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.
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.
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.)