Sunday, January 30, 2011

Powerless To Resist The Princesses

Journalist Peggy Orenstein's latest book, CINDERELLA ATE MY DAUGHTER, was prompted by her own daughter Daisy's infatuation with everything Princess, brought on almost immediately upon Daisy's beginning preschool. According to Orenstein, who is interviewed in this Sunday's Los Angeles Times, after a week of preschool, Daisy "had as if by osmosis learned all the names and gown colors of the Disney princesses, and that is all she could talk about."  By age three or four, Daisy's peers had already been reached by the Disney Princess marketing machine, which ten years ago began marketing Princesses together who'd never been marketed apart from their individual movies.

Just yesterday, Late Blooming Mom's daughter attended a play date at which one of the main activities was dressing up as, you guessed it, Disney Princesses.

My girl happily spent most of the play date in Snow White garb, despite that fact that see has seen only parts of Snow White (it's too scary, she insists, to watch all the way through), and though we own it on DVD, she never requests it.  She's only made it through THE LITTLE MERMAID once (also too scary), and the same is true of SLEEPING BEAUTY (after which she nervously asked, "Why does Maleficient live in fire?").  She is a big fan of Belle's though she's never seen BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and knows it only from a book.  She portrayed Disney princess Tiana (THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG) this past Halloween, clomping around in wildly uncomfortable plastic light-up shoes all evening and willing to endure the pain because they matched the gown.  Thanks, Disney, for introducing her to the idea that painful shoes are worth wearing if they look cool.  Her new bike with training wheels is TANGLED-themed, and even came with Rapunzel's comb and a kit of other hair accoutrements (she now wears the hair clip almost daily).  She frequently dons a Cinderella nightgown (the one Princess movie that isn't really scary, so she's seen it multiple times), and has Jasmine underwear (she saw ALADDIN at a kid's night out at her preschool).  And when she was learning about Thanksgiving in kindergarten this year, I'm forced to admit I found myself educating her about Native Americans by popping on the computer and yes, showing her bits of POCAHONTAS.  Such is the pervasive influence of the Disney Princess marketing behemoth.

The princesses are generally marketed to the 2-6 set, so maybe my girl is at the upper end of the everything-princess phase.  But somehow I doubt it.  When I was a kid, I portrayed a princess in a summer camp play, and I enjoyed the brief bout of attention I got for this, but it did not make me want princess dolls, princess dress-up clothes, a princess bathing suit and beach towel (my daughter possesses all these).  When I was a kid, there were nowhere near as many princess products paraded in front of me.  As Orenstein points out in the LA Times, "People always say, I played Princess when I was a kid.  That's kind of like the difference between having four TV channels when you were a kid and having a satellite dish now."

I admit I haven't dissuaded my daughter from all this.  In fact, I even encouraged her interest in Belle, whose favorite thing to do is read books (what parent could object to that?) and in Tiana, who is the first African-American Disney princess, and who succeeds not by marrying a prince (though she does that), but by having an ambitious dream of opening her own restaurant (entrepreneurship) and working damn hard to make it happen.  I was excited to see TANGLED, and we all thoroughly enjoyed it, even our boy, thanks to the savvy Disney folks making it as much male lead Flynn Ryder's story as Rapunzel's.   The movie is smart and funny and entertaining, start to finish.  This is the problem with Disney entertainment in general:  when it's done well, resistance is, I'm afraid, futile.

As a family, we're frequent Disney Store visitors, even if it's just to kill some time at the mall:  we limit what the kids are allowed to purchase there and mostly leave without buying ... but when it's big ticket item time, e.g., for birthdays or Hannukah, we do let them shop there.   We also watch the Disney Channel on TV (though that's not so Princess-y, thank goodness).  Therefore it's not surprising that my son is no less immune to the marketing than my daughter.  Thing One, AKA the world's biggest CARS movie fan, says he wants to be a race car driver when he grows up.  And he owns a HANDY MANNY truck with tools, as well as TOY STORY character-themed toys Buzz and Woody, and scads of Disney-themed clothes.  There are defintely some arguably negative affects on my boy, e.g., the general materialism it engenders (more toys, more!) and the reinforcement of traditional gender interests (cars and tools, cowboys and space).  But there is one thing the Disney marekting to my boy does not do:  it does not fixate my son's attention on his appearance.

For girls, there are definite downsides to the Princess phenomenon.  You can't lay them all at the feet of Disney's inescapable marketing machine.  Our entire culture has been sexualizing girls much earlier.  Orenstein talks of how "40% of six-year-old girls regularly wear lip gloss or lipstick," and cites her own hypocrisy:  "I'm ... telling my daughter that looks are not important while I'm looking in the mirror."  Society prizes youth and beauty, and the emphasis on body image has been only going up in the last thirty years.  Yes, Disney's Hannah Montana has grown up and image-wise, the actress who played her is looking something like a pole dancer these days.  But is that really entirely Miley Cyrus' fault (and her parents' fault for depriving her of a normal childhood)?  Take your daughter shopping at the mall and she can't help but see the revealingly clad mannequins, the once trashy, now fashionably revealing, flimsy, loud, brazen, even hooker-like attire in every women's clothing store window.  

Let's face it, ladies.  There is nothing secret about Victoria anymore.   And as soon as my daughter can read (she's on the verge), she'll see there's a store called "Forever 21."  What is she supposed to make of that?

I'm also dismayed that, because none of the Princesses marketed together on, say, a t-shirt, nightgown or plastic drinking cup ever look at one another -- per a Disney directive (they don't appear in the same movies so they don't "know" one another in the Disney world) -- the underlying message is one of competition, not friendship, between women.  I want my girl to have her girlfriends, girlfriend.  When it comes to emphasizing the importance of female friendship, even SEX AND THE CITY is more positive for women then Disney Princesses.

So what's a modern mom to do with all this stuff?  It's way too late in our house to just say no, that's for sure.  I haven't yet read Orenstein's book, but I am itching to dive in, just as soon as I have a kid-free, chore-free, work-free moment.  In the meantime, I'm going to start paying closer attention to my little girl's fascination with appearance, clothing, any form of make-up and jewelry -- and try to encourage moderation in all things Princess.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm so interested in this book, too. I've been reading a lot about it on blogs and in newspapers. My daughter is almost 4 and a big princess fan. We actually don't own much, if anything, Disney - but it's inescapable. If your children go to school or drive through town and see a billboard or have a play date, they will soon enough be familiar with all of this stuff.

There are so many issues I have with Disney that I don't know where to start (and your comment section isn't the most appropriate place either. LOL)! I'll save it for a post on my own blog. ;) But I loved this post and think you have the best attitude you can have when it comes to the things your children are interested it: support them, offer them alternatives, point out the characteristics that are most in line with your family's values & hope for the best.

And remember, as we may recall from our own teenage years, the more mom & dad hate something, the more the child will be drawn to it. :-)