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The Dark Side of Princess Culture

By Ariel Beccia--Cinderella. Snow White. Rapunzel. Sleeping Beauty. These are the characters many of us grew up with: we watched their movies, played with their dolls and even wore their costumes. Of course, the Disney craze continues today.

The soundtrack of Frozen has topped the charts for months, toy store shelves are filled with Tinker Bell-inspired tutus and tiaras and Cinderella was still one of the most popular Halloween costumes in 2015. With Disney princess merchandise raking in approximately $3 billion globally each year—with products ranging from makeup to snacks to clothes—it is clear that princess culture is a mainstay of modern girlhood.  

So what? Is the princess craze simply innocent fun for girls, or is there meaning behind the obsession? Some parents claim that Disney narratives are “safe” for young viewers, while others go as far as labeling certain characters as role models for young girls. However, there is a growing backlash against princess culture, led by parents, psychologists and feminist scholars who question the underlying messages contained in the stories. After all, what are the effects of spending a childhood immersed in the world of Disney?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question may reveal the dark side of princess culture. According to a study done at Brigham Young University, girls who play with Disney princess toys are significantly more likely to internalize gender stereotypes than are girls who play with other toys. And, as lead researcher Sara M. Coyne explains, girls who adhere to gender stereotypes often limit themselves in activities and/or behaviors through life. Additionally, the study found that Disney princesses are often a girl’s first exposure to the thin ideal, meaning that girls as young as three or four may internalize society’s narrow definition of “beautiful.”

The findings of this study make sense. What does it take to be a Disney princess? Culturally normative beauty, a wonderful singing voice, a loving demeanor and a prince to pine over. When a girl’s world is infiltrated with this ideal, of course “princess” becomes a life goal. And while career trajectories certainly change, there are lasting influences when you grow up dreaming of tiaras. Princess stories recount tales of romantic rescues, passionate kisses and unlimited ball gowns, reinforcing the stereotype of passive femininity. When girls aspire for Prince Charming and a pretty dress, they are cutting themselves off from a whole range of opportunities, ones that aren’t defined by physical appearances or powerful male figures.

More recently, Disney movies have challenged the princess culture. In Frozen, the defining relationship is between two sisters, not between princess and prince. Tiana, the first black princess, follows her dream of owning a restaurant through her own hard work and determination. Merida from Brave challenges gender norms by rejecting an arranged marriage and focusing on things that matter to her, like archery and family.

However, despite the improvements, these characters still exist in princess culture. The Princess and the Frog has been criticized for reinforcing racist stereotypes and in Brave, just before her coronation, Merida received a makeover that magically slimmed her down and smoothed her hair. Ugh.

So should we protest Disney and prohibit girls from engaging in these stories? Honestly, I don’t think erasure is the answer. For one, there is nothing inherently wrong with princess femininity. Some girls love wearing pink and having tea parties, and that’s great. Also, it opens the door to having open and critical conversations with girls at an impressionable time in their lives.

Watch Sleeping Beauty and talk about why Aurora was sleeping throughout the movie. Encourage creativity and individuality during a princess-themed dress up (taking notes from my newest role model). By teaching girls to be their own heroines, we can recreate princess culture, and that is magical! 

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