Evolving Minds. What is it about little girls and princesses?
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Having grown up during the heyday of feminism, I was disinclined to all that was girly, pink, cloying, candy colored. Pink and all that the color represented, it struck me at the time, was a cultural shackle that little girls needed to be shielded from, since it was inevitably going to hold them back. Little did I know that I would come to feel differently when I welcomed my own little girl into the world.
I did my best not to conform to stereotypes when I bought her all different colors of clothing, studiously avoiding pink. Until my daughter was two, I never even purchased anything pink, and kept all pink clothing that had been inherited or given to my daughter off her, unless the gift giver was visiting.
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One could say I had a phobia about pink. And yet as soon as my daughter could speak, almost as soon as she had out grown out of her first pair of carefully chosen gender neutral yellow sneakers, she started gravitating toward pink, almost in the manner than a sunflower strains toward the sun. Girls wear pink. Therefore, everything I wear and possess, should, optimally, be pink. Now I realize she may have been an extreme; some girls might like pink but not make a religion of it as my little one had.
The girls who feel themselves to be boys assertively resist pink and the boys who feel themselves to be girls often embrace the color. One cannot just dismiss the world of the princess culture, nor assume it is an invention of the Disney conglomerate. In fact, it is most likely that the popularity of all things princess, so dearly embraced by little girls under 5, has to do with something developmental, and likely less to do with consumerism per se.
What then is that something? Her photographs of little girls dressed up in shimmering royal regalia have a dignity and solemnity and shed some light on the indisputable power of the princess in early girlhood. Quite the contrary.
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We have to assume that apparel that makes so many little girls feel so good, so complete, and so empowered must have a representational significance that calls out for understanding, not simply compliance or condemnation. Banal as they may be, these are common symbols, readable and unambiguous. Concrete and recognizable, they are what is available to work with for a small child, an accessible visual iconography. My daughter, despite every effort to have it be otherwise, refused items like an adorable green dress covered with images of tiny gardening tools or sophisticated navy blue velvet for special occasions.
Forget about it. Her ideal clothing including sleepwear and underwear had to depict or represent Ariel the Mermaid; fortunately she stopped short of wanting a green iridescent tail. Why Ariel? Perhaps because she had red hair like my child. A recent nursery schooler I worked with was at the top of her game when wearing a long artificial pony tail marketed as that of Elsa, the protagonist of Frozen. The specific princess may be a personal preference, but it is the notion of someone being the beautiful heroine of her own story that carries the day. It's very interesting, the natural way so many little girls gravitate towards pink.
It seems like, rather than forbid pink, feminist culture needs to embrace it but make sure there's more than one option associated with it. Being a princess used to mean being completely useless and decorative.
Disney's princess culture has made an effort, with varying degrees of success, toward diversifying that image. Nothing wrong with pink, so long as pink doesn't hem you into staying in the kitchen making sandwiches all the time. It's the restrictiveness that's the problem, not the pink or the princess. I guess I was a bit of a hybrid growing up.
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I liked dresses and dolls, but I also could be found outside climbing trees and playing baseball. Thankfully my parents didn't over-analyze it. They just let me be who I was and play how I wanted to play. It didn't take long before I figured out that combining my love of writing with my love of pop culture was a real job that someone would pay me to do. Like the princesses I loved, I could have it all. To me, that drive was a direct extension of that fascination in the princess role models I had growing up — my career could become my own personal fairy tale.
I never really questioned this, though, until a lit theory class my senior year.
She picked up my necklace, looked at me, and said, "Do you plan to give away your voice so a man will love you? The class fell silent, and so did I. I've never been good at being put on the spot, so I barely managed to squeak out the word "no" before practically running to my desk in the back of the room. I didn't pay attention to anything she said about Foucault that day — all I could think about was how thoroughly my world had just been rocked.
Could stories about princesses really be so easily reduced to a woman needing to find a man? This led to a lot more questions I was forced to grapple with for the first time. As someone who believed she was growing up to be a strong woman, someone who also believed that you could have it all, did loving princesses compromise my feminism?
Could I think fairytales and the idea of living happily ever after were beautiful, but also understand the importance of fighting to make your own dreams come true, with or without Prince Charming?
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I never had a reason to question that these ideals could coexist. After that conversation, I wasn't sure. Although they are making strides in the right direction, they certainly aren't representative of every child who might watch their movies and look up to them, and haven't been historically. In a study published in Child Development in , Brigham Young University professor Sarah Coyne discovered that girls who engaged with Disney Princess culture were more likely to buy into gender stereotypes, and she found that girls who were interested in Disney princesses were more likely to have a lower body image.
Because of that, I can see where that professor might have been coming from, even though she was judging me personally at the time.
So She Wants to Be a Princess
Learning qualities such as selflessness, philanthropy and humility is therefore as important at Princess Prep as perfecting your curtsey, and girls are encouraged to learn from the example of Princess Diana, who was famous for her charitable works. Children enrolling on the camp tend to be mainly American, said Fine, though she has had enquiries from as far afield as Australia and Hong Kong. Brits, she says, do not seem to be so interested. But those that do consider it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for their children to experience the life of a princess, if only for a week.
Michelle Gray, an American based in the UK whose daughter Josephine took part in an afternoon etiquette class at Princess Prep in April, told CNN, "I thought it was a really good opportunity, just a chance to learn some etiquette and manners. As to how she would feel if her daughter eventually got married to a prince, she said, "What mother would be disappointed? But I wouldn't want to put a goal for her to marry anybody. Fine says Princess Prep is a way to give little girls the experience she always wanted as a child.