Are Princesses Bad for Girls? New Disney Heroine Breaks the Mold

Like many mothers of girls, I’ve struggled with the rise of the princess culture. Until quite recently, we were all about princesses around here. My 4-year-old owns each of the tiny fashion dolls, a couple of the Barbie-sized dolls, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty costumes, princess underwear and several items of bedtime-wear with princesses. And my impression is that we’ve been fairly conservative in princess acquisition (the majority of which is hand-me-down in origin). We could have purchased clothing, furniture, bedding, lunch boxes, toothpaste, shampoo . . . even grapes.

Disney Princesses Are Everywhere
I don’t remember owning much princess paraphernalia as a child. Sure, there were princesses, but there wasn’t a Disney Princess marketing machine the way there is now. There was almost a blog post here titled “Not Really a Ball Kind of Girl,” though I did get all gussied up and attend one once, where I was going to reminisce about my Cinderella dress.

When I was a kid, there was a dress at my grandmother’s house dubbed the Cinderella dress because it was old fashioned and twirled very satisfyingly. The thing about it is that it was clearly the scullery maid Cinderella dress – patched, faded, ragged in spots. While I have no doubt that I would have accepted a Disney-branded dress, I’m not sure they existed. Star Wars, on the other hand, had a marketing machine and features prominently in my memory of childhood toys and games.

According to the New York Times, Disney didn’t begin marketing princesses independently until 2001. Andy Mooney, who worked for Nike before taking over the Disney Store princess line of merchandise explains:

We simply gave girls what they wanted, although I don’t think any of us grasped how much they wanted this. I wish I could sit here and take credit for having some grand scheme to develop this, but all we did was envision a little girl’s room and think about how she could live out the princess fantasy. The counsel we gave to licensees was: What type of bedding would a princess want to sleep in? What kind of alarm clock would a princess want to wake up to? What type of television would a princess like to see? It’s a rare case where you find a girl who has every aspect of her room bedecked in Princess, but if she ends up with three or four of these items, well, then you have a very healthy business.

Does the Pervasiveness of Princesses Harm Girls’ Individuality?
For most princess objectors, it’s not really the merchandising that’s a problem (though, that is sometimes hard to take too), it’s the messaging. But experts will tell you that the sheer volume princess appearances in a girls life, the pervasiveness of that message, IS a problem.

“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.”

The article continues:

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. What’s more, the 23 percent decline in girls’ participation in sports and other vigorous activity between middle and high school has been linked to their sense that athletics is unfeminine.

That makes me wonder about the current state of politics and what’s become known as The War on Women.  What are the long-term implications of waiting for your prince to come as a preschooler?

Princesses Are Just A Small Part of Gender Inequality in Media
An actress known for portraying strong women, Geena Davis, definitely thinks there’s a problem. She founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Children in the Media to document the portrayal of girls and women in popular culture and advocate for change. According to institute reports :

  • There are simply more boys than girls represented in media with male speaking roles outnumbering female roles 3 to 1 across G-, PG-, PG-13, and R-rated films.
  • Female characters are presented in a sexualized way 5 times more often than than male characters and are 3 times more likely to have an unrealistically “perfect” body.
  • Animated, G-rated programming presents the biggest imbalance, not a safe-haven for girl self image.

Girls are princess or nothing at all . . .

A Different Kind of Princess?
Not all the characters Disney categorizes as “princesses” have gotten the same merchandising as the 3 on the grapes above. Pocahontas’s story was markedly different than the others, not culminating in a wedding, for example. My daughter has asked for a Pocahontas “deluxe set” (her name for the approximately 4 inch dolls with changeable plastic clothing) like the ones she has for Rapunzel and the others, but it doesn’t exist. Did Disney just not think her Native American garb had the same play value?

Brave, the latest princess movie, a Pixar/Disney production, is due out this summer. A strong character who defies tradition to control her own destiny, Princess Merida appears to be targeted to an older audience than the pink princesses that dominate my house.

It does appear that Disney is going a slightly different route with Merida. She seems to have received the full Disney store treatment: costumes, dolls, household accessories . . . weapons. Well, that last one is unusual for princesses.

Moving Beyond Princesses
I have no idea what, if any, the long term ramifications of princess obsession will have on my daughter. Perhaps none, because as abruptly as they took over my daughter’s imagination, princesses have fallen out of favor. What’s all the rage now? My Little Pony, and in particular, a character I don’t remember from my generation of the toy: a very speedy, not-very-girly, very-not-pink Pegasus named Rainbow Dash (seen below in a video montage playing off the double rainbow internet meme.)

Got a preschool girl? What is your approach to princesses? Have you embraced, tolerated or banned Disney princesses or others? How about parents of older girls: any perspective?

Related Reading
Does Being a Stay At Home Mom Lead To Depression?
What Are American Women Doing For Work? (Infographic)

Princess branded grapes photographed by flickr user moonlightbulb


Siobhan B.
Siobhan B.4 years ago

Um, just because it wasn't marketed as a coheesive brand until then doesn't mean that Disney Princesses as a huge thing for little girls didn't exist. We (me and my peers) all had dolls and costumes and a lot of Disney Princess merchandice when we were little. This isn't new.

Emer Kavanagh
Emer Kavanagh4 years ago

I liked Xena: Warrior Princess, and developed a love of Sam Raimi that continues to this day. Groovy!

I'm also pleased to note that the only small girl-child I know, who is a princess lover, had her first communion yesterday where she dressed in a big white dress and pretended she was a princess for about a half an hour. Then she was just bored. Then she was the only girl to say "The hell with it", kick off her shoes and go play with the boys. I'm sure the other little girls had a nice time running around to hear their shoes click on the floors of the big hotel we were all at, twirling and whatnot, but they didn't look like they were having as much fun as the terror I was attached to.

Naomi A.
Naomi A4 years ago

I loved 'Red Sonja' as a kid. The Rainbow Warrior. She-ra.
I so wanted to be able to kick butt and be the beautiful warrior or princess in the case of She-ra after the battle.
and pink has always been seen to be the colour for girls but I will admit that in the last 15 years, since my niece was born the colour pink and purple have come on extremely strong. I hated pink as a child. I have come to finally have a peice or two of clothing in that shade only now in my thirties.
Children will usually want to be what they see the most of on TV, movies etc. Girls and women are definately been given the more weak and/or needing saving roles in TV series and childrens movies than when I was a child.
Except for Dora maybe.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

it won't hurt them. parents are responsible for steering their kids in the right direction. If your daughter is more drawn to princesses and dresses, go for it. If, instead, she wants to be a cowboy or a sports star, support her. she will know

ii q.
g d c5 years ago




paul m.
paul m5 years ago

Young girls like it ,,,it's fantasy, we, ourselves go to the Movies/Pictures or get a D.V.D.
we know the story ( a Musical,a comedy or a Cowboy film) is'ent real but we still enjoy it ..

Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle5 years ago

The problem is the message. Girls should not grow up thinking they need a Prince Charming to rescue them. They have their own brains for that. I also hate all the pink. I dressed my two daughters in all colors BUT pink -- it makes a weak statement. Princesses are a very very demeaning statement.

Kate M.
Kate H5 years ago

I haven't seen that many of the more recent Disney movies containing princesses, but I was a little kid when The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and The Beast etc. came out, and I never really saw Ariel, Jasmine, or Belle as being "submissive" or "helpless," from what I can remember. I'd always seen them as having a lot of spirit--the first two spoke out against their fathers' wishes for the sake of staying true to their own interests, and the third consistently ignored the advances of the typical "hunk/masculine provider" type character (Gaston).

However, I do think that the presentation of these heroines in fancy "princess" dresses is a bit doesn't feel consistent with the actual stories, and I do have to wonder at the motives of those who are marketing all these new "Disney Princess" products which flash the color pink in one's face ad nauseam.

Erin Delancy-Hummer
Erin Hummer5 years ago

I have a 4 yr. old daughter who absolutely loves all the Disney princesses. She knows their names, the movie they're in and their songs. This is also the same little girl who puts on her soccer uniform twice a week and kicks some butt. She knows how to be a princess AND how to take care of herself. I'm very proud of her!!!!!