I have three young daughters (4, 2, 6 months). Anyone with girls that age knows all about the tyrannical “princess” culture that is simply in the air for children of that age. It is everywhere – toys, books, music, at the dentist, you name it. If a 4-6 year old can encounter it, the princess culture has infected it. We’ve avoided the most extreme manifestations (princess make-overs, princess manicures, wearing princess dresses to school, etc), but try as I might, I cannot keep it entirely away from my kids.
Is this something I really need to worry about? Are girly-girl stereotypes a danger at this age? Is it ‘just a phase’? Does the phase lead to something dangerous, like early sexualization?
By way of entry into the issue, Peggy Orenstein’s 2006 NYTimes Magazine piece provides some history and context and some suggestions. Perhaps not all readers will be as taken by her article as I was, but as a parent of young girls she hits the head of so many nails here. And, for those who are interested, her Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a book worth reading too.
Here are some thoughts of my own and some riffing on insights from Orenstein:
I am not particularly interested in banning outright princess stuff in my home. We’ve let some of it in, and a lot of it seems pretty harmless. My worry is the apparent monopoly of the princess culture, that the culture seems so greedy. As Lyn Brown points out, “The issue is 25,000 Princess products. When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play.” When it is princess wall to wall, what lessons are young girls learning about the role of women and the place of image and beauty in their lives?
Now I am sure the princess thing is a phase. But one wonders what what follows the princess phase. Does the soft pink just turn hot pink? Already clothes for 5 year olds have things like “Bratty” and “Spoiled Rotten” and “Flirty” on them. Isn’t that just one step short of over-sexualized tween stars like Spears? For example, Orenstein found some panties at Hot Topic that are “Dark Tint” and described as “the bad girl side of Miss Bell [Tinkerbell] that Walt never saw.” This is the sort of thing that makes me want to lock my girls up in my house an home-school.
But one might see the princess culture as a positive, perhaps the development of a proper mean between second wave feminism (that seemed to deny femininity) and the “grrrl power” reaction in the 1990s that somehow identified women’s liberation with the freedom to choose to objectify themselves as sexual objects. So do we now have a middle position between the genderless unisex standards and the old standards of femininity? Powerful, ambitious, but cute with snappy dress too? You know, girls now can “have it all.” But does much if any of the princess product and media out there communicate anything other than image and a shallow obsession with appearance? When I ask my daughter why she likes princesses, she says “Because of their big shoulders” (she likes to puffy gowns). In other words, it isn’t Snow White’s charity toward the dwarves that is drawing her in, much less the idea that women can administer large kingdoms and make decisions of consequence.
And, frankly, I am leery of this “you can have it all” message to begin with. My wife and many of her peers find themselves struggling to find balance in their lives after decades of ingesting the “you can have it all” message from their mothers. Work and career, have both, no sacrifices necessary. Guess what, that is damn hard and sometimes “having it all” means you have both but do both poorly and spend your life feeling torn.
Some call this the “Supergirl Dilemma.” What if telling our girls they “can be anything” really ends up putting the demand on them that they be everything?
Of course I want my daughters to dream big and aim high. I want them to be everything they can be. But saying you can “be anything you want” and you can “have it all” provides no concrete direction for how women have to negotiate and balance competing values in the real world. My daughters’ futures are not open-ended in an absolute way. They have, qua being women, a particular telos. Shouldn’t we be educating our daughters into the "form" proper to their nature as women?
So, the princess culture really ends up being about something quite difficult – gender identity and gender roles. We live in a time of profound gender confusion. Man no longer knows how to be a man and woman no longer knows how to be a woman. The "you can be anything you want" is tied to this – neither man nor woman any longer knows who they are and what their function, role, and specific telos is. Men experience this just as much as women. Many men today don’t know how to be men and how to be fathers. In part this is because their education orients them toward an ambiguous abyss of "anything" instead more concrete forms of womanly and manly existence in the world.
The challenge, of course, is to articulate those forms without being reductionist about it, without falling into the "only" traps (women can "only" be mothers, men are “only” providers, etc) that we have thankfully outgrown. As I sit with my daughter having princess tea parties, I wrestle with how to navigate these very muddy waters.