Why do parents like princesses?

Review Chapter 2: What’s wrong with Cinderella?

Orenstein, Peggy, 2011, Cinderella ate my daughter. Dispatches from the front lines of the new girlie-girl culture, New York: HarperCollins Publishers

Orenstein starts this chapter describing how she was surprised to find her daughter at a party deeply involved in being Snow White, and loving it. She described how she had kept away this story and thought she would not encounter it, or like it, for the passivity of the princess, and her washed out personality. She is good at tidying up, and singing, but nothing else, apart of course, from being pretty, and being chosen and saved by her prince solely on this premise.

And she goes on to explain that she was a Disney kid, but that somehow things have changed since then. The princess phenomenon is a case in point. The Disney princesses as such did not exist until 2000. She interviews the ‘maker’ of this phenomenon, Mooney, an ex-Nike executive who discovered a goldmine at a Disney-on-ice show, where all the girls had princess outfits that were homemade. From this shocking fact, Mooney created the Princess line. It was new in that Princesses had never been grouped together (which is why she says that when they figure together, they never look at each other, but in a slightly different direction). It was like hitting the jackpot, sales soared immensely. Today, there are over twenty six thousand Disney Princess items in the market. Mooney says ‘we gave the girls what they wanted’. Soon after Mattel followed with a princess line, and even Dora the explorer has an episode about turning into a princess.

Orenstein admits that girls might like to play princesses – but 26.000 products? She asks herself where the line between giving them what they want and coercion begins. And most of these are clothes, accessories, and make up: appearance based. Mooney says the typical line for this ‘it is just a phase’, and that there are no studies that show that playing princesses harms girls.

But, as Orenstein points out, there is much evidence that show that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more importance they place on being pretty and sexy. And that those that hold values which emphasise beauty and pleasing behaviour are less ambitious, more prone to depression and less likely to report to enjoy sex or insist partner wear condoms. And this are not particularly withdrawn and passive girls and women, but exposure to stereotypes has been shown to affect girls quite a lot, and quickly too.

Orenstein shows how girls nowadays are under much more pressure, pressure to be perfect. And what this means is that they want to be very good at school and sports but also be kind, pleasing and be thin and pretty. What she concludes is that girls today have much more opportunities, but at the same time are victims of this broadening of expectations. Again, it seems the more girls achieve, the more they obsess about their appearance.

She argues with herself that boys have also limited range of play things, and that fathers tend to police their masculinity much more than girls’ femininity, but ends up concluding that girls are the ones who seem to have their world and possibilities much more circumscribed.

So she asks herself why do parents go for this. As she says

‘princesses avoid female bonding. Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married […] and be taken care of for the rest of their lives. Their value derives largely from their appearance. They are rabid materialists. They might affect your daughter’s interest in math. And yet…parents cannot resist them. Princesses seem to have tapped into our unspoken, nonrational wishes. They may also assuage our fears: Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty may be sources of stability in a rapidly changing world.’

She described how princesses are seen as safe, as inspiring, as helping little girls stay little girls as much as possible. As she points out, maybe it is related to our need for comfort, for stability, for tradition in an unstable world. She looks then at what seems like an antidote: the American Girl Collection. This is because these dolls are well-made, and the author strived to offer an alternative view of childhood, one also linked with history of the USA. In the books that went with the dolls, girls were portrayed as being much more independent and feisty, probably more than what they could possibly be at the time, and also to emphasise character over appearance. Much better than a Bratz doll like Jazmin, who cares mostly about her appearance, gossip and celebrities.

However, this collection is rather paradoxical. She points out how while books advocate against materialism, the products around these dolls were multiple, and very expensive. She concludes that line from both Disney and American Girl ‘promise’ parents to keep girls, girls, and safe from early sexualisation, but do so through introducing them to a material culture that encourages exactly the opposite. And that these imply that intimacy between mothers and daughters is done through consuming ‘girly’ things.

I liked this chapter in that it emphasises what parents might see in this princess culture, what they like in it, and why do they indulge their daughters in it. Furthermore, it shows the contradictions that these kind of ‘desire’ is embedded in: a deeply materialistic culture which emphasises girl’s appearance. And even if she cannot show how this will affect girls in the future, she shows how this emphasis more generally, strongly affects girls and young women. What I still don’t get here is the sense of how much of this immersion matters. What if princess play is only part of what girls do? Maybe mothers or dads with older children could tell me, is this kind of play overwhelming, and ? For instance, can you buy an American Girl doll and a book, and be happy with this? As this does not exist in Argentina, or as far as I know, in the UK, I am not sure how insidious this is. I know Disney is, so I understand her predicament. What I think is that she is trying to show here these contradictions, to highlight the materialistic nature of this ‘culture’ and the emphasis on beauty, which I agree is negative. And I agree with her analysis. I am still unconvinced though about how all or nothing this is. But I might be innocent, since I am not there yet, just incipiently… Any thoughts?

Lucila

One response to “Why do parents like princesses?

  1. Pingback: On pink and other toy segregation | maternalselves

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