Monday, August 5, 2013

Princess culture

There was an article in the Chicago Tribune this weekend, "Tooth Fairy doesn't need a website or magic letters" by Heidi Stevens, which apparantly you need a subscription to see, but if you're willing to pay/already have a subscription, you can click through the link. But after discussing a new website that tries to use the Tooth Fairy to sell products to little girls, the author references the book Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein, which I have not read but have seen referenced on other fairy tale blogs.

Stevens quotes an instance from an event with Orenstein, in which a woman tells of a kindergaten-aged girl goes to school dressed up like a Princess for career day. The woman tells the room she is addressing that she told that little girl to change, and that "Princess isn't a career," and the room burst into applause. The author of the article wonders if the reaction would have been the same if a little boy had been dressed up as Buzz Lightyear, and guesses we wouldn't have cared. (My response is-for Heaven's sake, this is kindergarten, let the little girl dress up).

Stevens wonders if, in the cultural backlash against Princess Culture, we don't give our boys too much credit, assuming they're immune to the product placement and messages aimed towards them, and if we give too little credit to daughters, assuming they fall prey to every marketing scheme and negative female stereotype. To quote from the article: "When my daughter plays with Barbie, I worry she's going to grow up hating her thighs. When my son plays with Ken, I figure he'll toss his aside with nary a glance toward his pecs. When my daughter watches London Tipton play stupid for laughs on "Suite Life on Deck," I worry she'll equate ditsy with loveable. When my son watches Special Agent Oso bumble a job, I figure he'll learn from Oso's errors. Am I giving my daughter enough credit? Am I giving my son enough though?"

I would be interested to read the book, but as someone who was raised on all the classic Princess movies and was Belle for almost every Halloween, I think I turned out fine. In fifth grade I first read Robin McKinley's Beauty, which along with my love of Disney's Beauty and the Beast spawned my interest in the history of fairy tales. I'm not even sure if I would have been drawn to the book initially if it weren't for my interest in the Disney version. I think I would have-but you never know. Certainly the Disney movie played a huge part in my reason for research, and it's possible that this blog would not exist without the Disney Princess culture.

Obviously it's not the same for everyone, but personally, my initial love of Princesses turned me on to an aspect of literature, history, and anthropology that has become an important hobby to me. To say I've learned a lot would be an understatement. I know there are negative aspects to the commercialization, but I don't think I could ever get too upset with Princess culture. I'm more concerned about things like beauty pageant culture...which I'm sure is connected but still distinct. That's a whole other conversation I won't go into at the moment.
I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who's read the Orenstein book-what does it say, and what did you think? Also, anyone who has specific examples of young girls and how they interact with princesses/princess culture. I've shared some of my babysitting/teaching adventures on the blog before, but of course there are many more stories to be shared-


  1. I haven't read the book nor do I have real specific examples of princess culture (was not really into them as a child), but I've come across similar literature in my anthro studies, and I'll just say that what I think this anti-princess movement seems to be about is more or less the damnsel-in-distress. Not exactly a revelation, but looking deeper into the princess culture, how we're rallying against all forms of female submission, and how & why princesses are representative of that in a lot of ways. The manipulation of fairy tales by Disney and Grimm often heightened the powerlessness of the princess. Why was this? I guess it has to do with society's comfort level of the traditional female role (housekeeper, mother, nurse) and keeping it that way. In most stories, an adventure is necessary, the hero's journey, and it is often the male that journeys and the female whose movement within the story is under the authority of some male or another.

    I know I'm probably not making much sense, but this topic is important to me. I have a couple concerns regarding the anecdote the article offers with regards to career day in Kindergarten. Firstly, why is there a career day in kindergarten that takes itself so seriously that a child cannot even make-believe? And secondly, how did that adults reaction to the child's choice profession make HER feel? What did the child really learn that day, what did she really grasp about that situation? My guess is that it had little to do about careers and whether being a princess or not is a legitimate one, but more of an adult woman's meanness and really, unnecessary reaction to a child's imagination. It kind of breaks my heart to think of that child, waking up and dressing and feeling just beautiful as a princess, and then being forced to change. She must've felt so stupid. I was a sensitive child, that would have been quite traumatic for me.

    I can see where the concern over princess culture comes from, and my concern is related to the beauty pageant part of it-- the part in which children learn that a woman's value is in her beauty. But honestly, that specific exchange on Career Day did nothing to dispel that. Creativity, imagination, make-believe, all these things are natural to children until un-empathetic adults come along to snatch them away. No, dear 5-year-old, choose a *real* career. Because seeing you dressed as a princess violates some feminist mantra inside me.

    I wonder, if a young boy dressed as an astronaut would've been forced to change, as well. Technically, you cannot be an astronaut anymore. It's not a 'real' career.

    I'll also add that I am a feminist and love of all things related to women-empowerment. I don't like, however, cruelty masking as empowerment, which is what I think this was about more than anything else.

    Love your blog, by the way. Have been following for a bit. :)

  2. Oh dear, I realize my musings are just echoing the article as well as your thoughts(my eyes glazed over the Buzz Lightyear commments initially, why did I think the astronaut example come out of no where?). Sorry about that-- must digest first, respond later.

  3. Raquel-not a problem, glad to have your thoughts on the matter :)

    I always wonder, though-many critics talk about Disney/the Grimms making the females more passive, and that much is absolutely true. But sometimes we talk as though that was an intentional choice-Disney and the Grimms were deliberately trying to limit the power of female characters in their stories. Is this really the case, or were their choices subconscious reflections of the culture around them, in which women didn't have a lot of rights? As men they may have been more oblivious to the point of view of women than deliberately trying to suppress their rights. Or, they really may have had an anti-woman agenda.

    I think you are spot on with your "cruelty masking as empowerment." I think we feminists have to be very careful not to swing to the other extreme.

  4. I've been thinking about your comment, letting it all digest this time around. And I read this article interviewing Natalie Dormer, who played Anne Boleyn on the show "The Tudors". And this excerpt in particular brought it home for me:

    “Men still have trouble recognizing, that a woman can be complex, can have ambition, good looks, sexuality, erudition, and common sense. A woman can have all those facets, and yet men, in literature and in drama, seem to need to simplify women, to polarize us as either the whore or the angel. That sensibility is prevalent, even to this day. I have a lot of respect for Michael [Hirst, creator and writer of The Tudors], as a writer and a human being, but I think that he has that tendency. I don’t think he does it consciously. I think it’s something innate that just happens and he doesn’t realize it.”

    And I think that's the rub entirely. The fact is, I think most of how women characters are limited isn't intentional. It's this unconscious expectation of what women are capable of, of defining them in such a limited way, all of which is informed by culture. There's so many layers to this, but I think it's less about anti-women and more about pro-stereotypes. All unconscious, for the most part. Because it's hard work to break centuries of conditioning, and it's always much easier to simplify-- virgin and whore, princess and evil queen. It's also hard, hard work to create a complex character whether in literature, film, or otherwise. So I think some of the explanation is also laziness on the parts of the creators of fairy tales and beyond.

    The full article is here:

  5. This is really fascinating. You could also say it's easier to portray men in simple black and white, although somehow it must be easier to portray female characters as less complex?

  6. Oh yea, I agree. It's easier to create simple, one dimensional characters, men or women. What I meant by lazy was breaking out of how one traditionally sees women in order to do so. Though it's not harder one way or another, for some reason women continue to be limited with those simplistic roles. It's difficult to see beyond what you've always known to be 'true', to expand out of that cultural conditioning, that's what I mean by lazy, I think. I hope I'm making sense!