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The Mamafesto: The problem with princesses

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights. Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine, Cosmopolitan.com,...

Most young girls can easily get lost in the pink and pretty world of princesses, but at what cost?

It's not that I'm against all things pink and sparkly. In fact, I love a good tiara accessory every now and then. And, it's not like I'm against the concept of princesses in general. No, what bums me out as a woman and mother is the insidious nature of princess culture — the consumerism attached to it, and the various negative messages that are woven throughout it.

At first glance, princess play may seem like a perfectly natural fit for young girls. But looking closer, it's not hard to see the potential problem with princesses. Many of the Disney princesses that we grew up with had storylines that devalued women. Ariel? She literally gave her voice up for a man. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White? They were both passive participants in their own stories, sleeping for most of them, only to be rescued at the end by a prince. And in fact, the notion of being saved instead of saving yourself is the standard for the traditional Disney princess: Any power they may have had has been stripped, and salvation rests in the hand of a man. This message has a lasting impact on our girls, especially as they are exposed to it at a very young age and for a good chunk of their childhood. And while these stories may have been written for a more general audience, for the last 20-plus years they have been aggressively marketed toward young girls, infiltrating every aspect of their lives.

What do these stories teach our daughters (and sons!) about the role of women in society? While young girls may not be theorizing on sexism and their place in the patriarchy, you can bet that they're still absorbing these messages on some level. And what about the notion of beauty? Princess culture pushes the hyper-feminine as the ideal, and with very few exceptions, focuses on white beauty as the ideal, leaving a whole lot of kids seeking princesses that look like them.

It's not as if princess culture is easy to escape. Take a look around at the toys, books, dress-up, TV and movies marketed toward young girls. It is a $4 billion/year industry saturated in princess culture. This wouldn't be that much of an issue if there were just as many alternative options to choose from, but princesses reign supreme. And despite a few outliers, they continue to promote negative stereotypes when it comes to gender, race, beauty, and more. And even those newer princesses that have a more promising story tend to fall prey to the dreaded Disneyfication process.

For parents who want to read more on princess culture and how harmful aspects of it truly are, check out Peggy Orenstein's groundbreaking book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter — an award-winning look at princess mania. For a practical, solutions-based outlook for dealing with princess culture, pick up Rebecca C. Hains's new book, The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years.

Even better? Diversify your princess offerings! Nobody is saying they should cut princesses out of their kids' lives cold turkey, but media literacy (even at a young age!) never hurts. If your daughter can't get enough princess play, why not add some new twists to the usual Disney mix? Offer up ones that allow creativity to bloom, don't box girls and boys into stereotypical gender roles, and don't allow you to fall into the world of branding, marketing and consumerism that so often accompanies the more popular princesses. Some of my favorites include:

Is there a healthy balance between full-out princess invasion and banning them completely in your home?

More on princesses

Positive princess role models
Name your baby after a real princess
Not a princess, not a tomboy

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