Dr. Rebecca Hains

Disney-Pixar’s Brave: Critiquing the criticisms

I saw Brave the day it debuted in theaters, and I’m glad that Merida is a different kind of princess–one who can be read as a critique of both the trope that princesses are passive and the trend to tell their stories as romances. But I also have some mixed feelings. For example:

  • The film’s marketing, which essentially ignores that Brave is a tale of a mother-daughter relationship (presumably for fear that such a story wouldn’t be a box office draw), is insulting.
  • The storyline itself features such unappealing would-be suitors that Merida’s disinterest in romance is undercut: What if the three young men who must vie for her hand were more like Prince Charmings than doofuses?
  • Finally, having studied girl power media for several years, it bothers me that Merida is presented as isolated, an anomalous female, without a community of female peers her own age. Can’t a girl who is supposed to be strong not be a loner?

With all that in mind, since the release of Disney-Pixar’s Brave, I’ve been reading reviews and commentaries of the film with interest. There are two strands of criticism that I would like to address: 1. that the film is unoriginal, and 2. that Merida is a brat.

Is Brave an unoriginal film?

When Joanna Weiss of the Boston Globe and I talked about Brave, she mentioned that a lot of early reviews complained the film was unoriginal–“just another princess movie,” she said. Reviewers were complaining that unlike other Pixar films, Brave didn’t feature a fully fabricated, fantastically unexpected world; it seemed to be treading old ground.

For example, Todd McCarthy wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that Brave is “familiar” and treads “startlingly well-worn territory.” He also complains that it is “laden with standard-issue fairy tale and familiar girl-empowerment tropes.” But is it, really? It’s a story about a mother-daughter relationship. How is this “familiar” and “well-worn”? He and other reviewers complain that Brave is too Disney and not enough Pixar. In reading reviews like these, I sensed the reviewers just couldn’t get past the fact that Brave is about a princess, rather than something as unexpected as talking cars or talking toys or talking fish.

Ask any girl who’s been raised on princess films, and she’ll tell you that Merida is different, and very unlike her Disney Princess peers. As far as the narrative goes, what does Merida have in common with Disney Princesses, exactly? The fact that she’s a princess who has utterly fantastic hair. That’s about it.

(Even the witch in Brave seems perfectly nice. Unlike Disney’s approach, there’s no vilification of old ladies in Pixar’s film, which is refreshing.)

Other than that, while watching Brave, I was amused to notice how closely the film follows Pixar’s formula for its protagonists:

  • The protagonist (e.g., Woody, Lightning McQueen, Marlin) makes some bad decisions, portrayed in ways that make them seem not entirely likable. (Because of his ego and jealousy, Woody is a jerk to Buzz; Lightning is self-centered, smugly superior, and judgmental of others; Marlin is a smothering, over-protective parent.)
  • The protagonist does something that causes harm or potential harm to someone else. (Woody pushes Buzz out a window; Lightning coerces Mack into driving overnight; Marlin embarrases Nemo in front of peers so badly that Nemo takes a risk and is captured by a diver.)
  • Said protagonist has unexpected experiences, a journey beyond his comfort zone. (Woody has to leave Andy’s house to save Buzz, and gets to know him better; Lightning, separated from Mack, has an unexpected several-day detour through Radiator Springs, and actually gets to know its citizens; Marlin travels across the ocean to find his son, confronting his worst fears.)
  • As a result of these experiences, the protagonist changes. (Woody becomes less egotistical and ultimately makes friends with Buzz; Lightning becomes less egotistical and ultimately makes friends with the citizens of Radiator Springs; Marlin calms down and becomes a better parent.)

Merida goes through a similar journey. She begins as a self-absorbed teenager who wants to avoid the responsibilities of being a princess. After a fight with her mother, she finds herself someplace new and strange. Merida makes a bad decision that turns her mother into a bear. While trying to save her mother from this predicament, Merida then spends an awful lot of time insisting that it’s not her fault.

Finally, however, Merida changes, developing a better understanding of her mother and growing as a person. She realizes it is her fault, and by the movie’s conclusion, she has incorporated some of her mother’s statements into her own worldview, such as “Legends are lessons. They ring with truth” and “How do you know you don’t like it if you won’t try it?” (At this, a young child seated behind me and my son in the theater marveled, “She’s acting like her mother!”)

So if the film seems familiar to reviewers, I don’t think it’s because it’s a Disney princess story. Merida is so different from the other Disney Princesses. Do Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Ariel have journeys in which they learn something about themselves and change? No. Their problems are solved by others. What about Belle? No. She longs for “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” but ultimately she is reduced to a catalyst of change for someone else–the Beast.

I really think that Brave feels familiar to many viewers because it’s telling the same type of story Pixar has been trading in for years. And so, as I told Joanna, it seems a little sexist for reviewers to place the blame for the film’s familiar feeling on the fact that Merida is a princess.

Is Merida a brat?

Another strand of conversation that has caught my eye is the debate over whether Merida is more bratty than brave. After all, she’s sassy and outspoken and argues openly with her mother. A reviewer at SFGate.com expresses concern that the movie “the movie may tilt the balance too far in Mom’s direction, so that the film’s ostensible heroine ceases to seem adorably spunky and becomes more like an awful brat.”

Indeed, in some audience members’ opinions, this seems to be the case. One blogger writes, Brave “seems to accept and perhaps even glorify the defiance of the diva, the ‘coolness’ of being a brat, and the idea that insolence is synonymous with independence. When did respect for one’s parents, a gentle spirit, and a longing for a loving partnership involving mutual sacrifice become sexist and outdated?” Another argues, “I worry that our culture perpetuates a sort of entitled-brat attitude in girls these days: that our daughters deserve to get what they want, when they want it simply because they are girls. And nobody can tell girls these days what to do or what to want. They’re in charge.”

In all of this, I haven’t seen anyone acknowledge the reality of teenagers’ relationships with their parents. As Nurture Shock explains, studies indicate that 96% of teenagers lie to their parents, often about really big issues. Which teens lie the least? Those whose parents consistently enforce rules while being the most warm and having the most conversations with their children. They explain why rules exist but are supportive of their children’s autonomy and freedom.

This, perhaps, can be understood as Elinor’s big parenting mistake: She dictates things to Merida without really explaining them to her, and so it seems to Merida that her mother does not support her freedom.

Yet ironically, Merida’s protestations and efforts to change her mother’s mind are not signs of a bad mother-daughter relationship. Studies also show that the teens who argue more openly with their parents are the teens who are the most honest. According to Nurture Shock, one study showed that families with less deception had “a much higher ratio of arguing/complaining. Arguing was good–arguing was honesty.” However, “The parents didn’t necessarily realize this. The arguing stressed them out.”

Meanwhile, another study of mother-daughter arguments summarized in Nurture Shock found that while nearly half of mothers felt arguments with their daughters were bad for their relationships, less than a quarter of daughters felt the same way. For daughters, what was most important was how these arguments ended. The daughters needed to feel heard by their mothers, and over time, they needed to win some arguments and get small concessions from others. But they did not need to win every battle; they mainly needed to feel heard. (As Merida says to her mother, “Just listen to me!”)

In other words, the fact that Merida makes her disagreements clear to her mother does not make her a brat. As unpleasant as this may be for parents to consider, Merida’s argumentative nature may actually be a sign of respect and a mother-daughter relationship that is fundamentally sound. That’s important to keep in mind. When Merida and her mother begin to really consider one another’s perspectives, both parties grow as individuals, and their relationship becomes stronger. For parents worried that Merida is a “brat” who is setting a poor example for their children, these facts could provide useful talking points for the entire family.

Related Post: Katniss vs Merida: Mattel’s doll versions of strong girl characters

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For Father’s Day, shared experiences make the best gifts

Gift Box

“Gift Box” photo by Daniel Y. Go. Used under a Creative Commons license.

When it comes to selecting great gifts for kids, it’s important to gift experiences, not just toys. After all, studies show that experiences make people happier than objects do: Objects break, become outdated, or pale in comparison to superior items, and the thrill of ownership fades quickly. But experiences are personal, and the memories of positive personal experiences never lose their lustre.

If you still have Father’s Day shopping to do, applying this principle to dad’s gift could prove very satisfying. If the gift is an experience that father and child can share together, the whole family can benefit. The key to making sure the experience is a good gift is keeping the recipient’s interests in mind while doing so.

For example, if the father is a sports fan, a child might give his or her father tickets to a sports game–and promise to go with him. Plans for a father-child outing could also work with tickets to a concert, a museum, an art exhibit, or another destination that suits the father’s interests and the child’s age.

Gifts meant to be experienced together at home can make a great choice, as well. For example, tools are a perennially popular Father’s Day gift. Consider supplies for a project that the father and child can create together–gardening or carpentry or technology oriented. (For techie dads, the books in the Geek Dad series are full of amazing ideas.) The project could be as small as a birdhouse or much more complicated, depending on dad’s skills and the child’s age.

Another possibility: Seek out a toy that’s meant for both adults and children, around which family memories can be created. For example, toys like Geomags are fun for adults and kids alike–and they can be used collaboratively. The strategy game Rush Hour is also fun for all ages. If dad likes strategy games or puzzles, it could be a nice choice.

Consider gifts that bring dads and daughters closer together

Sometimes, it can be difficult for dads and daughters to develop shared interests. All of the gifts above could be given by boys or girls–but some girls and dads might hesitate when it comes to sharing experiences like carpentry, which are traditionally coded as masculine.

An experience-oriented gift that helps a daughter learn more about her dad’s interests and hobbies, despite gender stereotypes that they’re “not for girls,” is another way to give a gift that benefits the whole family. Diversifying the daughter’s interests with dad’s support could benefit her in the long run: Studies show that when fathers support their daughters by engaging with them in non-stereotypical ways, the daughters are significantly more likely to consider studying and working in STEM fields, which many find satisfying and lucrative.

Is your daughter unsure about joining her dad in his hobbies? The children’s book Super Tool Lula may offer her some great inspiration. The book’s heroine, Lula, enjoys helping her father with carpentry projects using tools from her very own tool belt–and after reading the book, girls often ask for their own tool belts. Taking a page from Lula‘s book, daddy-daughter tools might make a great, creative Father’s Day gift.

The importance of kids’ involvement in gifting

No matter what route is taken when helping a child give a parent a gift, the results of other studies bear mentioning: spending money on others makes us happier than does spending money on ourselves. So, if it’s possible for a child to willingly contribute some of his or her own money towards dad’s Father’s Day gift–whatever that gift may be–he or she will learn that giving to others really is its own reward.


Readers: What are the best experience-related gifts you’ve given or received? Do you have any clever ideas for Father’s Day gifts? Please share your ideas in the comments!

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CFP: Princess Cultures: Mediating Girls’ Identities and Imaginations

My colleague Miriam Forman-Brunell and I are co-editing an anthology about princesses. It will be published by Peter Lang, the same academic press that published my previous book. Please let me know if you’d like to contribute an essay; and please spread the word to others who might be interested in writing something for us. Thanks!


Princess Cultures: Mediating Girls’ Imaginations and Identities 

Miriam Forman-Brunell, Ph.D., University of Missouri-Kansas City
Rebecca Hains, Ph.D., Salem State University

Peter Lang Press
“Mediated Youth” series, edited by Sharon Mazzarella

Princesses are significant figures in girl culture, and they have been for at least the last two centuries. This anthology brings together international and interdisciplinary perspectives on the meanings of princesses in girls’ lives historically, currently, and comparatively: We consider how and why princess culture continues to play a role in girls’ lives.

Encompassing pop culture princesses (such as the Disney Princesses and Princess Barbie), fairy tales (and their more recent feminist revisions), and contemporary royal figures (such as Princess Diana and Kate Middleton), among others, this book illuminates the many forms that princess culture has taken across time and space—continuously redrawn and recast, but always enjoying a prominent and privileged position in girls’ everyday lives and fantasy worlds and women’s collective memories.


The editors are seeking additional scholarly essays that examine the princess as mediating figure in the imaginations and identities of girls in the US and around the world. We are especially interested in essays by scholars researching:

1) princess cultures outside the US
2) historical or contemporary royal figures

Please send a 300-word proposal, a brief bibliography, CV, and contact information to: Miriam Forman Brunell at forman-brunellm@umkc.edu and Rebecca Hains at rhains@salemstate.edu by July 15, 2012.

July 15, 2012: 300-word Proposal deadline

August 1, 2012: Notification of accepted proposals

January 15, 2013: Chapter drafts (7,000-9,000 words)

Science Museum gift shop offers girls “space princess” tees and other stereotypes

Boston MoS shirts and hats

You know, there are a lot of ways to get girls excited about science, but I don’t think this is one of them:

Boston MoS shirts and hats

What the heck is a space princess??
Photo by Peter Wood (@prwood), May 31, 2012: twitter.com/prwood/status/…

Neither is this:

The Boston Museum of Science’s “Hug-a-saurus” t-shirt–because little girls like their prehistoric beasts sweet and snuggly and sugar and spice…? 
Photo by Peter Wood (@prwood), May 31, 2012: pic.twitter.com/dM9w1Vvw

The fact that a science museum is targeting girls Lego Friends style–by coating the gender-neutral concept of science with sparkly, pink, purple nonsense about princesses and other stereotypically girly traits–is infuriating.

Women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields (aka STEM careers), and the reasons have everything to do with gender socialization–not innate intelligence levels or interests. Check out this great infographic for an explanation of the STEM gender divisions:

Girls in STEM

As this infographic explains, when girls are asked to think about their gender–in ways as simple as indicating their sex on a test–they score 20% lower than they otherwise would.

Instead of peppering the gift shop with stereotypes, how about finding or producing merchandise that positions girls as creators, inventors, scientists, engineers–without making it all about gender?

As an example of what this might look like, one woman in who works in a STEM field recently designed a prototype for a proposed Lego set that is girl-centered, but not girly. The set features the woman, Limor Fried, in her workshop, making things–a nice change from depictions of girls and women who want nothing more than to be looked at.

Ladyaya’s workshop, a prototype of a proposed Lego set that positions girls as scientific creators, not stereotypes

Even cooler is the prototype for Roominate. Developed by three women with STEM backgrounds as a way to address the fact that most girls’ toys are dolls and princesses, the Roominate toy consists of “stackable, attachable & customizable miniature room with working circuits” that girls can build themselves.

Positioning girls as princesses restricts the imagination–whereas positioning girls as creators has the potential to inspire and open doors.

So, please, science museums: Don’t place items in your gift shops that present girls as second-class scientists. They shouldn’t be girls first and scientists second. They’re not “space princesses,” and they don’t need to imagine that the ferocious T-Rex liked to snuggle.

Treat girls like people, not stereotypes, and you’ll better support their burgeoning scientific interests.

Katniss vs Merida: Mattel’s doll versions of strong girl characters

Last month, Mattel released a Katniss Everdeen doll, inspired by the look and style of Jennifer Lawrence in the Hunger Games film.

Katniss Everdeen doll by Mattel. Source: Barbiecollector.com

Compared with Mattel’s typical fare, the Katniss doll was refreshingly unsexualized–reflecting the character’s positive portrayal in the film (which I previously discussed here). The Katniss doll is flat-footed (no Barbie-style feet molded for high heels), and she is dressed for battle (not in a gown or dress).

Compared with the typical Barbie doll, Mattel’s Katniss wears very little makeup. Only her eyes seem made up, but the colors are neutral, suggesting this is actually meant as contouring to make the doll’s eyes appear more three-dimensional.

Katniss Everdeen doll by Mattel: detail. Via Barbiecollector.com

This month, Mattel released another doll based on a strong female character: Merida from Disney/Pixar’s Brave. Although the film will not be released for several weeks, the official trailers indicate that Merida is an atypical princess: like Katniss, she is strong-willed, independent, and a skilled archer.

Unfortunately, unlike Mattel’s Katniss doll, Mattel’s versions of Merida leave much to be desired. Earlier this week, one mom who was shopping at Target was shocked by Mattel’s small doll treatment of Merida. The small doll is a 6.5″ tall, fully plastic doll priced at $5.99.

Photo by Melissa Wardy

Regarding this doll, the mom wrote:

The toy that comes out of the package looks nothing like the character on the package. The toy looks like Merida’s hot older sister, who despite living in the Scottish Highlands during Medieval times, got her hands on some serious eye liner and lipstick.

A quick internet search indicates that Mattel’s other Merida dolls aren’t much better. Here’s their 13″ fashion doll version, priced at $17.95:

Note the incredibly long eyelashes, the impeccably groomed eyebrows, the rosebud lips, the gentle expression, and the dainty body language. Note also that this is the dress Merida is depicted as hating in the movie, for she is obliged to wear a restrictive corset beneath it.

For a few dollars more ($20.99), Mattel also offers a “Gem Styling Merida Doll,” dressed for archery…and sparkly fashion fun:

Mattel's Gem Styling Merida Doll, side view

The product description on Amazon explains that girls can “decorate Merida’s hair or outfit with sparkly gems,” and that “girls will love reenacting their favorite scenes from the movie.” (Um, sorry, Mattel–I’ve read the junior novelization of Brave, and there are no gem styling scenes in the story. Poor Merida!)

Compare these dolls to any image of Merida from the film or its publicity materials, and you’ll see that Mattel has feminized Merida, making her much more stereotypically girly and much more conventionally pretty than she is in the film:

Screen shot of Merida from Disneystore.com

Merida is lovely just the way she is. Mascara? Who needs it?

Fortunately, the version of Merida available for $16.50 from the Disney Store is truer to the film’s character. I checked out the products available in my local Disney Store and found them to be preferable to Mattel’s versions. Here’s a photo I snapped of the basic Merida doll:

Disney Store Merida

Disney Store Merida - detail

Note the more focused expression, the crooked smile (also found on the toddler doll), the lighter touch around the eyes, the film-centered accessories. All in all, it’s a nice doll. (I just hope Disney can resist making a super sparkly version!)

In short, a comparison of the different Merida dolls make it clear:

Although Mattel designed a Katniss Everdeen doll that reflected the character’s strength and personality, when it came to Merida, Mattel didn’t even try. 

But why would that be? Both Katniss and Merida are strong, independent, and enjoy archery–yet their treatments by Mattel couldn’t be more different.

The answer: just as the films target different audience members, these dolls target different markets, as well.

According to Amazon.com, Mattel’s recommended age for the Merida dolls is “36 months to 8 years.”

Amazon says the recommended age for Mattel’s Katniss doll is 6 to 15. However, according to Barbiecollector.com, the Katniss doll is actually meant for adults. In point of fact, Katniss is from the Black Label line–all of which are described as being meant for adult collectors, ages 14 and up. Katniss’s design was led by one individual, Bill Greening, who describes himself as a Hunger Games fan and who approached the design with care.

“Hopefully Hunger Games fans can appreciate the attention to detail,” Greening says. “The doll’s minimalistic style and details — such as her loosely braided hair and makeup-free look — also really embody the heroic character Katniss.”

Fan response has been tremendous: the Katniss doll sold out almost immediately, and is now on backorder, with an expected availability four months from now.

Unfortunately, because Mattel’s Brave line is intended for the preschool-to-grade-school set, Merida received no such treatment from Mattel. Presumably designed by committee, the Merida dolls rely on stereotypes about little girls’ interests. Make a little girl’s doll whose face isn’t redesigned to conform to Mattel’s beauty norms? Present a little girl’s doll as strong and independent, rather than dainty and sweet? Nah, that would be much too risky! Mattel clearly believes that long eyelashes and gemstone dress-up activities are a safer marketing bet.

In my opinion, Mattel underestimates little girls. Give them a Merida doll that reflects the movie’s character, and they will love it. Mattel is also blind to why parents have responded positively to the Brave trailers: many appreciate that Merida is not a stereotypically princess-like princess.

What a shame that Mattel couldn’t afford young girls who love Brave the same respect they afforded to the teens and adults who love The Hunger Games. 

For further reading: Talking about toys: Taking child’s play seriously


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Turn off your television! Screen-Free Week starts Monday.

Have you heard of “screen time”? It’s a term describing the time we spend in front of screens, large and small, consuming media on a daily basis.

Video games.

Many screens compete for our attention, and we’re spending more time with them than ever.

Because of concerns about this trend, experts encourage parents to keep their children’s time with all these screens to a minimum. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of two, and a maximum of two hours daily for preschool children.

But it’s easy to make screen time a family habit. In the typical U.S. home, T.V. is a focal point for relaxation and entertainment–constantly on, as long as someone is at home and awake.

Unfortunately, for our kids, too much screen time can harm their development. Too much media and too little time on other developmentally important tasks can lead to poor school performance, childhood obesity, and other problems. New research suggests that even background television–when the T.V. is on without really being watched–can harm younger children by interrupting their mental tasks.

Too much screen time hurts older children, too. For example, adolescents who watch three or more hours of television each day often have more trouble completing their homework and risk long-term academic problems, according to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Overuse of internet, including social media, has been implicated in similar problems.

Screen-Free Week logoMedia habits are hard to break. That’s why the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) sponsors Screen-Free Week annually. This year, Screen-Free Week runs from from April 30 to May 6. Thousands of families will participate, putting aside their screens for other fun activities.

The CCFC explains:

Screen-Free Week is a fun and innovative way to improve children’s well-being by reducing dependence on entertainment screen media, including television, video games, computers, and hand-held devices.  It’s a time for children to play outside, read, daydream, create, explore, and spend more time having fun with family and friends.

It’s also a chance to reset media habits. After taking a break for a week, many families find it easier to enjoy other activities besides screen time on a routine basis.

Play, not screens (CCFC image)So, what will families do with all their “extra time” during Screen-Free Week? The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations. The CCFC suggests these ideas:

  • Play with art supplies
  • Play with words
  • Play with music
  • Make up songs
  • Play with blocks
  • Play with nothing
  • Play cards and board games
  • Play indoors
  • Play outdoors
  • Play tag
  • Play sports
  • Play together
  • Play alone

Want more detailed possibilities? Here’s a list of 101 great screen-free activities, courtesy of the CCFC:

101 Screen-Free Activities, Part 1101 Screen-Free Activities, Part 2

My family will join Screen-Free Week. Won’t you?

Parents: Is Screen-Free Week a good option for your family? What kinds of fun things could you do in a week without screen time?

Also, if you’ve participated in a previous Screen-Free Week and have any suggestions or memories to share, please post them below!

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This week’s round-up: CSMonitor.com, princess seeds, and princess week

A few quick things to share:

  • I’ve joined the Christian Science Monitor’s Modern Parenthood blogging team! Check out the blog here; my contributor’s bio is here.
  • Yesterday, Peggy Orenstein blogged about my post on the Disney Princess seed packets–and she pointed out that Disney has declared this week to be the first annual National Princess Week! Ugh. And here I thought that for preschool girls, every week is princess week.
  • The blog Animation Anomaly also blogged about my Disney Princess seed packet post, adding an excellent point: All this princess branding is actually NOT THAT GOOD for the princess brand. Blogger Charles Kenny explains:

While her post does a great job of analysing how such merchandise is bad for kids and parents, I can’t help but conclude that it is bad for the Disney company also. How is that, you say? Surely they are simply getting a cut and/or fee from the licensing rights and nothing more. Why should they care about it any further than that?

Well, because it’s a sign that they’re failing to care for their characters. The Disney Princess brand is a faux collection of said characters who supposedly represent the best in female traits. Now you could argue about that until the cows come home, but what’s more important is that each of the princesses is only a good fit for her particular context. In other words, the film they appear in.

The Disney Princess brand takes that context completely away, and instead mashes the characters together in a manner that attempts to blend them all into a singular idea of what good female characters should be like; read: princesses. This would be OK if it was for a once-off thing or a singular celebration of the characters, but branding them in such a manner (and licensing them to everyone under the sun) only serves to devalue the characters themselves, and worse, the films they originally appeared in.

What do you think? Are the princess seed packets a sign that Disney has, essentially, jumped the shark when it comes to its own branding?

Disney Princess flowers: coming soon to a garden near you.

Imagine this scenario:

Four-year-old Madison is obsessed with princesses. She wants to eat, sleep, breathe nothing but Disney Princess products, and it’s becoming a point of contention in her household. Her parents are tired of all the little battles over what she will wear, watch, and play with.

Madison’s mom blames herself for this situation. She loved princesses when she was a little girl, so she’s been buying princess products for Madison since Madison was an infant. She thinks sadly, “I can’t believe I did this to my daughter.”

But summer is coming, and Madison’s parents look forward to spending time outdoors. They think involving her in a little gardening might encourage her to branch out a bit–develop new interests.

It’s time to start planting, so they plan a visit to their local garden shop. Building up Madison’s enthusiasm, they tell her, “You can choose any seeds you want to plant! We’ll help you take care of them and you can see how they grow.” She is excited. “Maybe I’ll plant some carrots,” she says.

But then:

That’s right: Burpee, capitalizing on the popularity of Disney Princesses, has licensed the names and likenesses of Belle, Sleeping Beauty, Jasmine, and Cinderella to adorn their flowers’ seed packets.

Upon seeing the display, Madison wants Princess flowers and nothing else. Her discouraged parents remind her that she wanted carrots, but Madison insists. “I want a princess garden, Mommy! Daddy, don’t say no.”

Looking around the corner, her parents see that Burpee does offer Disney-branded vegetables–but they’re not princess-themed. The logic must be that princesses are meant to be gazed upon; they are delicate beauties; so they only adorn the packages of flowers, which share these qualities. The veggie seed packs go to Mickey and friends:

Madison’s parents never dreamed Disney would co-opt their gardening experience, and they DID tell her she could choose any packets she wants….so despite her parents’ reluctance, the princess flowers win.

For this “privilege” of purchasing seeds that have Disney characters on their packaging, her parents will spend $1.99 a package, instead of the $1.00 to $1.19 Burpee charges for otherwise identical packages of seeds with no licensed characters on them — making the outing twice as expensive as it should have been.

Oh, and don’t forget the princess-themed plant labels, which cost $2.97 for a package of six–way more than the plain ones, which cost $1.99 for a package of twenty. Yikes.

(Hey, at least Tiana’s on the packaging.)

Now, I don’t mean to knock Burpee for licensing Disney characters on their products. Gardening isn’t very exciting for modern kids; it’s slow-moving. Maybe Disney-branded seeds are actually a great way get them involved in a healthy, satisfying activity that requires more patience and work than they’re used to. (And as far as the princess-flower / animal-food divide goes, maybe Burpee’s team is just not creative enough to realize that even beautiful princesses have to eat.)

No, my point is this: The Disney Princess marketing machine is SO huge, so far-reaching, that it’s hard to avoid and even harder to resist. Parents sometimes blame themselves for their daughters’ princess obsessions, but who’s really to blame–the parents, or the billion-dollar industry that is invested in profiting by shaping little girls’ dreams?

I think the answer is clear. In this kind of context, it’s hard to choose freely–and that’s something to think critically about.

Note: I took these photos at my local Home Depot about a month ago. This week, the princess-branded flower seed packets are nearly entirely sold out, while most of Mickey and friends’ vegetable seed packets are still in stock.

For further reading, see the post “Disney Princess Grapes?” on Sociological Images.

In other news: Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker cross-posted my Katniss Everdeen post on her blog. (Thank you, Jennifer!) Her blog explores the sexualized messages that the media send to children. If the topic interests you, be sure to check out her work!

Princess Extravagance, from Preschool to Prom

What do little girls in princess dresses and teenagers at proms have in common? More than you might think!

Last week, a new survey found that nationwide, U.S. teens and their families will spend an average of $1,000 on this year’s prom. In my region, the northeast, the average is double that–a whopping $2,000 per family. With such numbers, the article argues, “Prom is the new wedding.”

Why is lavish spending on proms on the rise? USA Today reports:

Teen girls view prom as their “red-carpet moment” and are “heavily influenced” by celebrities who walk actual red carpets in designer gowns. “It’s a rite of passage, and there’s a legacy of how you look at your prom. Girls want to dress to impress.”

In other words, the intense consumerism of prom may be fueled by a wish to be like a celebrity for a night: the center of attention, all eyes on her, enjoying the spotlight.

But with such pleasures come intense pressure–the pressure of public scrutiny, with a fear of condemnation if the girl fails to achieve an idealized look. External scrutiny may be real or imagined. It may take place on facebook or at an afterparty. But self-scrutiny will most likely take place in the mirror, as a girl turns her critical eye on her own reflection to gauge whether she measures up to the ideal. No sympathy, no compassion–just judgments.

It’s easy for critics to wag their fingers at teen girls and their parents for enabling this behavior. However, prom spending can’t be removed from its cultural context. For one thing, girls face a marketing machine that makes such spending seem necessary (see any teen magazine during prom season for details). But more importantly, our culture socializes girls to be consumers who treat themselves as commodities–packaged to be gazed upon, admired, and desired.

Consider all the toddler girls who want nothing more than to be miniature Disney Princesses: Some are so insistent on their princess identities that they will wear nothing but princess play clothes, and protest with tearful heartbreak at every well-intended reality check. For the families of discerning young preschool consumers, this can become a costly interest to support: Disney-branded princess dresses start at about $45 at the Disney Store; accessories like matching shoes, tiaras, and purses are sold separately.

A princess makeover at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique

The Disney princess dresses can cost twice that or more if purchased at a Disney theme park during a family vacation, while a full princess makeover at Disney’s popular Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique can set parents back an additional $50-$190 or more (dress not included). But Disney persuades parents that these costs are worthwhile, for the memories will last a lifetime: As the signs at Disney’s parks say, “Let the memories begin.”

And so the toddler girl’s $100-$200 princess dress-up experience sets the stage for the $1,000-$2,000 prom.

A Disney Cinderella wedding gown by designer Alfred Angelo

What the toddlers and teens are buying is a fantasy. Teen girls who aspire to have a “red-carpet moment” at prom–like couples who now spend an average of $27,000 on their dream weddings–are spending their money to display a glamorous image for a single evening. The marketing machine insists that moment will “last a lifetime,” which makes all the spending seem worthwhile. The advertising narrative tells girls, “You’re worth it! Go ahead and be glamorous. Show everyone the real you.”

But this prom experience isn’t so much “real” as aspirational. Just like little girls (and beautiful brides) are not really princesses, girls at prom are playing dress-up, too. Yes, it’s a lot of fun to do so–but as many girls do in fact know, prom can be just as fun on a smaller budget. (As one teen who reported happily finding a gown on consignment said last year, “Being frugal is cool.”) When exorbitant spending seems necessary and inevitable, though, the marketers are winning–aided and abetted by a culture that teaches girls that a primary source of their value is their appearances.

Readers: What’s your take on the rising cost of proms? Have you or your daughters spent this much? Or, do you have any examples of great recent prom experiences that didn’t succumb to the pressures to spend, spend, spend? Any tips on where to shop?

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