.com/shows/little-princess

    Some of my favourites from when I was young were A Little Princess (not really about a Princess) and The Secret Garden by F H Burnett. I also loved the Borrowers series, The Famous Five and The Secret Seven and many, many more. I don’t remember being too hung-up on being a Princess waiting to be rescued either – like Milla – all kinds of characters made it into our games.

    1. So I was thinking some more about this (I too could, obviously, write a thesis on this subject) and I remembered some really strong women from Irish Myth & Legend that we learned about in school.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grace_O%27Malley (true story)
      and
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medb (folklore)

      Irish stories (and history) is FULL of bloody battles/murder, but there are several kid versions of each of these stories. I will certainly be sharing them with my girls!

    2. oh the secret garden…i read it over and over. princess turned tom boy. thank you for the awesome suggestions, i haven’t heard of the unicorn. we read a lot of animal books too, but they just don’t hold a candle to the foof. i’ve heard the boxcar children are good too, have you read them?

      1. I haven’t read the boxcar children, but after a quick google it looks like something I’d like! So Sábha fell off a kitchen chair today and split both lips (very traumatic) and we needed a tv afternoon afterwards (or in our case a laptop-attached-to-the-tv afternoon). I was somehow inspired to look up a childhood favourite of mine – Rainbow Brite and I had forgotten how kick-ass cool she is! Totally brave and heroic and totally sparkly and rainbow-fabulous!! Also, perfect for our girls’ age-group. I still have a tiny Rainbow Brite doll. Sábha has gone to bed with her tonight. Yay!

  8. i think that real life role models will trump all the disney princess stuff. i wouldn’t stress it too hard. i loved all that shit when i was a kid and look how awesome i am now! my mom was a great role model of a confident feminist woman and that was what really mattered in the end. those weird moms who push the princess crap are the ones who i worry about. i suck and i love disney movies. i’m even excited that Lucas sold Star Wars to them because Lucas makes crappy movie and disney makes awesome ones. but i fail on hating all commercialism and always have. oh well.

    1. well, it’s true that probably it can’t get worse than the last three star wars films. and plus one to the weird ass moms who push the princess crap. it’s slightly ill, really.

  9. i like to be a role model for my girls, and my boy, as a person, like you said. and then as a female, well, that just happens naturally, by me being who i am. love that.

    when she’s a little older, the avatar cartoon series is one i love for how bad ass the female characters are. feminine and there’s nothing wrong with that, they are just as powerful as the males.

    i used to be exactly where you are, maybe worse. i was terrified of disney infiltrating these pure children’s hearts and minds. then of course i had to totally let that go, as life outside of the sling, then preschool and then *public* school. ha. oh, and they have cousins who send hand me downs all the time, the majority of which are disney brand. i’ve intercepted many many boxes and given away a ton that they never knew about, but there are those times when i haven’t gotten there first, and all of a sudden my girls are wearing that crap and i really died for a while every time i saw it. ha. now i like to look at it as if they are, and have for the most part now, gotten it out of their systems, and they truly prefer the kind of female characters from books and shows like avatar (the last airbender) and the miyazaki films are their faves. i love that. it’s like they got to choose! and they choose true female power when they see it. exposure is key right? exposure to the good stuff, and then all the exposure to the rest seems to fall away. tell your twenty something clients to go and watch some of these empowering female movies! i bet you have. yummmm. female power. i love clarissa pinkola estes telling and explaining of sleeping beauty though. some of those fairy tales are actually works of art when seen from a certain angle. oh clarissa’s angles are the best. truth, and awakening. those are her themes.

    1. i just started watching avatar myself, and while i’m just into it, i do notice that, once again, the primary hero is a boy. but there is def a ‘girl can-do’ vibe to the whole thing. i also don’t want to keep fern from knowing the princess characters…i will be showing her snow white on purpose. it’s such an amazing old film and story. but i’ll do it when she’s older, and less sponge-like. it’s the forcing down the throat before they can complete sentences that concerns me. and estes is a good reminder…i haven’t read her stuff in a while. thank you, soul friend.

  10. i don’t worry about fern too much, as she is being raised by you!
    i was more worried about stupid effing barbies (and the perhaps even more disgusting bratz), so that in addition to wooden trains and building blocks, i actually allowed k some disney princess imagery (in the form of mulan, pocahantas, and snow white…yeah, i was still pissed that they didn’t make brunette dolls when i was growing up). i figured, at least there is some backstory with some of the princesses, as opposed to these vapid directionless female figures with mansions and huge wardrobes and big pointy tits.
    k had more of a pink phase than a princess phase, though, and even that didn’t last too long. once i allowed her some exposure to disney media schlock, i noticed she would pick up and try out little sassy precocious mannerisms and attitude. not okay. i never replaced them with any other female-centric media, i just steered our video and book choices more toward nature and science and art.
    in fourth grade, k’s class was studying american history and at some point addressed the fact that women were not allowed to own land in their name. the kids were asked to write what they thought of this fact, and k’s rough draft paragraph still lives on our refrigerator. i was floored–as in elated, thrilled, and proud–to read my daughter’s straunchly feminist response. the thing is, i didn’t consciously try to teach my daughter to be a feminist– in fact, given the right mood i can still beat myself up for not being more conscious in my first years of mothering; i was just trying to keep up with each day. but kids pick up so much from their environments, and my anxiety, fatigue, and youth was not going to change the fact that my kids were growing up in a household that valued all humans (including bad ass women).
    years have flown by, and in the last year, k has discovered–with only a word or two from me–the riot grrls, their bands and zines. i am in the middle of reading ‘how to be a woman’ by caitlin moran, and she made maybe a paragraph’s mention of this movement, and imo, discounted its influence. but i disagree. i believe that even those things that may seem like a drop in the bucket in the moment– whether a cultural blip or mom’s overheard comment–add up to a big beautiful thundering rainstorm.

    1. has k discovered ani yet? i don’t discount the riot grrrls at all…they were the forerunners of the 90s upswing in neo-feminism. and barbie will not be allowed in our house. if fern will even care. i had barbies, and i never really knew what to do with them. girls would come over and want to play with them, and i remember feeling so annoyed and bored. after a while i hid them and said i didn’t have any. 😉 your whole comment made me laugh, as does the one liner below it. xoxoxox

  11. Very apropos that I am reading this now, after getting home from a talk on just this topic. The woman who spoke was Peggy Orenstein, author of , “Cinderella Ate My Daughter”. She was very funny, intelligent, & dynamic. Here is her website- http://peggyorenstein.com/books/cinderella.html. I haven’t really checked it out other than copying th link, , but under the fight fun w fun section there are supposed to be lots of resources.

  12. My daughter at times loves to be a princess. This you know. And she has been exposed to the bullshenanigans of Disney. It feels impossible to avoid. I’m going to suppose that she is smart enough to leave this role playing behind and formulate her own ideas of woman-ness as she matures. (i hope) Her environment doesn’t support her being a “princess” fulltime. I guess I could worry about her retaining the romantic notions of the whole princess meets and is saved by prince thing as she grows…..because that shit is not real. I also hope that she isn’t cynical either.

    How pervasive is the myth as women mature? Can the fairytale realistically outlast actual life lessons if brought up in an environment that doesn’t support the myth?

    I agree with what Nicole said, that with you as a mama Fern is not going to become a desperate housewife my dear. Like Brigit said, I liked the princess dresses as a kid too, it was very romanticised in my burgeoning mind….but I grew out of it. I think. 😉 x

  13. Fern is discovering her beauty and girlness. Seeing herself dressed-up makes her feel good about herself. Remember how she acted in front of the mirror with her first swimsuit? Don’t know she got into the princess thing, but I wouldn’t worry about it. I’m so pleased that you are letting her go with it.

  14. mama of boy here… boy whose favorite disney character is tinkerbell. mama of boy who loves pink, and boy who wears his dollar store fairy wings most out of anything in the dressup basket these days. i have a post brewing thanks to your post here… from mama of boy perspective. i have some recommendations of books with great strong capable girls in them.
    wendy orr’s books: nim’s island and nim at sea (also nim’s island is a movie. nim is one of quinn’s favorite characters ever, he will launch into hours of pretend play being nim after we’ve been reading those books.)
    wendy orr also wrote mokie and bik, about a boy and girl pair of twins- they rock. mokie is another total tomboy like nim.
    paul owen lewis’s books… frog girl. absolutely amazing. get it today. we also love storm boy, but since we’re talking girl characters… frog girl.

  15. well, i have no daughter, but i am mothering two boys in a sexist, princessified world, i have many young nieces who wear nothing but cheaply made disney princess dresses, and i was raised on cinderella and snow white….

    soooo, this probably means something, right???

    i have to remind my five year old that there is no such thing as boy/girl colors, and he was partially raised by wolves…..that’s how prevalent this crap is.

    while my tots are little the viewing material is very selective.
    teddy has yet to see the more prototypical disney princess movies just because i don’t want him to view relationships that way, and to learn about those sexist roles. he has seen the movies that are plot-wise less romance driven, like, lilo and stitch, etc.

    when he’s older and can understand some commentary on the subject then i think we can introduce more, and slowly inoculate him in a way.

    we do watch a lot of nature documentaries…the soothing sounds of david attenborough are a familiar song in our house.

    um, i think “fern gully” had a pretty hard core female nature defender, but that probably was wrapped around some romantic scheme.

    i think you’re doing a great job with that sweet little sprite.

    eventually everyone comes around to who they really are, despite how they were raised…especially if their stars are aligned.

    this coming from someone who dreamed of being a shiny blonde princess when i was younger to discovering my inner queer butch as a late teen.
    xoxo

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