The New Toddlers in Tiaras

This is my three-year-old niece, Lorelai.

Lorelai as Snow White

Obviously, she’s just about the most adorable kid you’ve ever laid eyes on. We’ll just all spend a moment thinking about that before I get to the point.

So cute, right?! And funny, too! I know!

Okay then.

Lorelai is also — in case you hadn’t already guessed where this is going — super into princesses. She got a box of princess dress-up clothes for Christmas, and has been wearing this Snow White costume most every day since.

I mostly think this is awesome. Her parents haven’t shown her the movie yet, so she hasn’t absorbed the disturbing themes about female rivalry, needing a prince to save you, and finding personal fulfillment in cleaning house for seven lazy-ass grown men. Lorelai thinks that being a princess means running around in a fun dress and serenading her dog Jackson with this pink plastic microphone. Between the sweat pants and the hair bow, I think she looks like she’s ready to front a riot grrl band with a quasi-ironic name like Cracked Rhinestone or Rusty Tiara.

But I also just finished reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein, one of my favorite writers. She charts how Disney Princesses serve as a kind of gateway drug, inducting little girls into the world of Everything Pink and Pretty, which then sets them up to love Barbie, Bratz dolls, makeup for eight year olds, and every other plasticized, pretty-fied artifact of modern girl culture. The relentless marketing of this stuff teaches girls that sexuality is a kind of performance art in which you objectify yourself to please others. And this connects your sense of self-worth to how you look instead of how you feel.

Orenstein’s evidence is pretty darn convincing. So before you get all “but every girl loves pink!” on me, consider this: Princess culture today is not the princess culture we grew up with. Disney Princesses didn’t exist as a marketing concept until 2000, when a marketing executive stopped by a “Disney on Ice” show, saw thousands of little girls wearing homemade princess costumes and realized hi, massive branding opportunity.

By 2009, sales of Disney Princess costumes, lunchboxes, pillowcases, you name it, had topped $4 billion. And a few weeks ago, the New York Times reported that Disney is now targeting newborns by distributing free Disney onesies in hospitals, in an effort to ensure that every American child becomes a customer for life. You start out on something relatively gender neutral, like Winnie the Pooh, then move on to innocent, pink princesses, until you graduate to innocent-sexy princesses like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez.

Seen in that light, Lorelai’s combination of the pink microphone and the Snow White costume is a little more alarming in a “fairytale princess today, pop princess tomorrow, rehab by age 20” kind of way. And Lorelai’s mom Becca (my sister-in-law) says she’s conflicted about the new princess onslaught: “I want my kid to be involved in creative play and use her imagination and here an opportunity has presented itself,” she says. “I get the sparkle, I get the dress-up, I love fairy tales. But I don’t love that they involve ridiculous gender stereotypes or that she can identify every princess on her Pull-Ups before she’s even seen any of the movies.”

The homemade princess costumes that Becca and I wore as kids (well more me; Becca wasn’t much of a girlie-girl, though she does admit to a major Daisy Duke phase) were less about embodying a brand and much more about exploring our own creativity. (Side note: They also lasted longer. “On top of being everywhere, most of this princess stuff is cheaply made,” says Becca. “Snow White is starting to shred. I am going to have to make a trip to the craft store for back-up dress supplies.”)

But the new princess products encourage us to buy imagination for our kids, mass-produced and no assembly required. Writes Orenstein:

It chilled me to read, in the market research group NPD’s report on this trend, a quote from a nine-year-old Barbie.com fan who said, “I don’t think I’m good at making up imaginary things; I didn’t know what to do with dolls.” […] even more than the original toys, these sites funnel our daughters toward very specific definitions of both girlhood and play.

And this makes all those messages about how girls are supposed to look (that young/thin/sexy triumvirate) and how they’re supposed to behave (sexy-yet-so-innocent) all the more powerful. In Chapter 8 “It’s All About the Cape,” Orenstein explores how princess culture gives way to body image issues — and not just because it offers such a narrow definition of what girls should look like. The Princess Wars also set up a disturbing dichotomy where your only options are to embrace the princess or reject the princess — and all of the girls who like princesses along with it.

Oh. Now that sounds familiar.

Because this is the very same dichotomy — the kind of Beauty Gap — that I talk about round these parts all the time. It’s what happens when women decide that anyone who gets breast implants is stupid. Or how I kept my pre-wedding weight anxiety a secret because I didn’t want to come off as one of those vapid Buff Bride types.

It seems to me that maybe the most dangerous price of modern princess culture isn’t that it teaches little girls that they have to look and act a certain way — though that’s certainly troubling. The  most dangerous part is that it pits girls and women against one another, so we waste time hating on each other (and on ourselves) when we could be getting sh*t done. You can’t fight oppressive beauty standards with… oppressive-just-different beauty standards.

So I think Becca is completely right to let Lorelai run around in her Snow White costume. That pink microphone offers a way for Lorelai to (unconsciously, she is just three!) reinterpret the fairy tales on her own terms — giving Snow White a voice and a platform she never had when she was busy whistling while she worked or falling into a poison apple coma. “We support her interests, but we also offer her other opportunities, so she spends a lot of time running around outside, drawing, making things with Playdoh — and none of that is remotely princess-related,” Becca explains. “Sure, she’s a toddler in a tiara, but there’s a lot more to her personality than that.”

Thoughts? Do you think the newly amped-up girlie-girl culture is backing us into a corner? And if so, how do we get out?

[Photo: Lorelai, courtesy of Nutmeg Knitter.]

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27 Comments

Filed under beauty standards, Glossed Over.

27 responses to “The New Toddlers in Tiaras

  1. I’m glad you read that book! I’ve been wanting to.

    My mom wouldn’t let me watch Disney movies as a kid. She hated princesses. She said, “Their waists are way too tiny.” When I was ten or so, I visited cousins and spent about three nights glued to a screen, watching Disney Movies. I stayed up all night, every night, unable to stop.

    And I thought, “Wow, their waists are way too tiny.” I was fascinated, but thought they were scary-looking and sounding.

    I’m pretty thankful for how hardcore my mom was. I’m also thankful that my grandmother sewed me a Snow White costume so that, like Becca, I got to run around in it. That was pretty fun.

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  3. It’s an excellent question. I actually tried really hard, when my daughter was an infant, not to dress her head-to-toe in pink, and I quickly learned that I had to explain to Every Single Bystander that yes, she’s a girl. And that got old. So I started buying pink, because it was easier. And now she owns a LOT of pink, because the thing is, it’s easier to dress a toddler when everything in her drawer matches everything else. And now I have a very pink child and I’m sure the princesses are coming soon. (Although right now Cookie Monster is her hero and I’m totally okay with that.) With a second daughter on the way I’m not sure how to handle the onslaught.

    • Kate Ashford: You absolutely need to read Cinderella Ate My Daughter — she has tons of great advice and ideas for how to handle the onslaught (and keep your sanity intact!).
      And I heart Cookie Monster too! Though it makes me sad that he is by default a boy — a female Cookie Monster would probably be accused of being bulimic. SIGH.

  4. Love the post, am quite outraged (but not surprised) by free Disney onesies. Oh. My. God. Indoctrination starts early. Of course, there is also a class element, as it’s likely that those who are poor and in need of clothing will be more likely to take and use the onesies, whereas more affluent women would likely leave them at the hospital. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, to see how this one act–giving out free onesies–will impact brand loyalty and princess culture among different groups.

  5. Ashley

    Hey! Found you through Unschooled. Loved this post! I also wonder if Disney Princess movies are a gateway drug to romantic-comedies. I have serious reservations about introducing my (potential) daughters to socially-defined romantic relationships through animated movies, then through rom-coms.

    I was raised on Disney Princesses. [In fact, one of my earliest memories is being 6 years old and so excited to see The Little Mermaid that I jumped out of the car in the theater parking lot, slamming the car door on my finger and causing it to bounce back and hit me in the face. I cried when my mom suggested that we skip the movie. She cleaned up my finger and face in the theater bathroom, and I sat mesmerized through the movie with a huge goose egg on my forehead.]

    It has taken me years to unravel some of my expectations of femininity/masculinity, motherhood, relationships, and beauty, and I suspect the Disney Princesses are tangled up somewhere in there…

  6. PS. Guys, if you’re seeing an ad for Disney Princess party supplies on here — it was not my doing! (I can’t even see it, for some reason.) I think WordPress has started sticking Google ads on the bottom of posts, which is mad shady. Obviously, I do not want anyone to go buy Disney Princess party supplies upon reading this.

    • Siggi

      I’ve read that they do that to folks who don’t have wordpress accounts, or aren’t logged in.

      Great piece, and I will definitely go read the book. I need all the help I can get!

    • Update: The ads appear to non-Wordpress users because I use the free version of WordPress. (Which explains why I couldn’t see it, since I was logged in to my WordPress account!) Icky. Am investigating the non-free/no-ads options now. (And thanks, Siggi for the tip off!)

      • Elise

        Girlfriend. Don’t sweat the advertising! I think a few rando keyword-linked cheesy advertisements are a small price for us readers to pay when we’re getting FREE insightful & entertaining posts and articles.

        Maybe post a disclaimer or something, but please don’t feel like you have to upgrade to paid hosting. It doesn’t cost anything to ignore the ads!

      • Thanks, Elise! I’m mulling the options (and have a disclaimer up on the About page why I do). There are a lot of other perks with paid hosting, so it might be worth it at this stage in this little blog’s growth. But it’s good to hear that you’re happy to ignore the ads!

  7. When I was a kid I LOVED playing dress up- a friend of mine had the most amazing dresses (her mom’s 70s prom dresses, I think). And we played dress up All The Time. I got into the Disney princesses around the Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, right around the time that my body image got all mucked up in 7th/8th grade. Coincidence? Maybe, but I never thought about the possible connection until reading the book (which is a must read, I say)

  8. Claire Allison

    We got to watch the movies. We also had to read the original fairy tales. Those were profoundly disappointing and a little scary. I blame those stories for giving my sister the idea that when we played Princess or Whatever she should play an evil, seductive witch and that the witch’s magic involved slamming my head into a door repeatedly.

    Or maybe that was the Power Ranger’s doing..

    Read them the originals. Teach them about disappointment. That’ll show ’em.

  9. Bean

    “The Paper Bag Princess” is a fantastic classic to read with every little girl (and boy) 🙂

  10. My niece headed down this path when she was 5. Even then I saw the train wreck coming, but I was helpless to do anything about it. Now she’s 21 and and stripping her way through college. I can’t help but wonder how her self esteem will survive this further onslaught. I wish this book existed then.

  11. katy

    Oh, wow. This whole thing freaks me out.

    My niece went through a huge princess phase; everything HAD to be pink, and she was a princess. Her parents work to keep the kids away from a lot of commercial messages (very limited TV and “branded” toys). I don’t even think they had Disney toys/movies, and she was still deep into the pink princess socialization. Her parents tried not to make a big deal out of it one way or another but she could probably tell, as she got older, that they weren’t lovingly reinforcing the princess thing.

    Now she’s 8 and eschews anything pink (which is a problem after you’ve insisted on only pink items for years). My concern is that she’s reached a sophisticated level of internalized misogyny and sees her new non-pink identity as “superior” to girly-girliness.

    Either way, it’s frustrating how early kids make a strong connection between consumer choice and identity. Even if you aren’t into princess stuff, that’s exactly what Disney wants, because it’s what makes us vulnerable to marketing (and, ultimately, disappointed with the limited effects of designer toothbrushes). The fact that the color of your lampshade is not WHO you are can take a long time to unravel.

  12. Meg L.

    My daughter is 16 and so we missed the ‘Disney Princess’ band wagon, but we certainly were Disneyfied for years.

    I let the Disney pressure run unchecked, though I wasn’t pleased that my sil gave her her first Barbie doll when she was 3. I hadn’t planned on going there at all unless she pushed for one.

    To balance Disney I made a point of finding the old fairy tale books and reading earlier versions of whichever tale she was fascinated with. Disney has killed the depth of these stories and if you can find children’s versions that were written before Disney got their hands on the material you find great stories.

    One example (non-princess) is the earlier 3 Little Pigs. Track it down. Not only do the first two pigs die, but the third pig has all sorts of challenges with the wolf before he finally lands in the pot.

    As for Barbie, with my sil’s present we lost that battle before we even started and we ended up with all sorts of dolls, clothes, and extras. I just made sure that she also had lots of other activities to balance it.

    And now at 16, IMO, she’s a pretty independent young woman.

  13. cissy

    Hey! I have one of those experiments of Disney’s! 😉

    I have 8 kids ages ranging from 18 years old to 2 months.

    My 18 year old is a girl & pretty much her first 10 years we boycotted Disney. She is definitely not a girlie girl. Never played with Barbies or dollsor even knew who a Disney princess was.

    Then I had 2 boys. Then 4 girls after.

    We stopped boycotting in about 2002. Yep my other baby girl was 3. Just in time right????

    Yep! She is the girliest girl ever. But I wouldn’t hold that against her as I was too as a kid. But she has the personality that can be influenced very much.

    She thinks she is a princess. She thinks she is Sharpay Evans & everyone acts like high school musical. And we homeschool!! LoL

    The girl after her is 2 years younger & didn’t jump on the ban wagon. She loves barbies & dolls but got too Disney Princessed “out”. But her attitude goes back & forth.. nothing like the 11 year old.

    Then there’s the 7 year old that grew up with her 2 sisters as the disney princesses. She wanted nothing to do with any of it. Uh…thank God!

    The 3 year old has the blessing of all of our stuff Disney Princess either gone or broke & yes…..it will not be coming back into this house.

    My experiment in a nut shell.

    Now to work on this 11 year old. LOL

  14. anne

    I just HAD to comment on the adorable little girl in the picture…what a cutie!
    Her personality seems to be bursting out all over! Love the tilted head…it drives home the intensity she’s putting into the performance!

    With two girls of my own (16 and 12 yrs) I have to say they never got caught up in the whole Disney princess thing. They watched and loved most of the Disney movies but it ended there. They played a lot of dress up and went through the Barbie doll thingie too. Once I asked them why the “Barbies” they were playing with were dressed in scraps of clothing material held together by string (no accessories, no shoes, unbrushed hair,etc) and sitting on the floor and/or leaning up against the wall and I was told they were “homeless” Barbies! Imagine….a homeless Barbie! I was impressed that they noticed the world around them and then role played it out with their dolls.

    Keep up the good work Virginia!

  15. I am about your age, Virginia, so I missed the true “Disney Princess” thing as well, but I was SUPER into Disney when I was young. But then, I was also a voracious reader. My mom wisely channeled my love of Disney-type plotlines into similar books except with awesome female characters (Talking to Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede; The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley).

    I believe that reading these twists on the traditional damsel in distress allowed me to create a more balanced image in my mind – you can wear pink (if you want) and still kick butt.

  16. Great post. First off, I think it’s awesome your niece is called Lorelai. Second, I basically agree with everything you said. I think creative exploration of roles, among them the princess role, is a fine thing to do in the course of a child’s development, but I’m worried and disturbed by the way it is marketed, with its fixed, un-creative role. In my imagination (when I was a kid 20 years ago) a princess could be brave, powerful, go on adventures, climb trees, know magic, defeat dragons or witches and save princes or peasant boys, all the while being beautiful and well-dressed. I don’t know that this is the case for today’s princess cult. Also, how do we address the issue that even the original non-disney-fied fairytales are deeply sexist and rival-ist? I’d even go as far as to say that the notion that “the youngest princess was the prettiest” and always the main character in the fairytale, damaged my relationship to my younger sister from the very beginning (I clearly remember reasoning at age 4, when she was born, that now the story wasn’t going to be about me any more), tainting it with jealousy and rivalry, which sadly remain to this day. I think we need to write some feminist fairytales.

  17. Virginia, your post is mind blowing and very informative (yes, I so need to read Orenstein’s book out from the library soon). I have to honestly say the whole amped up girlie girl culture is becoming too much for some people to stomach (and I happen to be one of them). As parents and caregivers (older siblings included), we do need to make a balance against the whole girlie girl culture and educate girls from young that they can do better than just sitting pretty doing nothing whilst expecting Prince Charming to save them. Blaming media alone is not going to put a limit on the girlie girl culture. It is up to us to teach our girls to be independent, smart and brave (and butt-kicking maybe) from young.

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