Friday, 30 August 2013

Dealing with Princesses

A month or so ago, my daughter did something I've been dreading since before my children were even conceived: she discovered the Disney Princess aisle in Target.

Why 'Princess' is a Dirty Word

I don't want to be disingenuous here. I adore the Disney movies. When I was three, Snow White was my favourite fictional character, and I distinctly recall telling my grandmother once that I wanted to be a princess when I grew up. I was in my early teens for the 90s Disney Renaissance, and was fascinated by the Disney heroines throughout high school.

However, somewhere between my childhood and the present day, the meaning of princess went from 'fairy tale adventure' to 'pink and fluffy rhinestone tiaras'.  I know I loved the beautiful dresses the princesses wore in my storybooks, but I also loved the adventures--playing princess with my friends in the school playground meant one of us had to play the witch that captured her!  Probably modern day childhood games aren't so different.  At a recent barbeque, my son played pirates with his friend and got into a rousing battle with the (equally enthusiastic) girls playing princesses.

But that's not what the modern Princess franchise (Disney or those emulating it) is about. The roleplay has been lost in favour of dress-up, and yet again women are being marketed based on their cosmetic value--to pre-school girls.

There was a recent internet brouhaha about Merida's entry into the lineup, resulting in a petition to make sure Disney Princess Merida lost some of her glamour and regained Brave Merida's bow. Yet Merida was hardly the first Disney heroine intended as a better role model for young girls than Snow "Someday my prince will come" White. She's certainly not the first to be stripped of those nods to feminism and personality for the sake of marketing.  When was the last time you saw Belle drawn with a book in hand? Even Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty had more personality than their sweetly coy promotional counterparts.

My Noble Intentions

Clearly, as a parent, it's easy for me to boycott the make-up sets and high-heeled shoes--I rarely wear either myself and I certainly don't believe pre-teens should. But I don't want to ban the merchandise outright either.  I knew this day was likely to come, and my intent was always to focus on the movies and original fairy tales... but there's one problem.  At two and a half, my daughter is in the target demographic for the Disney Princess Franchise, but she's too young to sit through the films nor do fairy tales hold her interest.

My son, aged four, does enjoy fairy tales.  I started telling them to him from my own memory when he went through a phase of requesting scary stories, and after reading a picture book version of Disney's Sleeping Beauty, he was excited to watch the film (mostly for the climactic swordfight with the dragon).  I can rest assured that my attempts to associate princesses with adventure is working like a charm on him.

But my toddler daughter? After weeks of study, I have been forced to conclude that to her a princess is a girl wearing a long dress, and it's the attractiveness of the characters, the smiling faces that appeal to her. Disney's marketing department knows exactly what they're doing. In fact, what she really likes doing best with her princesses is naming them, learning each one as carefully and conscientiously as she learned her numbers and shapes.


That fateful day in the toy aisle, my daughter picked out a magiclip Tiana, with three dresses (all of them ballgowns) and a stand to hang them on. I wasn't thrilled with the theme of the toy, but I liked that Tiana was at least on a similar scale to all our other playsets (Imaginext etc), meaning that there was crossover potential with their other toys.

Despite having a girl and a boy, it's my intention that my children should be able to play together as much as possible, and when we got home I browsed the magiclip line of princesses on Amazon and was gratified to find a selection of actual story-themed playsets as well as the changes of clothing and parties. For our trip around the UK, we got her Snow White with the Seven Dwarf's cottage (now hideously pink-thatched and tending to sparkle) as a portable playset. Come Christmas, I might well buy a non-franchise castle play-set that both children can use as a setting for grander adventures. In the shorter term, I'm eyeing up this cardboard box castle craft.

Amy Mebberson's fabulous yet tragically unofficial Pocket Princesses have proven that there is room for character and story in an absurd little universe where the Disney princesses all hang out with each other. From these I got the inspiration to focus not on story but personality where our princesses were concerned: "Snow White is a princess on the run. Tiana dreams of owning her own restaurant. Together they fight crime!" Or something. Some personality tag to append to the names my daughter is learning.

It's still all a little over my daughter's head, but it's working to keep my son's interest in the princesses, and he's her biggest role model when it comes to playing. I've shown them a few of the Pocket Princess cartoons and they enjoy them (their personal favourite). For the next few years, it looks like we'll be following Pocket Princess canon, and that's just fine with me.

Life Beyond The Animated Throne

Fortunately, Disney Princess remains an appeal rather than an obsession for my daughter, and I'm delighted that she would rather read Charlie and Lola than Sleeping Beauty, would rather watch Lilo and Stitch than Cinderella.  She does like to dress up in her princess outfit--we have the Imaginarium princess dress up trunk, which is thankfully low on pink and high on variety--but she also likes to wear her witch's hat, or a pirate outfit--and she's always game for playing swords with her brother. It seems that I don't need to fear the pink and fluffy rhinestone tiaras just yet...

Dragons make for a better accessory anyway


  1. I have a 'thing' about pink princesses too! Thankfully, E doesn't seem to have them on her radar and is quite happily 'in' to Wallace and Gromit and Kung Fu Panda. I'm not really a pink mummy and am trying hard to ensure a diversity of colours and toys/games in the house. Although, if asked, E will say that her favourite colour is pink! I'm sure it's only a matter of time before she cottons on to Disney but i'm hoping it will be The Lion King, rather than the princesses. Honestly, the WORST shopping experience I've ever had was in the Disney store in Bath, buying a present for a friend's 4-year-old!!!

    1. I actually prefer the fairy tales to the Lion King, so there's a part of me that's quite looking forward to when she gets into the actual films. But I do feel that the under fives are much better off with stories about actual children.

      Well done for keeping lots of other colours present in E's life--I always feel that that's a constant battle too.

  2. Olli is still totally into princesses. Her birthday party, this year, was princesses, but it's not all-encompassing for her. She loves princesses, but she also loves superheroes, pirates, and zombies. She loves ponies and tea-time. She loves legos and minecraft and digging in the dirt. Along with all the glitter, she also likes playing with bugs. It might be an obsession, at times, but I think obsession just kind of comes with the age.

    I never expected to enjoy the princess stage, and I really don't. If it were ever her entire focus, I think I might have balked more, but as I realize that it's such a small part of the whole that is my daughter, I've relented. Here's hoping you are as lucky.

    1. I expect this happens with most little girls. It just seems so overwhelming when you're standing in the toy aisle with all the pink and the vapid faces staring at you. If nothing else, she shares a room with her older brother, so she's going to be exposed to plenty of other things.

  3. Not an easy task, dealing with princesses... :-) But I would say you are on top of things.

    Btw, since I have nothing else to add, my cats are called Milo (he is a boy, hence the M instead of L) and Stitch. Ohana is family, and family means nobody is left behind.