What’s Wrong With Cinderella?

November 1, 2009


This MetaFilter post directed me to a 2006 NYT Magazine article about the potential harms of the Disney Princess regime: What’s Wrong With Cinderella? Certainly this is a topic I’ve thought about a lot, as a former young girl myself and as a childcare provider – especially last year when I was working for a family that was steeped in Princesses to the point where the elder daughter had not only her own Disney Princess sneakers but every Barbie Princess movie that had been made. (Shockingly, and unfortunately, this number is greater than 1. It is even greater than 3, if you can imagine the horrors.)

Maybe princesses are in fact a sign of progress, an indication that girls can embrace their predilection for pink without compromising strength or ambition; that, at long last, they can “have it all.”

This is certainly an argument I’ve heard from parents: that the more modern princess stories feature strong female characters and have moral lessons about perseverance rather than simply waiting by the window for someone to admire their hair. However, this then begs the question, why do we need princesses in order to create strong female characters that our daughters can look up to?

Another problem with princesses: homogeny. Picture a princess. Who are you thinking of? Someone like this, probably:


[ Princess Grace of Monaco ]

And not, say, someone like this:


Sioux Indian Princess

Disney has shoved Mulan and Pocahantas into their Princess line of geegaws, but that hardly makes a dent in the overwhelming white-ness of the Princess brigade. Feminists decry old white men as role models and makers of history, why should we then limit ourselves only to upper-class white women as our female role models? While Mulan is my favorite Disney story (I do love some cross-dressing), Pocahontas is hardly an inspirational story and the real Pocahontas wasn’t so much married off for love as to make peace between the Powhatan natives and the English settlers (after she converted to Christianity and changed her name to “Rebecca” and oh, she was already married to a fellow Powhatan man, none of these things were mentioned in the movie of course).

Likewise, Mulan and Pocahontas, arguably the most resourceful of the bunch, are rarely depicted on Princess merchandise, though for a different reason. Their rustic garb has less bling potential than that of old-school heroines like Sleeping Beauty. (When Mulan does appear, she is typically in the kimonolike hanfu, which makes her miserable in the movie, rather than her liberated warrior’s gear.)

Little girls aren’t going to buy Mulan and Pocahontas gear, not because they’re “rustic,” but because they’re “of color.” Whiteness is so valued in our society that it’s pervasive to an extent that even a three year old girl can tell that to be blonde-haired blue-eyed white Cinderella is preferable to being red-skinned brown-eyed black-haired Pocahontas.


Disney’s rendering of Pocahontas

Beyond being trite and boring, serious harm can be done by encouraging the hero-worship of princesses that young girls go through:

There are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. On the other hand, there is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs — who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty — are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception.

We need to encourage our daughters to be strong women, not to be pretty princesses. Yes, a princess can be a strong woman, but we need to be certain that we are sending the message that a woman does not need to be a princess in order to be strong. The only way I can see to do this is to give our daughters role models who aren’t princesses.

“Playing princess is not the issue,” argues Lyn Mikel Brown, an author, with Sharon Lamb, of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes.” “The issue is 25,000 Princess products,” says Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College. “When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”

Seriously – have you looked in a toy store lately? Or the shockingly awful “girls” toy section of Amazon? Take a few minutes. Come back when the pink has burned off your retinas.

This article makes a very good point that even I, in all of my railing against the Disney Princess Empire, hadn’t considered: If we are encouraging our daughters to wait for their Prince… what are we expecting them to do when he gets there? This is extra troubling when considering the aforementioned study showing that girls who feel that they have to conform to cultural norms of femininity are less likely to use contraception.

It is no wonder that parents, faced with thongs for 8-year-olds and Bratz dolls’ “passion for fashion,” fill their daughters’ closets with pink sateen; the innocence of Princess feels like a reprieve.

“But what does that mean?” asks Sharon Lamb, a psychology professor at Saint Michael’s College. “There are other ways to express ‘innocence’ — girls could play ladybug or caterpillar. What you’re really talking about is sexual purity. And there’s a trap at the end of that rainbow, because the natural progression from pale, innocent pink is not to other colors. It’s to hot, sexy pink — exactly the kind of sexualization parents are trying to avoid.”

So, there you have it. Any number of answers to the question of why playing with Princesses may, in fact, be harmful to young girls. (Note: By this I mean “ONLY playing with Princesses” and not “Having Barbie Princess drive her tractor” which was a pretty accurate picture of my own childhood.) Princesses are upper-class white women whose “job” is to be beautiful. Encouraging current societal norms of femininity creates young women who are more likely to be depressed and less likely to use contraception. Princesses, for the most part, are white and the ones who aren’t are appropriated to be more palatable to a largely white audience. And lastly, encouraging young girls to set their sights on the “perfect man” teaches them all too young that a man’s attention is the most valuable attention there is.


6 Responses to “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?”

  1. blah Says:

    ‘red-skinned’? really?
    here’s an interesting link:

  2. lis Says:

    I would like to note that at least the Disney Princess shoes the Schmoop had were *sneakers*… that’s something. 🙂

    My Barbies as a child liked to wear fancy clothes (although not necessarily big frilly dresses) and then they’d go to work.. where one Barbie was a doctor and the other Barbie was president of Barbieland.

    • Sonja Says:

      Oh man, I loved Barbie. Chewed her feet off though. One of the greatest moments of my childhood was when I asked my grandmother “Why doesn’t Barbie need to wear a bra?” Good times.

  3. george Says:

    Some good points here… but feminism aside, there’s another reason I object to all the princess crap in our culture. Princesses are emblems of monarchy! Of rule by heredity/divine right! Of absolute power! Why should we promote this form of class slavery?

    Americans, both children and adults, love to indulge in a little “Grace Kelly” fantasy, wherein we pretend that if we play our cards right, *we* could become monarch — via marriage or beauty or smarts or hard work or whatever. But this is not actually how monarchies work. Throughout history, royals have married other royals or nobles, sometimes their first cousins, in an effort to consolidate power and keep their club as exclusive as genetics will allow. Why on earth is this corrupt, abusive, occasionally incestuous and/or murderous system so appealing to us? And why is this something we want to hand down to our daughters?

    • Sonja Says:

      Yeah, this is a really, REALLY good point. No, sweetheart, you CAN’T be a Princess when you grow up. It’s not an occupation. And yet, we worship those who *do*… and then you end up with Princess Diana and what a royal (literally) mess that whole situation is.

      I hadn’t even thought of it from this angle, but it’s true, the monarchy shouldn’t be romanticized.

  4. Holly Says:

    I randomly ran into this blog and found it interesting. But I wanted to say that Mulan and Pocahontas were equally as popular as “white princesses” to me and all of the other (white/any other color) little girls at my age. I had a pocahontas bedspread, pocahontas Christmas ornaments, shoes.. you get the point :). I actually loved her for love for nature and animals growing up.

    And to add to it, my family was much more closed minded towards other races then, but they loved those movies.

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