My stand

photo: Nikolas Koenig for the New York Times

OK, I know I'm going to chap a lot of hides here, but I need to talk about this, because every time I mention my Disney Princess moratorium, people look at me like I'm either a nursery nazi or a neophyte parent who has no idea what I'm in for.
Therefore, I need to explain, because there's a whole history to this, and I think my viewpoint has some merit.

First of all, It's not the movies I object to (mostly), in fact, for the most part, I love Disney movies. We even have a few in our DVD library. The more recent ones are, granted, very watered-down versions of the original stories/legends/fairytales, but I understand why, and they still manage to do a decent job with many of them. No, what I really object to is the merchandising. I think the practice of merchandising to children, who have not yet formed an understanding either of the financial implications or of the effects of mass-production of disposable toys like these on our already overtaxed planet, is unconscionable. You heard me right: unconscionable. Furthermore, I think it's part of what has turned us into the nation of rabid and thoughtless consumers that we have infamously become.

We are paying for our consuming habits, of course, now that the credit crisis is really cracking down. So maybe it's time to rethink this merchandising thing when it comes to our children.
photo: Nikolas Koenig for the New York Times

Before I lose all my readers, I'm going to stop right there. I am not a purist. I try to maintain a reasonable and healthy balance.

Let me just say that a wonderful article to read on the subject of the Disney Princesses and the Hollywood merchandising empire can be found on the New York Times website. The article is called "What's Wrong With Cinderella" (you can type that in the search box on their site, if you're interested) and it's a fabulous piece by mother and writer Peggy Orenstein, published Dec. 24, 2006. It's at once laugh-out-loud funny, human, and right on target. I highly recommend it, and I think any mother will find something to identify with.

Here's an excerpt:

My daughter, who was reaching for a Cinderella sticker, looked back and forth between us. “Why are you so mad, Mama?” she asked. “What’s wrong with princesses?”

Diana may be dead and Masako disgraced, but here in America, we are in the midst of a royal moment. To call princesses a “trend” among girls is like calling Harry Potter a book. Sales at Disney Consumer Products, which started the craze six years ago by packaging nine of its female characters under one royal rubric, have shot up to $3 billion, globally, this year, from $300 million in 2001. There are now more than 25,000 Disney Princess items. “Princess,” as some Disney execs call it, is not only the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created; they say it is on its way to becoming the largest girls’ franchise on the planet.

So, what IS wrong with princesses? Well, you'll have to read the article.
Here's a link, although they don't always work for the NYTimes site:

As for my own history on this subject, let me explain. I have had many a mother and grandmother caution me that if I withhold Disney Princess (or, fill in the product in question), it will only make my daughter crave said product even more. So, here's the thing, I do understand exactly what a mother faces when she chooses to hold out on principal in her own home against something so popular and pervasive that it has taken over every household in the nation - I understand perhaps better than the average mother, because I was the child in this equation.

In my own mother's day, it wasn't Disney princesses (not yet), it was Barbie. My mother objected to Barbie. She was afraid of how it would affect my self-image, both my body image (we all know this story when it comes to Barbie) and my view of my melting-pot racial origins. But in the late sixties and early seventies, every little girl in America had barbies. They occupied the shelves in many of these stores we walked into on a daily basis. Could my parents hope to shelter me from the Barbie cartels? Of course not. Did I covet them when I saw my friends playing with theirs?
Of course, people. Of course I did. And it was a battle that went on for years. It even went further. As I grew into a pre-pubescent girl, I wanted to be Malibu Barbie more than anything on this earth. I wanted hyper-tanned skin and long legs and white lipstick and eyeliner and a teensy waist and a beachhouse at the shore. More than anything, of course, I wanted to be a blond.

But here's the thing: I did not fight my parents on the Barbie issue for long as a child. The battle never became a war. I quickly gave in. I could see the writing on the wall, because my parents were consistent, and they stood behind their ethics. They instilled in me all the values they believed strongly in, they explained their reasoning in terms that I could understand, and they always held firm. I knew I was never going to get that Barbie, and as much as I longed for it, I also respected my parents for their strength of character. They were classy people. I had to give them that.

The pre-adolescent Malibu Barbie worship did eventually end, and when it did, thanks to that battle that my parents fought in my early childhood, I became the person that I am now - a person with a rational self-image that does not require that I feel insufficient if I don't look like Paris Hilton or Hannah Montana or Barbie. I no longer yearn for blond hair or a name that doesn't reveal my ethnic origins. The dolls that I did grow up with were from all corners of the earth - a porcelain doll from Japan with flowing silk robes (yes, they let me have it at an early age - they just taught me to respect its fragility), an Eskimo (now, of course, we say Inuit, but this was the '60s) doll in handmade mukluks, a corn husk doll from the early settler days here in the US....well, you get the picture. As a result, I learned about other cultures, other parts of the world. I learned about how children in other times grew up, what they had and didn't have, what stories entertained them. Well...you get the picture. I won't preach on.

But I do have a great respect with the way my parents raised me, and I want to pay tribute to that here. It is possible, and it's possible to do it with grace and style, in such a way that your children do not end up resenting you overly much. I know quite a few mothers who are doing it as we speak - even in the face of a much larger monster of a merchandising empire than my parents ever faced in their time. My friend Brynn comes to mind, a mother who has raised two beautiful, gentle and respectful boys, as does our first social worker from the beginning of our adoption journey, who was raising her three children to understand (and yes, they really did understand - I witnessed it) the workings of the merchandising empire, what was wrong with it, and why it was worthwhile to resist.
So, do I intend to have a grim household devoid of all joy and feminine romance? No, I don't. The thing is, the Disney Princesses are not the only avenue open to a girl's burgeoning imagination. There are many, fictional, factual, and legendary.
I think it's worth helping ones children to understand the factual nature of royalty, what it means to be royal (it isn't all fluffy dresses and glass slippers, that's for sure!) There is romance to it, of course, because romance is human nature, and it exists in different forms in all areas of life. But there is also great self-discipline, deprivation (you'll rarely see that in a Disney flick), danger, and humiliation. There is boredom, there is loss of freedom, there are arranged marriages, there are any number of things that a girl should understand and think about as she grows into a woman and chooses her own path.
For a girl who is fascinated with princesses (mine is still too young) there are a myriad princess stories in the world - some harsh, some magical, some lovely. Barefoot Books have some wonderful and beautifully-illustrated versions that cross cultures and open up paths to discussions on the subject of cultures, legends and history.
These illustrations are from one of my favorites, called The Princess and the White Bear King, By Tanya Robin Batt, with illustrations by the fabulous and dreamy Italian illustrator Nicoletta Ceccoli. This story combines three Scandinavian legends: "The White Bear King", "East of the Sun, West of the Moon", and "The Black Bull of Norroway".
An illustration from the tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon", for comparison.
...and from "The White Bear King". Both of these tales were favorites of mine as a child.
As for the tales that Disney has reinterpreted, it's worth looking at the originals of those as well. Not every parent is comfortable with giving the original versions of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen's tales to their children to read. They are, there's no way around it, rather harsh (though, yes, they were written for the children of another, perhaps harsher era).
But it's worth learning the stories, because there are some truths here that don't always come out in the Disney versions. How is a girl to reconcile the passion of a first love with the disapproval of a parent? Does that parent actually know best when they tell her "he's no good for you"? Well, sometimes, they do. Can the consequences of defying the well-meant advice of someone older and wiser be devastating? Yes, they can. This story does not have a happy ending (or, it does...on a more spiritual level) but it holds some real and universal truths which, while a hard lesson to learn, are very essential. Maybe one can explain the original versions to a child without going into the more devastating details. And, there are many versions of these tales out there if you look - some toned down for today's children without being sapped of their moral.

"The Little Mermaid" was written in 1836, and first published by C.A. Reitzel in Copenhagen 7 April 1837 in Fairy Tales Told for Children.

And as for Aladdin? The story of Scheherazade is also a bit of a mature one, but many of the fairytales included in the 1001 Nights are wonderful, exotic, fascinating and worth revisiting. Again, there are versions written for children that are quite well done.

The Seven Wise Princesses is another one of Barefoot Books' offerings, billed as a medieval Persian epic.
Beautifully illustrated.
And then there's always Frances Hodgson Burnett's enduring classic, "A Little Princess", which is not about a princess in fact, but about how there is a princess in all of us if we just have the heart to find her. This book has heart, spirit and morale that transcends the generations, and I think the message is one that will make any girl want to be the very best possible version of herself.

So....suffice to say, there is plenty out there in the world to discover, pore over and dream about for any little girl (or boy) who loves princesses. Why not branch out? Why not let the imagination be your guide, rather than the ad execs in charge of raking in the dough at some massive machine of a merchandising empire?

Final food for thought: Do real princesses wear pink? Historically, a few did...though certainly not the majority. As an interesting exercise, look up the fashions and colors that different princesses wore in different eras and in different cultures. Read about where these fashions came from and what they symbolized (there was a lot of symbolism in royal style).

(What am I, creating lesson plans now? Sorry folks, I get carried away sometimes. Also, I want to make it clear that I don't think my way of parenting is the only way - not by a long shot. I know that there are people who take a different approach (any number of different approaches, in fact) and are very successful. I have many a good friend who does allow the Princesses and their cohorts into their children's lives - in fact, these are, I'm sure, in the vast majority. So Please don't think I'm sniping at anyone's lifestyle here. I am merely explaning my own lifestyle choice as clearly as I know how.)


Anonymous said...

I love your stance and happen to also feel the same about the 'marketing of children' as how I see it; not interested, but for others it's fine. I also grew up with Barbie and now understand of course the pain of body image thanks to unrealistic expectations. Thanks for sharing your stand and giving us other options! Love your blog and QQ is amazing :)

BC, Canada
*waiting for my daughter in China and/or Ethiopia

Naenay1012 said...

I too do not like the whole princess scene. Some of my reasons are similar.

Elaine said...

Speaking of unconscionable, Disney princess crap is marketed heavily here in Indonesia in the upscale malls. To Asian children. So so much wrong with that I can't even begin to enumerate the wrongness.
My girls have never shown a slight interest in princess stuff despite the marketing aimed at them. In fact, they are routinely horrified by their friends who are. I like to think that not watching TV helps. As does making lots and lots of other things that are more interesting available to them. I *love* your lesson plans. Share more!!!

Maia said...

I was another Barbie-less child. And I'm still not sure how I feel about that, though I appreciate being raised to know that the Barbie standard of beauty was bullshit.

Anyway, I might be talking out of my ass since FF is too young to be into princesses just yet, and Spike is, well - a boy - but I have three younger sisters (one of whom is still in high school) and I think you can avoid the whole Disney princess thing while still indulging in that uber-feminine thing that so many little girls have an urge toward. I don't like the Disney princess thing (I do like most Disney movies, though) because those princesses just seem... plastic. Soul-less. And the costumes are very literal and specific. If you are dressed specifically as Aurora from Sleeping Beauty- well then your imagination is limited to being Aurora and not much else.

But I think that if you give a girl a chest full of dress up clothes - fabulous 2nd hand prom gowns, tea length gloves, fringed shawls, many wondrous hats adorned with ribbons and flowers, totally ridiculous sparkly shoes to clomp around in, and an armful or two of glittery costume jewelry, tempered with pirate/monster/hard hat/train conductor/what have you accessories as well, your kid won't feel like she needs an exact replica of Snow White's gown. If she wants to pretend to be Snow White while wearing her mother's old maid of honor outfit, more power to her. But better to have something flexible so that when she's tired of Snow White she can sling that dress over her shoulder and move right into being a dragon or take off the skirt and be Prince Charming (or a mole rat or Laura Ingalls or Harry Potter or whatever it is she can dream up) without having to be too literal in her costume.

Dress up is fabulous - and I certainly know a lot of little girls (including my own) who watch their mothers with bated breath and itchy fingers when they see their moms wielding their lipstick and shimmying into the occasional fancy dress. FF would happily wear lipstick every day if I let her- purely from imitation. But what Disney does with their princess line is limit that fantasy, reign in what should be their limitless imaginations, make specific what should be oceanic.

And that's not even touching on the racial (racist) aspects of all this. Mulan and Princess Jasmine just aren't enough, you know?

Also -none of the Disney princesses wear those awesome conical pointy princess hats. And if you can't wear those, what's the point?

Carrie said...

Well I have let my girls watch Disney Princess, but I do agree with you about they way they market to children from Walmart to any big toy store. It is hard to get out of the store these days. I like the part where you have given us a new or for some an old way to look at a true princess! I would always read you blog no mater your views. I think a world full of people who think a like on very subject would be boring. Thank you for enlightening me!

The Wanderers' Daughter said...

Shirley - thank you for your sweet comment, your gentleness and open-mindedness shines through. I can see that you have a big heart. I hope your daughter finds you very soon!

Naenay1012 - I'd love to hear your reasons too, though I know that some people like to keep their opinions private, and that is very understandable.

Elaine - I hear you. And good for your girls! We also do not have TV - again, that's just our lifestyle choice. Like you, we find other ways of entertaining ourselves. I am a reader to the core, and that figures in a great deal to my choices. I know that not everyone reads the way our family does. And in fact, our daughter is showing signs of being more mathematical than literary...at least at this early stage! That's too bad for me since I'm dreadful at math ;) But there are all sorts of ways of exploring the world. We love the museums when it's too cold to be out in the natural world.

Maia ("Other-Maia", for those who get confused. No, I don't have a split personality or talk to myself on my own blog. This is Maia who lives in upstate New York with her daughter FangFang) - excellent point on the dress-up/fantasy wardrobe. For me, of course, there was no Disney Princess-wear in the stores when I was small, so when I was feeling girly I'd wear nightgowns to school. This being the start of the 70s, they were kind of prairie-style with the high, frilly necks. As it happened, a single nightgown could take me through all sorts of different fantasies...I could be the princess (you can always make the pointy hat out of a cone!), or Wendy from Peter Pan, I could be the stoic pioneer wife giving birth alone in a cabin, and later I could be one of the Pevensies from the Narnia Chronicles, fighting the evil forces with a heavy sword, or an elven maiden from the Lord of the Rings, climbing trees like a cheetah. Conversely (and I was pretty much 50/50 between girlie and tomboy, as I am still) I could hike up my skirts, splash through the mud, and join the Lost Boys or ride bareback with the Indian tribe. It is oh, so very important to allow the imagination room to roam.

The Wanderers' Daughter said...

Carrie, I absolutely love you. And, just to clarify, I also intend to let my daughter watch the movies. She has already seen Mulan. I am a sucker for Disney flicks (even if I don't agree with them entirely) and I think they have a terrific sense of humor and usually a fabulous musical score (my daughter is HUGE into music).
I just mean to balance them out with some more realistic stories and history on similar subjects, and to keep the quantities of mass-produced merchandise down to a reasonable limit in our household.

sarahthefantastic said...

I say Amen, Maia. You said it all so clearly and passionately. I agree completely and would only add that fairytales deserve so much more respect and now, in this time of merchandizing mania, protection. I have come to find much more depth in fairytales as an adult by seeing them psychologically, eg. all the characters in the story representing parts of one's own psyche, much as all the characters in a dream can be parts of your Self. Taken this way the princess is not merely seeking a traditional happy ever after by marrying, but is becoming a whole person by uniting the masculine and feminine aspects of herself within. Yep! It's a topic that is worth being passionate about and I really appreciate your careful arguments and the gorgeous illustrations. So rich and open. I also have found that I already have to fight the battle with YY to defend her from the merchandizing insanity. She's four! She only watches nice little simple shows like Little Bear! Yet every time we shop she gravitates right to the Disney stuff or the Hanna Montana stuff (which she interestingly confuses with Barbie stuff.) She wants to take her one H.M. item, a prized bracelet given to her by a neighbour, to school to establish herself as part of the in crowd. At four! It breaks my heart. I also find it a bit of a challenge to explain to her why it is not a good idea. These are pretty big concepts for one so little. I am glad to have similar moms to discuss this with. Thanks for going out there on that great limb.

Maia said...

SarahtheFantastic- considering the latest photos of Miley Cyrus making the rounds on the web: http://disgrasian.blogspot.com/2009/02/face-it-miley.html

...it might be best to steer YaYa as far away from ol' Hannah Montana as possible.

The Wanderers' Daughter said...

Sarahthefantastic - you are, as always, fantastic...and you always astonish me with your beautiful mind.
You have hit the nail on the head more eloquently than I could with my clumsy diatribe. I agree with you on every point, and your psychological thesis is spot-on! It is SO important to unite the different parts of the psyche and embrace them, rather than trying to suppress those parts of yourself that you think are less acceptable to any one or another element of society. Thank you, as always, for your brilliant contribution to the topic. What would I do without you? Your daughter is a lucky girl.

Susan Angstadt said...

This post reflects why I was so drawn to you when I first met you in NYC. You are so aware and that is what makes you so interesting. I love this post!

Anonymous said...

Just a thought: my friends told their daughter that the Disney store was a "museum" (so that she never wanted to buy anything).

I second the comments of the "other" Maia (lots of items available at the thrift stores).

I always hated dolls ... but, nevertheless, I still felt inadequate as a result of Marsha Brady (on the Brady Bunch!)

Meryl in Minnesota

Vivian M said...

Great post! Although we do love Disney here (hubby owns and wears every Goofy tee-shirt ever made!), Kerri has yet to see any of the original Princess movies, nor have we read the stories. She thinks Shrek's Fiona is a princess. Fiona is a beautiful chubby green ogre.
Kerri has come home with the "princess" notion from school - her classmates obviously talk about this. But she really does not understand what it means.
Thank you for all the book references, there were a few I had not read. I shy away from some of the harsher grim fairy tales for now, since Kerri is too young and scares easily. But we love to read too, and look forward to the day she can read these books herself and let her imagination run wild. In the meantime, I water the stories down for now.

Snowflowers Mum said...

oh crap!

Okay, I have to admit, the Snowflowers have some princess crap, and Piper got the bumper collection of Disney princesses from a neighbor on her 4th birthday...I was TRYING to keep them out of the house for a bit longer, but the girl adores them!

What I don't mind her playing with is the 'fairies', the 'human' equivilents are not what I want her to aspire to...the 'princesses' in my opinion are make believe and the 'tinkerbelle' fairies are 'fairies' so she can differentiate between 'reality' and make believe. Nary a Brat doll will make it into this house though...I do have some standards!

Also, no Barney.

We have fallen into the 'Fancy Nancy' craze, and admittedly purchased some of the mass produced items (gasp)...but FN is unique, she has a punky brewster-ness about her and she is not 'skinny' to the point of hospitalization! FN is a keeper for us...it's okay to want to be fancy, but at least she uses mops to make a canopy bed, and 'dresses' up with ordinary houshold 'accessories' and wants to use fancy words(not dumbed down)

I am definately on board with you on the ethics side of your 'lesson' I just wish I had the moral fiber to be as strong as you.

Does this mean I have to take back the Sleeping Beauty dress I got for Paisley?

One last thing...I grew up with a slightly hippie mum(she gave batik classes at my school), and we didn't watch much TV(only 2 channels for my entire childhood)...so I spent much of my time reading, riding my bike, joining forces with other neighbourhood kids to be the 'famous five or secret seven', making forts in the forest of trees behind our house and searching for pirate treasure in the vineyards behind our house. I hope to instill some of the same sense of adventure in my own girls, and will make sure they have the opportunity to read books that are not watered down.

You're a good Mum Maia, many of us aspire to be more consciencious...and you are a great beacon of such virtue.

The Wanderers' Daughter said...

Susan, thank you! You do me an honor by saying so.

Meryl in Minnesota - I had the same problem with Marcia Brady. That straight blond hair...what's worse, there was a little girl with that same hair and perfect little face in our gradeschool chorus. To make matters worse, she had the voice of an angel and could sing the solos from Vivaldi's Gloria to perfection. It was hard to curtail my blond-worship in the face of all that glory.

Viv, Goofy is a whole different kettle of fish!!

Hayley - I seem to keep making you apologize for yourself. You know that's not what I mean, right? I'm just trying to explain my own lifestyle choices here, not criticize those of other parents.
Plus....see how thoroughly I caved on the "pink thing"? I'm sure you're laughing with me, not at me, on that point, tee-hee!

sarahthefantastic said...

Thanks, Maia. You are too kind. I read the NYT article and it was a stimulating read too! Thanks for an interesting evening's reading and reflecting. (As an afternote, I was talking about all this with a friend and she was completely perplexed until she realized I was saying Disney, not Dizzy.)
Other Maia, just saw the notice online. Thanks. The bracelet is mysteriously disappearing from the earth tonight. : )

Anonymous said...

Thank you - what an amazing post. Would love to hear more of your book recommendations, if you have any!


lisa said...

No argument here. I won't even allow anything with logos.
My mother, btw, lost the Barbie arguement in that my paternal grandparents bought them for us. But she ultimately won-as an adult, I feel even more strongly than she does.
But I never wanted to look like Barbie and have actually always thought dark hair was more attractive-and my mother said that, when she watched us play with them, it was the same imaginative play we did with all of our dolls-which were from all over the world.
My big issue is the consumerism, which is why we minimize gift giving in general.
I got a posting error, so apologies if this comes up twice. ~lmc

lisa said...

Oh, and I tossed the White Swan barbie before we got home.

Jan said...

Bravo, Maia, Bravo!!
BTW, Me, being Jan, It was ALWAYS: "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia"!! To this day people still say that to me! LOL!!

Fliss and Mike Adventures said...

I must say that I am not a fan of the Princesses... well, moreso, like you the marketing of all that mass produced Disney crap... though I will admit that I have always been a fan of Tinkerbell... I don't like the 'new' Tink stuff but if I do get it, I like the vintage stuff or one off stuff... as for Hans Christian Andersen - I love their 'fairy tales'... and there are a few kids stories from Australia 'Snugglepot and Cuddlepie'... I have bought the books from Australia... I am going to avoid the whole Disney Princess thing for as long as I can... having said that when I was in Disney the other day I took some photos of the princesses that I know my nieces will love... the things you do...
I love the names of the 'fairy tales' that you have past along...

Hugs to little QQ and you too...

P.S... July and it is Denver for me... we were wondering whether to stay in the city or go to Vail area???? We will think of something...

Hans Christian Andersen's

Anonymous said...

You just hate us because we are beautiful.

-Cinderella & Ariel

The Wanderers' Daughter said...