Is “princess culture” bad for girls?

Parents, try all you want, you can’t protect your daughters forever from the onslaught of the royal marketing machine. Here’s a story from our producer Marc Sanchez that inspired one of our upcoming shows:

On September 25, 2011, life with my 2-year-old daughter couldn’t have been more blissful. She had been a fairly good sleeper as an infant, didn’t really cry much, and had a budding vocabulary. But on September 26th, a new word entered her lexicon: princess.

Not only that, but she strung it together in this turn of phrase: “I love the princess.” The sentence made me take a seat. Who was “the princess?!?” I thought about ignoring it… maybe she’ll forget.

She didn’t.

I had spent the previous two years sweeping princess-related toys, books, and garb out of sight. I was like a princess mine-sweeper running recon missions on grocery store aisles – chucking tiaras and flipping over sparkling toddler t-shirts. Even before she was born, my wife and I peppered conversations with friends and family about how we weren’t comfortable with princess role models.

Who told her about “P” word, I wondered. It couldn’t have been her grandparents… or could it? It couldn’t have been her daycare… but maybe. And it definitely wasn’t my wife or I… but was it?

With a couple more years of wisdom under my belt, I have been able to accept that princesses are everywhere. It’s my job to navigate how often, and in what context, they enter my daughter’s world. Honestly, she’s just as happy making mud pies or learning about volcanoes as she is donning a silky princess costume.

My run-in with royalty is probably why a recent Atlantic article by Andy Hinds caught my attention. Hinds and his wife were of a similar mindset, but they were getting hit twice as hard from their twin 3-year-old girls. Just plug “television” or “sugar cereal” or “trying out for the football team” into the equation instead of princess, and watch the mighty cliffs of parental morality slowly erode.

What’s your take?

We’re going to talk about Disney, princesses, and girls on February 21.

  • From Jessica on Twitter:

    Depends on the princess. History is full of excellent examples: Boadicea, Anna Comnena, Rani Lakshmi Bai, Isabelle of France.

    • Teresa, mom of 9yr old girl

      True, but I don’t think most people know about these princesses. Disney does don’t sell an Anna Comnena doll.

      • Teresa, mom of 9yr old girl

        “does not sell”

  • From Aruna via Twitter:

    What should we say instead to a young girl instead of “hi princess?” Especially if you don’t know her name?

    This is a real question. If you work with kids, you probably use “princess” a lot. Think about doctors, nurses, school administrators, dentists, etc.

    What should we use in place of “princess?”

    • Grandmother

      A reasonable question…the term has just been madly corrupted.

    • J.B.

      just plain “hello?”

      what do people who work with children say to boys? “hello ninja!” “hello pterodactyl!”

      My daughter is only 7 months, so I have yet to experience this, and have not experienced it personally.

  • Grandmother

    If only this were about the familiar greeting! or about the pleasure kids have always had in dressing up! or even about being a brave young girl like Merida. This marketing approach is so complete you cannot avoid it as a parent or grandparent, and it totally saturates us with stereotypes. Exhibit 1: try to buy a terrycloth bib for a toddler (hint, you’re choosing between boy bib–Cars–and girl bib–pink princesses)…or Exhibit 2: find a castle for a pre-schooler (hint, boy castle or girl castle). Aaargh.

    • Teresa, mom of 9yr old girl

      Completely agree with you.

      • Yosteff

        And still to this day at the toy store, science toys are in the boy section. And try finding gear and clothes without trucks for a girl whose favorite color is blue

  • jesse

    look at the julie andrews princess stories. they are workers and good examples for children. real princesses work very hard. and, julie’s stories show how good they can be.

  • Jon

    Disney hired Nike marketing man Andy Mooney in 2000 and he took the princess marketing to the public. I have a 6-year-old daughter and have no problem with the princess culture. If you’re going to buy a tooth brush, you might as well get her a princess tooth brush. It brings her manners, self-restraint, confidence, and perspective. As an aside, My Little Pony is the new princess, watch out…you’re going to have to buy horses and princesses!!!!!

  • Teresa, mom of 9yr old girl

    Recommendation: Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch is a great book to counter the princess culture.

  • Anna

    I am a mom of two girls – one hates princesses and one loves them…but it is what I pour into them as a parent that makes them amazing 8 and 5 year olds…not what they play with. Build the inside and the toys take care of themselves.

  • Beth Stilborn

    Check out the Very Fairy Princess series of picture books by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton — the main focus of those books is to find one’s inner sparkle, to celebrate one’s individuality and to celebrate others’ uniqueness and talents as well. It’s a very positive way of looking at the princess culture.

  • Maria

    People need to relax about this. My daughter was into everything princess at three years old. Now she’s anything but a diva; she’s an A+ student, into math and science, and wants to be an orthodontist. Princess culture feeds the imagination of a young girl, but like many other things, not everything sticks or plays out in reality in older years.

  • Janet

    I have 5 daughters and they love all kinds of things, American Girl dolls, princesses, barbies, balls, books, animals, legos, play dough,etc. I think we’ve done a lot to play with them and read to them about all kinds of different topics and they are well balanced.

    As parents we have a responsibility to say no in lots of places and yes as well. Play with them, show them by example and don’t over react. I do turn off commercials when they come on. They are very influenceable, regardless about what is being sold.

  • Grandmother

    Grandmother: My oldest son is 50. We were devoted to promoting neuter gender toys. It didn’t work .Recently I took a 4 year old grandson to pick out a toy. I wanted to go up and down all the toy aisles and he said, “No that’s girl stuff.”

  • jesse

    all the ‘very fairy princess’ series by andrews and hamilton are great stories for young girls. good self esteem for children.

  • The only problem I see with princesses is not the parenting, but rather the marketing – that when kids wander by themselves in the store they see “boys’ aisle” and “girls’ aisle.” If a parent can be tough enough to have conversations with their kids and make sure that they foster an environment of “anyone can do anything when they grow up” – then let the kids be princesses!

  • Steff

    I found myself outraged by Disneys take on the Little Mermaid story. A girl abandons her family and gives up her voice for a man she knows nothing about. My response was to read my then 4 year of the original story by Hans Christian Anderson which does not have a happy ending. Harsh sure, but it lead to a good discussion about what qualities of a person are good and overall diminished the princess brand considerably at our house

  • If a child goes to school and their friends/peers are into princess dolls, it is an artificial and needless thing separating the children if the child has been barred (“discouraged”, as the parents might put it) from buying, owning or playing with princess dolls (or whatever else it is: tonka trucks, g.i joe dolls, disney-characters, thomas the train vehicles, mario bros, etc etc etc).

    if anything, this won’t lead to a child who sees through gender roles or commercialism… but it could lead to a child (or adult) who resents their overbearing parents (as a parent, it raises a flag with my obviously-judgmental self if another parent starts a statement with “we never” or “we always” or “he/she has never..” as if they’re proudly announcing some accomplishment about how they’re engineering their children to be fellow eco-feminist-progressives. so, the child “has never eaten processed foods”, “only drinks organic milk”, “has never watched a disney show”, “has never owned a television”. like, great for you. maybe the kid will send you a card to your progressive nursing home some day).

  • Mindy

    I loved pink, princesses, and Barbies growing up and I’m now a 31 year old Electrical Engineer. Our feminist culture has manufactured this so-called princess problem and it is as imaginary as the Disney princesses themselves.

    • The Princess may or may not be a negative role model for little girls (not that we should exclude the message it may or may not send boys about girls), but I hardly think its wise to blame feminism for a newfound awareness of what cultural images we produce and consume. If anything, feminism deserves our gratitude. You didn’t come by your engineering career by accident.

  • Teresa, mom of 9yr old girl

    Yes, it’s usually a “princess phase” but the stereotypes will remain with our girls and shape their views even if we have a discussion about those stereotypes.

  • Sarah

    Another aspect to this culture involves the “Toddlers & Tiaras” type pageants. I was shocked when I heard that friends who have little girls allow them to watch the cable show. I was disgusted when I watched parts of it myself.

  • Jane from Stillwater

    I have a lot more issues with the shirts that say “Diva” and the Bratz girls and the influence of celebrity than I do with anything princess.

  • I guess I don’t get it?

    I really don’t understand how this can even be a debate? Kids are kids, some girls like princesses, some boys like superheroes. I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal or “so cool” that so and so’s daughter is into ninja’s and “boy” stuff, because that’s awesome! Why can’t we just let them be kids while they can be?

    • John Marion

      I completely agree. Somehow my daughter likes princess stuff but is not enamored with it. She has a Disney princess backpack and lunchbox and that is it. I grew up loving superheros, samurai and ninjas and I seem to have turned out okay. We stress to her that what matters is how another person treats her and others. If they are mean or uncaring then she should think about not being their friend but it is up to her to make that decision. We cannot shelter her forever and what she learns now will continue to help her the rest of her life.

  • JEB

    I grew up with the Disney princesses, and what irritates me is that they are constantly focusing on the pretty ones who had a prince charming, who needed saving; Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora. It’s hard to find princess gear focusing on Mulan, Merida, Pocahontas (well, Merida is hot now, but you don’t see her in the “Princess posse”). Even though Belle and Tiana had brains and work ethic, those are downplayed for the frilly dresses.

    • OurGalFriday

      When my daughter was younger, her favorite princesses were Mulan and Pocahontas — two princesses you can’t find as dolls in stores. Even when we went to Disneyworld in 2007, we couldn’t find these dolls. It might be that they don’t need “saving” or didn’t wear crowns and ball gowns, but I think part of the problem is that they aren’t white. I’m impressed that you can find Tiana as a doll (but I agree, a doll in a fancy dress doesn’t emphasize her brains and work ethic).


    Honestly, Let me remind you all Human Beings out their right now that this is a matter of Choice….As parents we all want what is best for our children but in reality We need to remember what comes first for the family and that is FOOD, CLOTHING, SHELTER and an EDUCATION. Other than that let it go with the MATERIALISM. If WE as Human Beings really want to debate stop with all ANTI PRINCESS CRAP and GET RID of the U.S MILITARY that’s destroying our children’s future right now. PLEASE PRINCESS BARBIE DIVORCE G.I.JOE RIGHT NOW & TODAY!!!

  • GregX

    as long as its the kid exploring and testing themselves – no problem. As soon as you have parents “encouraging” it for years and years … I’m gonna have to say ewwwww …”creepy”

  • Jeff from NL

    For those of you who don’t think it’s a problem, try buying a two year old girl a pair of shoes. Boys shoes are rugged and durable, made for active play. Girls shoes are flimsy plastic things that would last about a week.