Sunday, November 29, 2009

Disney Princess Power

Although I take some shots at Disney, to my fellow parents, especially those with girls who are as into the princesses as my daughter, you have my respect; I am not judging your parenting or your view of this phenomenon. With that goes...

I checked, and there’s no mention of a bikini in Hans Christian Andersen’s 1836 fairy tale, The Little Mermaid. Actually, the version the librarians were pushing at the Princeton Library had illustrations in which the mermaids bore their naked breasts—but they were gently veiled under their long flowing hair. Never mind that fish don’t suckle their young, and women don’t have fishtails—there was something natural about the whole thing. Disney’s little mermaid does not seem natural to me. The little shells covering her breasts and her perfect and quite bare torso make the Disney creation look like a tadpole mutation of a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader.

This blog is going to upset some people and as I write it, I am considering changing my name. You see, I don’t want Mickey Mouse banging on my door at two am, telling me to mind own business. Mostly, I am afraid of my daughter’s reaction when she notices a slow but deliberate embargo on all things princess. I have no choice. Our house has been infiltrated by a tribe of eight well dressed and buxom royals. And, someone has to take a stand.

The eight of whom I speak need no introduction, but for those of you with boys or who have recently moved here from mars, allow me to introduce you to the Disney Princess Franchise: Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and new this winter, the first black princess (no, not in history, just Disney’s history) Tiana. To make the princesses a perfect 10, Disney will soon be adding Rapunzel and her long, Marsha Brady hair.

I am not going to delve into the curriculum vitae of these women. You probably know that some of them hung out in fairy tales long before getting higher paying jobs with Walt. I’m not interested in the plots of the movies or their message. Actually, I am, but right now, my oldest daughter doesn’t spend much time watching the movies or reading the books. Most of her exposure is in the form of sippy cups, lunchboxes, stickers, toothbrushes, jammies, dental floss, notebooks, slippers, patio chairs, sleeping bags, backpacks, calendars, cans of chicken noodle soup and any one of the other 25,000 items marketed under the Disney Princess Franchise. And, I have one question: why are all these princesses dressed like prostitutes?

Please don’t hate me. I am not talking about our kids—my daughter included, who love to dress up in Cinderella costumes, or who put on tiaras whenever they munch on Cheez-Its. I am talking about the princesses in the movies whose likenesses are slapped across so many objects designed for kids.

Two questions drove to me write this column. When did the princesses get so sexy and who at Disney thought it was a good idea.

When did the princesses get so sexy? The only article I could find that addressed this head-on was written by a film critic for the Deseret News, Chris Hicks, in 1996. That’s fourteen years ago, folks. Most of us were wearing flannel shirts and trying to learn the Macarena. But, do you remember a little Disney movie from 1988 called, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Chris Hicks thinks this ushered the way for the sexy animated princess. If you don’t remember Jessica Rabbit, you might want to take another look, and then realize that shortly after her successful appearance came another redheaded sexpot, Ariel, and the equally alluring and poorly dressed Jasmine and Pocahontas.

So, who at Disney thought these sexy princesses were a good idea? I would love to have been a fly on the wall when some animator showed a sketch of a size-zero figure falling out of a low-cut gown and they all shouted, “Yes! Sell that to the four year olds!”, but for now, the best we can do is look to the man touted as the creator of Disney Princess Franchise. If the proverbial buck stops somewhere, it might stop at Andy Mooney.

Was this man an artist, an animator, a children’s book author, a children’s psychologist, a parent of a small child? No. He’s the head of Disney’s Consumer Products Division and he’s a rainmaker. Legend has it, this former Nike executive was going to a Disney On Ice show when he noticed all the little girls in line wearing generic princess dresses. That was way back in 2000 when the disorganized princesses pulled in just $300 million. Now, thanks to Mooney and his commoditization of the princesses, it’s closer to $4 billion. Over the years and divided among the seven dwarfs and a few rouge pirates of the Caribbean, and it’s clear the per capita GDP in the Magic Kingdom rivals that of Luxembourg.

How did this kind of growth happen? Is it a coincidence that the packaging of the princesses and their sexy transformations came at the same time?

You might have forgotten that the princesses didn’t always look the way they do. Some are so new to Disney they have no history. But those like Cinderella, who have been with the company for more than fifty years, have clearly had work done. I know because I found Cinderella’s yearbook photos from 1986. It’s not her yearbook, exactly, but it’s a book I found in an old box given to me by a neighbor—a treasure of things her kids had outgrown. And, sure enough, there was a version of Cinderella—a flat-chested, brown haired maiden toiling in her evil stepmother’s house. No particular attention is given to her bosom, even when she marries the prince. And, yet, she and her hubby reportedly lived happily ever after.

There’s another thing I noticed about the illustrations in this old book: Cinderella never looks directly at the viewer. She’s in her own world—a fairy tale world—in which she and the story exist as something separate. Today's Cinderella is a platinum blonde and she looks directly at you, inviting you to cross from reality into fantasy—or perhaps—take fantasy into reality. I support creativity and imagination—I make my livelihood on it—but this manipulation of the princess gaze –in my mind---is part of the not so harmless reach Disney is making into the minds of our children.

You might stop me and say—wait, it’s the parents who actually buy these princess items—not the children. Or, if Disney weren’t doing something right, kids wouldn’t love these princesses. To which I say, perhaps Disney is tapping into our grown-up desire to be associated with beauty and desire. My four year old might not care one way or the other about Belle’s décolleté, but someone must: the decision makers in retail, the mothers who find the attractive princesses escapist, modern or fun, and the dads who don’t even notice anything is unusual because our world is inundated with such images from catalogues to pop stars.

And, if we do balk at the imagery, we are coaxed away from our second-thoughts by the messages Disney links with the brand. Find you inner Princess. Follow your dreams. We are reminded of the virtues the princesses supposedly represent: integrity, honor, discovery, friendship, and love. I know a lot of people find the traits and characterizations of the princesses refreshing. Some of the princesses are witty, funny, iconoclastic. But, at the end of the day, these woman are still dressed and drawn in a way that, to me, powerfully upstages their personalities.

If inner beauty and strength were the essences of these princesses, wouldn’t at least one of the 10 look more like Susan Boyle? It is this alignment of conflicting agendas that strikes me as most harmful: to say one thing, but reinforce another. Taken in small doses, and without the artificial messaging, the princesses could be a harmless aspect of playtime, a bit like birthday cake with grocery-store frosting. Every once in a blue moon, it’s indulgent and celebratory. But, nobody pretends the cake is good for you.

We are being told this cake is good for us, and good for our daughters. Not just for the 4-9 year old phase of their development, but for life. Disney has introduced a line of wedding gowns designed by Kirstie Kelly, for which grown women are pitched the idea that with these dresses, they can connect to “every girl's inner princess.” And with the right jewels and enchanting accents, you can “let your fairy tale begin...” Lest you think this fantasy for adults is only for young brides, Disney will be hosting a half marathon this March. Real life inspirations like the runner Deena Kastor are not needed when you have the kind of poetry found on their webpage,

“Mirror, mirror, reveal the One.
Show me the Princess who has the strength to run.”

And, guess what?  If you finish the race, you get your very own princess medal! 

Fantasy, at least the kind they are selling, seems to thrive on making little girls yearn for womanhood and women yearn for childhood. Finding one's inner princess has nothing to do with finding inner peace, it seems.

Let's move, if we can, to a comparison. What would be the boy equivalent to the princess franchise? Cars and pirates just don't seem to have the same power, but suppose Disney tapped into the societal pressure for men to be wealthy?

This seems a perfect counterpoint to the princesses theme of beauty and sexuality. Instead of Cinderella and the gang, boys will have a line called Rich Dudes, Financial Superstars. I envision a lunchbox with Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor, Larry Ellison and one or two wealthy princes from the Middle East. The Rich Dudes line of accessories would fill every boy’s life-style needs, and make simple sippy cups, jammies and coloring books come to life with images of safety deposit boxes, mansions and public institutions with “your name here”. Positive messaging will make sure boys remember to, “find their inner mogul,” and believe in their dreams of “financial domination.”

I know, this sounds crazy. But, unlike all of the princesses, with the exception of honorary princess Pocahontas, Rich Dudes, Financial Superstars is based on real people—who actually did find their inner moguls. It's less preposterous than the princess line. Still, we would never explicitly accept these images and slogans and champion them as good for our boys. Why do we do something similar to our daughters?

If you asked me if the Disney Princesses will harm my own daughters, I would say—yes—but maybe not directly.  37% of you agreed that the princesses might be harmful compared with 59% of you who said they were "over the top, but harmless."

I do believe that as a parent I have the power to offset Disney princess power. And, that is why I don't worry that my kids will be brainwashed by the occassional Disney princess stickerbook or sippy cup. But, the invasion of the sexy princesses into so many aspects of our life does worry me. I think it will harm my kids in ways I can't identify right now. I believe these images contribute to the culture that values women based on their appearance and willingness to flaunt their sexuality; a culture that often mocks and undervalues both female and male intellect, and one that makes older women despise their ageing bodies. 

I  admit that depending on the item, the princesses show more or less skin. (Compare the ad in the NYT for The Princess and the Frog in which Tiana's bosom is falling out of her gown to the more modest image on the Disney website). But, this inconsistency only adds to my skepticism.

I find no joy in standing outside this princess party and being the party-pooper. It makes me sad to feel this way. And, I understand why it is easier to say I am over-reacting or being a prude. I guess you could say I feel like Cinderella after the clock strikes midnight and her carriage turns into a pumpkin. It’s a long walk home.


Anonymous said...

For the most part I agree with you, Sarah. My own daughter is grown and was spared much of the Disney princess onslaught. She admired Belle, the princess who loved to read, but it was Mulan who really captured her heart. I think you might have erred in lumping Mulan (the Warrior princess) in with the sexpot princesses. She rebels against the stereotyping, wears traditional Chinese pjs and can wield a broadsword like nobody's business. And now my daughter is becoming a soldier and a linguist. Hmmmm. Well anyway...hold fast, hold the line. As you said, in moderation princesses are relatively harmless but constant vigilance is necessary. Keep a sharp eye out for pink tulle, magical roses, and fairy godmothers.

Sarah Vander Schaaff said...

momchick--thanks for the comment and for pointing out valid and important differences. Good advice, too, from a mom who has been there! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This is quite a brilliant essay. I went into it not thinking I would agree with the argument, but found it very persuasive, along with being at times moving and funny.

Libby said...

Sarah, I have three boys but I was in the 37% in your poll. As a matter of fact, my high school English teacher had us watch Disney's "Little Mermaid" and write a piece on gender roles. This was 1991, years before anyone had even considered having children, and I still remember her saying "The choices for girls in this movie are the sea hag who is literally green with envy and hate or the beautiful girl who gives up her family and her one true gift to get the guy." She wasn't even really a radical teacher.

Another great article on your blog...I am enjoying reading it!

Alyson said...

This is a wonderful entry Sarah. As a mother of a boy, I stand back from the argument because it doesn't directly concern me. But I do wonder what kind of expectations we're creating in our girls, when every young girl's dream seems to be a mind bending body, unbelievable looks, that will surely fade, and a charming prince. Thanks for your research, time and, as always, your humor.

P.S. I forwarded this to twenty of my closest friends;)

Brit said...


I love this article - well written, funny etc. I believe strongly in the influence of media on body image and I think the princesses are dangerous for this reason. I also believe this to be the case for little boys. Although they may not be obsessed with Princesses, they are learning that the princess body is the ideal, but they are not learning how unrealistic and healthy those bodies would be in reality. You might find the book In a Different Voice by Carol Gilligan interesting - compelling research on girls losing their "voices" at young ages directly related to media influences.

Alyson said...

I totally agree with Brit and will, of course, have many conversations with my son about realistic body expectations and all that. But man, are all those images powerful and pervasive and difficult to combat.

Anonymous said...

Sarah, you are a smart, insightful writer, and I agree with your thinking. Whether the focus is on all things pretty and pink, or on the sexual allure of these princesses, it troubles me. As the mother of two sons, it was not such an issue, but I now have a two year old grand-daughter, and I feel that I must be ever vigilant.


Jody said...

I missed the poll but would have voted with you. Having one boy and one girl, it's an interesting thing to watch. My daughter has declared that she wants to be a Rockette and a ballerina when she grows up. But on the other hand, my son came home and told me he played with the 'girl blocks' in kindergarten. I asked what made them girl blocks and he said his teacher had said so (they are pink) but that he knew it didn't matter, so he played with them anyway. While I celebrate him feeling free to go against gender stereotypes, I also am not going to deprive my daughter of twirling, whirling ballerina fantasies. It's a hard line, right? By the way, do you know the voice of the frog in the new movie is Bruno Campos from NU?
Thanks for the entry!

Sarah Vander Schaaff said...

Jody--Thanks for your comment! Funny you mention Bruno. I was just about to post the Princess blog when I saw him being interviewed about the role. I am sure he makes a great prince--although I never thought of him as a frog!

George said...

Hi, Sarah:

I just learned of your blog from an old issue of The Lawrence Ledger which I happened to read over the weekend. I am the father of 2 girls, aged 7 years and 7 months, respectively. If you think the Disney Marketing Empire's princesses are bad, you should check out the Slutz dolls (Bratz)! Over the weekend I even saw Baby Bratz for sale, "baby girls with a passion for fashion." I'm no prude, but we live in a sick society that loves to sate itself on mindless fluff. My daughters and I buy as few things from Disney as possible. And their tween shows like iCarly, Hannah Montana, Suite Life of Zach and Cody, etc. all suck. Kids have the rest of their lives to watch poorly written and poorly acted sitcoms. Why on earth should they spend the best years of their lives watching them now? No wonder the rest of the world makes fun of us!
Oh, and for your Rich Dudes series, you forgot HP CEO Mark Turd, who has made roughly $75 million over the past 2 years by forcing all HP employees to take pay cuts of at least 5% in order to artificially drive up the stock price with sparkling quarterly Wall Street reports. Something else for which our boys can aspire!


Sandra said...

Sarah, I read your blog thanks to your Dad, who I helped out on the Clementi book.

As the mom of a 4 year old son and a 22 month old daughter, I am in the thick of things. My mother-in-law buys in 100% to the princess myth and thinks that all little girls should play with princesses and dress up like princesses and love princesses. I feel like I'm fighting a losing battle.

I'm not a traditional feminist in the least, but the "princess values" (i.e., it'll be okay when the prince comes to save us) kill me. Why are there no role models out there, designed for small girls, of smart, confident women who have carved out their own future by dint of hard work? That's what I've done with my own company. That's what I want to teach my daughter. And no, "Business Barbie" doesn't count.

My son is given superhero outfits and he runs off to "save the world". My daughter is given princess outfits so she can be kissed by the fairy godmother and her life can be perfect.

Yeah, it's just play. Sure. But in the end, play conditions our future (at least in my mind), and I want my daughter to earn more than her future husband... just like I do. And somehow I suspect that even by marrying a prince, it'll never happen unless she makes it so by herself.