National Princess Week: The Peril of Pink

Do little girls need an annual National Princess Week?

April 22, 2012 marked the start of the first annual National Princess Week, as declared by Julie Andrews, Target, and, of course, Disney. Target and Disney have teamed up to push their princess-related marketing items even harder this week and Mary Poppins is blessing it with her sweet smile and graceful benevolence. Andrews even lists 30 ways to celebrate princess week, including learning to wave properly, curtsy and exit a vehicle with grace.

What Could Anyone Have Against Pink?

In 2000, Disney stumbled onto the idea of marketing its princesses with all manner of gear (dresses, tiaras, makeup, etc.) and after a decade, the total has reached over 26,000 items and is a $4 billion a year business. But all that pink frothiness has sparked a princess war amongst parents.

Many parents see the Disney stories as harmless fairy tales that ultimately see good triumph over evil, celebrate romance and spotlight the moral goodness in the heroine. Others point out the beauty stereotype, where the heroine is impossibly beautiful and thin and many times battles an older woman who is wrinkled and mean (age = horror). Rapunzel’s mother/kidnapper was so jealous and obsessed with beauty that she held Rapunzel prisoner all her life, Snow White’s stepmother wanted her killed just because she was prettier, Ursula the sea witch (a demented, overweight character) wanted power over the ocean, Cinderella’s stepmother wanted her daughters to be admired rather than Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty was cursed by a snubbed fairy.

Parents who defend princess mania argue that it’s all make-believe, and the caricature of flawless women is part of it, as is the huge dividing line between the sexes, where the man usually plays rescuer. Can adults see past the imagery and pick out the positive message? Usually. Can young children? Some experts say no.

Peggy Orenstein is a nationally acclaimed writer about women and girls’ issues. When her previously un-media-tainted daughter went off to preschool in striped overalls carrying a Thomas the Tank Engine lunch box and transformed into a pink-obsessed princess inside of a month, she was stunned. Orenstein began seeing princess references everywhere – from the woman who gave her daughter a pink balloon (without asking if she wanted another color), to the dentist who told her to hop up into the “princess chair” so she could “sparkle her teeth.”

It’s Not About the Moral of the Story, But Who Looks the Prettiest

Orenstein’s investigation into princess mania was the basis for her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter. She visited Disney, Pottery Barn Kids and American Girl, and delved into the world of child beauty pageants and the international toy fair, and soon saw the peril behind the pink. She told The Daily Beast’s Jessica Bennett:

“’It’s not that princesses can’t expand girls’ imaginations,’ Orenstein explains. ‘But in today’s culture, princess starts to turn into something else. It’s not just being the fairest of them all, it’s being the hottest of them all, the most Paris Hilton of them all, the most Kim Kardashian of them all.’ Translation: shallow, narcissistic, slutty.”

Orenstein and others argue that the calculation-of-worth-based-on-appearance beast lurks underneath all those frills and the pop music track for preschoolers, and Disney starts the ball rolling way too early for young girls (and boys) to get the right message. Orenstein told NPR that an expert she consulted for her book told her that little brains are very malleable at those young ages, and soon, little gender differences become big gaps as they grow older.

Author Barbara Ehrenreich and educational consultant Lori Day have also excoriated princess marketing culture as the gateway to appearance becoming the dominant worry for girls at too young of an age, leading to depression and the skyrocketing rate of eating disorders in the U.S.

Miss Representation’s Jennifer Siebel Newsom points to early princess indoctrination as the start of media’s message to girls to value looks above substance and leads to media dismissal of women as people of worth. “Disney is now selling to kids as early as newborns.” Newsom adds, “your pink little onesie… reinforces gender.”

Most girls will outgrow the princess phase, but the worry is that after the princess dresses and tiaras, come more marketing products that send the same superficial message with more emphasis on body image and sexiness too early. Is Disney entirely to blame? Should parents ban Ariel from their homes? No, but Orenstein believes that awareness of the dangers will help parents strike a balance between tea parties and tee ball, between looking healthy and building confidence in abilities, not appearance. Day agrees, saying, “To all of the parents reading this who say, ‘My daughter loves to wear her Jasmine costume while she’s running around playing sports and collecting bugs,’ bravo! Moderation and balance are awesome.”

In her book, Orenstein writes,

“As with all of us, what I want for my daughter seems so simple: for her to grow up healthy, happy, and confident, with a clear sense of her own potential and the opportunity to fulfill it. Yet she lives in a world that tells her, whether she is three or thirty-three, that the surest way to get there is to look, well, like Cinderella.”

Image: Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell

Andrea Newell is a Michigan-based writer specializing in corporate social responsibility, women’s issues, and the environment.