Female desire and the princess culture

Thank you Peggy Orenstein for writing the brilliant book Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Every parent should read this new, excellent analysis of the ubiquitous princess kid-culture and its various mutations in the world of grown-up women.


Orenstein, a NY Times journalist, mom, and writer takes on and deconstructs two (so annoying!) messages every parent hears if she dares to challenge the monarchy of these frothy creatures.

Myth number one: we’re just giving girls what they want!

Orenstein responds with a brief history of marketing and information on child brain development– some major points paraphrased here:

Pink Children were not color-coded until early twentieth century. Before that, babies wore all white, because to get clothing clean, it had to be boiled. Boys and girls also used to all wear dresses. When nursery colors were introduced, pink was more masculine, a pastel version of the red, which was associated with strength. Blue was like the Virgin Mary and symbolized innocence, thus the girl color. When the color switched is vague. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Alice in Wonderland all wear blue. Sleeping Beauty’s gown was switched to pink to differentiate her from Cinderella.

Baby doll In an 1898 survey, less than 25% of girls said dolls were their favorite toy. “President Theodore Roosevelt… obsessed with declining birth rates among white, Anglo-Saxon women, began waging a campaign against ‘race-suicide.’ When women ‘feared motherhood,” he warned, our nation trembled on the ‘brink of doom.’ Baby dolls were seen as a way to revive the flagging maternal instinct of girls, to remind them of their patriotic duty to conceive; within a few years, dolls were ubiquitous, synonymous with girlhood itself. Miniature brooms, dustpans, and stoves tutored these same young ladies in the skills of homemaking…”

Princess When Orenstein herself was a kid, being called a Princess, specifically Jewish-American, was the worst insult a kid (and her family) could get. How had a generation transformed this word into a coveted compliment?

Disney Princesses as a group brand did not exist until 2000. Disney hired Andy Mooney from Nike. He went to a Disney on Ice show and saw little girls in homemade princess costumes. Disney had never marketed characters outside of a movie release and never princesses from different movies together. Roy Disney was against it, and that’s why, still, even on pull-ups, you won’t see the princesses looking at each other. (How’s that for a model for girls in groups or female friendships?) Princesses are now marketed to girls ages 2 – 6. Mooney began the campaign by envisioning a girl’s room and thinking about a princess fantasy: what kind of clock would a princess have? What type of bedding? Dora and Mattel followed suit with Dora and Barbie princess versions and then along came everyone else.

Toddler Clothing manufacturers in the 1930s counseled department stores that in order to increase sales they should create a ‘third stepping stone’ between infant wear and older kids clothing

Tween Coined in the mid-1980s as a marketing contrivance (originally included kids 8 – 15)

More on tweens, toddlers, girls and boys: if there is micro-segmentation of products by age and gender, people buy more stuff. If kids need a pink bat and a blue bat, you double your sales. Orenstein writes: “Splitting kids and adults, or for that matter, penguins, into ever tinier categories has proved a surefire way to boost profits. So where there was once a big group called kids we now have toddlers, pre-schoolers, tweens, young-adolescents and older adolescents, each with their own developmental and marketing profile…One of the easiest ways to segment the market is to magnify gender differences or invent them where they did not previously exist.”

SeoWoo and Her Pink Things by JeongMee Yoonhttp://www.jeongmeeyoon.com/aw_pinkblue.htm SeoWoo and Her Pink Things by JeongMee Yoon 

One major fallout of gendering every plaything? “Segregated toys discourage cross-sex friendships.” Boys and girls stop playing together. Orenstein writes about the long-term effects: “This is a public health issue. It becomes detrimental to relationships, to psychological health and well-being, when boys and girls don’t learn how to talk to one another…Part of the reason we have the divorce rates we do, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking behaviors, sexual harassment is because the lack of ability to communicate between men and women.”

Orenstein argues: “Eliminating divorce or domestic violence may be an ambitious mandate for a pre-school curriculum, but its not without basis: young children who have friends of the opposite sex have a more positive transition into dating as teenagers and sustain their romantic relationships better.”

Myth #2: that princess stuff is just a phase– she’ll grow out of it!

Princesses are marketed to girls 2 – 6 years old; there’s something very creepy and dangerous about making these kids victims of billion dollar industries. Kids brains are literally being formed, they’re malleable. So this little phase is helping to create a brain that lasts forever.

Scientists have pretty much moved on from the anachronistic, simplistic debate of nature versus nurture. It’s now understood that nature and nurture form and create each other in an endless loop. Your experiences influence your wiring.

For example, small kids can make all kinds of sounds to learn languages. Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain is quoted by Orenstein: “Babies are born ready to absorb the sounds, grammar, and intonation of any language, but then the brain wires it up only to perceive and produce a specific language. After puberty, its possible to learn another language but far more difficult. I think of gender differences similarly. The ones that exist become amplified by the two different cultures that boys and girls are immersed in from birth. This contributes to the way their emotional and cognitive circuits get wired.”

“It’s not that pink is intrinsically bad, it is such a tiny slice of the rainbow,” Orenstein writes. To grow brains, kids need more, varied experiences, not fewer.

Phases don’t vanish, they mutate.

Orenstein’s book traces how the real life Disney stars/ girl princesses (i.e. Lindsay Lohan, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus etc) attempt to make their transitions from girl-princesses into adult ones; or more crassly, from virgin to whore. Orenstein writes it’s impossible to commodify one end of the spectrum and not the other, and there are so few models of healthy female sexuality out there. She writes, “Our daughters may not be faced with the decision of whether to strip for Maxim, but they will have to figure out how to become sexual beings without being objectified or stigmatized.” All that early training for girls to focus incessantly on their appearance lasts a lifetime. What happens when these girls try to grow up? Orenstein writes girls learn, “Look sexy, but don’t feel sexual, to provoke desire in others without experiencing it themselves.”

How does this emphasis on dressing up and attention for appearance affect kids as they grow? Stephen Hinshaw, quoted from his book The Triple Bind, explains, “Girls pushed to be sexy too soon can’t really understand what they’re doing…they may never learn to connect their performance to erotic feelings or intimacy. They learn how to act desirable, but not to desire, undermining, rather than promoting, healthy sexuality.”

The basic message I got from this book: the issue is not pink or princesses, but to give your kid more experiences not less. Remember– many colors in the rainbow!

(1) Encourage and reinforce cross-gender play. If your daughter is playing with a boy, acknowledge it, reinforce what they’re doing. You are the biggest influence in your kid’s life, you’re not ‘just another person.’ Talk to your kids pre-school teachers and administrators about encouraging cross-gender play. There is lots in this book about how teachers are not trained in this area at all and miss opportunities to help brains grow.

(2) Remember, your kid is not a small adult. She has a different brain. Help that brain grow! If your son picks up a My Little Pony, buy it for him instead of yet another car. It won’t make him gay! It will make him smart!

(3) Your kids are watching you! Again, they are not just little people with fully formed minds. If you criticize your appearance (or another woman’s), how you treat your partner, how you eat, she takes note.

39 thoughts on “Female desire and the princess culture

  1. I do feel like playing with a wide variety of toys gave me more opportunities in life. I played (with) dinosaurs, dolls, cars, stuffed animals, building toys, dress up, and more.

    Now I’ve been trying to make sure my brother (2) has the opportunities for cross-gender play. We have difficulty trying to get him to play with any toys other than trains, whether or not society has labelled them “boy” or “girl”. One thing I have noticed is he loves necklaces, so I let him play with and wear mine.

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  4. “The basic message I got from this book: the issue is not pink or princesses, but to give your kid more experiences not less.”

    I really appreciate this. I think we get too wrapped up in extremes. Taking pride in hating the princess genre is just as bad as absorbing any negative stereotypes that might arise from it. I still love Disney movies, in part, because they opened me up to more experiences. Fairytales, mythology, young adult novels with strong female protagonists, musicals, singing, art. I would be a very different person if I hadn’t loved princesses as a little girl.

    • Hi Cat,

      Not only did I love fairytales and mythology (and still do) I loved Charlie’s Angels as a kid. I was desperate to see stories where women were the protagonists and where they could be smart, powerful, and beautiful.


  5. It’s funny that you mentions the My Little Pony craze, because I am a 14 year old guy who watches the television show regularly and buys the toys. I have many friends both male an female who do this as well. Have you heard of the brony subculture?
    PS: I just found your blog and I really enjoy reading it.

  6. It’s funny that you mentions the My Little Pony craze, because I am a 14 year old guy who watches the television show regularly and buys the toys. I have many friends both male an female who do this as well. Have you heard of the brony subculture?
    PS: I just found your blog and I really enjoy reading it.

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  12. Interesting blog post you wrote and as I happened to someone who wasn’t all that interested in the whole Disney princess bandwagon (trust me, I can recall throwing a big tantrum when my parents tried to play Disney’s Snow White on the VCR much to my disgust as a little girl). However, I am thankful that my parents allowed me to be myself than try and mould me into the whole girlie girl stereotype. Looking back now, it pays off. I believe the whole girlie girl princess culture is becoming way too overrated in this day and age. It is time we need to strike a balance between the girlie girl and non-girlie girl for our girls.

  13. I give my hats off to someone like you for writing an informative blog about the whole princess culture issue. Growing up, I was never on the Disney princess bandwagon (trust me, I could recall throwing the biggest tantrum when my parents or relatives tried to get me to watch Disney’s Snow White on the VCR when I preferred hearing tales of heroines who save the world and kick some butt). Then again, I was lucky to have parents who allowed me to be myself rather than mould me into the whole girlie girl princess stereotype rubbish when I was growing up. Excellent post and keep it up.

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  26. Women have been trained to see each other as competitors for a long time. It didn’t just start with the Disney princesses. Competition sells, especially when women outnumber men in such large numbers. Be prettier, thinner, smarter, than all the other women. Fight with each other over men, win them with your superior charms. You’ll find this theme has been constant and consistent for centuries.

    • Where are you finding that women outnumber men in large numbers? All the statistics I’ve seen show near parity in numbers of men and women in the world and in the US.

  27. What I found interesting is the fact the Disney princesses do not look at one another. If we are showing a group of women that do no even relate to each other as a model of female behavior why is it so surprising that adult women often see each other more as competition than comrades? Excellent article!

  28. If your son picks up a My Little Pony, buy it for him instead of yet another car. It won’t make him gay!

    And if he is gay (or trans), letting him play with the toys he wants will help him be healthy and happy instead of closeted and miserable.

    • Brigid,

      Yes! Happy kids, gay or not. (Unless your kid happens to hate My Little Pony as much as his mom might, though parents should draw the line at encouraging a bonfire of melting rainbow plastic)


      • A bonfire of melting rainbow plastic is an excellent learning opportunity – applied chemistry! – just keep everyone upwind of the toxic smoke.

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