Dr. Rebecca Hains

Are the “Princess Wars” the new “Mommy Wars”?

A couple of weeks ago, Stephanie Hanes of the Christian Science Monitor called me. She had seen my post asking studios like Disney and Dreamworks to let princesses dare to dream of more, and she wanted to hear more of my princess-related thoughts. Lucky for her, I have many of them!

ImageToday, Ms. Hanes referenced me in a Christian Science Monitor blog post called “The Disney Princess Divide: The New Mommy Wars?” You see, for about a year now, I’ve been interviewing parents and educators about their thoughts on the Disney Princess phenomenon. I’ve learned that young girls’ princess obsessions have become incredibly controversial in parenting circles, where questions about how to handle girls’ princess obsessions abound:

  • Should parents let girls enjoy princesses because they’re harmless?
  • Should they give girls only moderate access to the princesses because they’re harmful?
  • Or are princesses so bad for girls, and so all-consuming, that parents should shield them from the princesses altogether?

This debate is so intense that, as one of my interviewees told me, “The Princess Wars are the new Mommy Wars.” Her pithy summary of the situation really struck a chord: Reading just the comments on blogs like Princess-Free Zone and Peggy Orenstein’s blog, as well as Stephanie Hanes’ Christian Science Monitor magazine cover story on the “Disney Princess Effect,” it’s clear that tensions run high among readers about princess culture. On both sides, there’s a lot of judging going on–and unlike Cinderella, it’s not pretty.

Parents: What are your thoughts on the princess phenomenon? Is it harmless fun for your daughter, or a force to be reckoned with? Or maybe some of both?

Also, for my research on this topic, I am looking for a few more parents who are willing to share their princess-parenting experiences with me. If you’re interested, please email me at princessresearch@gmail.com, and we can set up a time to talk. Thanks!

Also of possible interest:

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Katniss Everdeen: The First Post-Girl Power Hero

When I saw The Hunger Games on its opening weekend, I was really struck by something:

Although the sexualization of girls and women is rampant in the media, Katniss Everdeen is not sexualized. Not at all.

Take a look at these images from the film: The fact that Katniss is presented as heroic and strong without being made sexy is a big deal. Previous mainstream girl heroes have been defined by their sexiness. Consider the heroes of girl power, on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed. With dedicated fans of both sexes, their producers seemed intent on making the girls’ strength less threatening by presenting them as sexy and sexually available. Here are a few images from such shows, featuring heroines who–unlike Katniss–are impeccably coiffed and revealingly dressed:

In my analysis, the concept of “girl power” seemed to hinge upon the idea that girls could be strong AND pretty at the same time. It broke the binary that suggested “strong female” is an oxymoron, almost normalizing the idea that being girly doesn’t equal being weak.


Girl power media targeting audiences of teens and adults presented strong-and-pretty as strong-and-sexy, with “sexy” narrowly defined (as illustrated by the above images). This link was so constant that it seemed you couldn’t have strength without sexiness, and that sexiness came to seem a natural part of being a strong female character on screen.

When Katniss appears in The Hunger Games in fancier, more feminine, more revealing attire, she looks uncomfortable. The performance of normative femininity is completely unnatural to her. It is an act, something she is forced to do–not a choice, and certainly not something she finds empowering:

This is probably why Hunger Games critics and fans have complained that Jennifer Lawrence is too “fat” for the role of Katniss. Because, seriously, by no stretch of the imagination is the woman shown above fat. She’s not as thin as Sarah Michelle Gellar or Alyssa Milano, but she’s nowhere close to being overweight.

No, they’re just not used to female lead characters who aren’t dished up to titillate a male gaze. If she’s not scantily clad in a super-sexy way, then she’s not attractive, which means she’s fat. Sigh.

In short, Katniss Everdeen is arguably the first post-girl power hero to grace the screen. Her presentation as a strong character who is not defined by her sex, and who is not sexualized, is a nice contrast to the message that “girls can be strong AND pretty/sexy,” in which pretty/sexy is ultimately obligatory.

Katniss Everdeen is a girl, and she is strong. But not in a girl power way.

And that’s a good thing.

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At Stride Rite, girls are pretty and boys are active.

A few days ago, one mom wrote about a conversation she overheard, in which her 6-year-old daughter’s classmate insisted that sparkly shoes are not for playing–they’re for looking pretty:

“Your shoes are ugly,” said the kindergarten classmate.
“No they are not,” replied the 6yo Original Pigtail Pal, Amelia.
“They are. Look how pretty mine are,” the classmate taps her toes for emphasis.
“They are the same pair of shoes. Like the exact same,” explains Amelia.
“They aren’t the same. Mine still have all of the pretty sparkles. I didn’t get them messed up,” boasted the girl, in full sparkle. […] “Amelia, you should care a little bit about being pretty or you won’t get a boyfriend,” says the classmate.

Where do young girls get the idea that it’s more important to keep their sparkly shoes looking pretty than to play? Let’s consider Stride Rite’s marketing strategy for its play shoes (ie, sneakers), which I recently witnessed at a Stride Rite store near me.

For girls: The instruction to “sparkle with every step.” (Like pretty Cinderella, whose glass slippers were really impractical but helped her find romance.)
For boys: “Look out! Here comes Spiderman!” (Active, energetic, powerful.)

A quick review of StrideRite.com reveals more of the same: girls are meant to be looked at, so their play shoes are a route to prettiness, while boys are meant to be active, so their play shoes are made for play. Excerpts from the gallery below:

  • Cinderella sneakers “transport your little princess to a world of fantasy”
  • Hello Kitty Keds are “the cutest sneakers on the block”
  • Glitzy Pets sneakers help girls “to really shine and steal the show”
  • Spiderman sneakers offer “light-up powers,” “no matter what kind of web he spins”
  • Star Wars sneakers with “lighted technology” are good for “your little adventurer’s feet”
  • Lightning McQueen sneakers, also with “lighted technology,” let boys “be as fast as the legendary Cars Lightning McQueen on-and-off the track”

In other words, Stride Rite’s marketing strategies–like other companies’–reinforce the sex role biases that keep boys active and girls passive. As Colette Dowling has argued, these biases are at the root of the Frailty Myth: Boys learn “to use their bodies in skilled ways, and this gives them a good sense of their physical capacities and limits. […] Girls hold themselves back from full, complete movement, Although it’s usually something girls are unaware of, they actually learn to hamper their movements, developing a ‘body timidity that increases with age.'”

I’ll give Amelia from the conversation quoted above the last word: as she told her friend, “You should care less about being pretty and more about playing with us. My mom says there’s lots of different ways to be a girl.”

Well said, Amelia! Marketers: You would do well to take this same advice: care less about girls being pretty and more about their play.

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Can a Princess Dare to Dream of More?

“When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.” – Pinocchio, 1940

Walt Disney World - Where Dreams Come TrueFor over 70 years, making dreams come true has been a major theme of Disney. Lately, princesses have been at the center of that theme–and with princesses so wildly popular, it’s assumed that all little girls share princess dreams.

For example, in the “Dream-Along With Mickey” stage show at the Magic Kingdom, Mickey and Minnie ask the audience, “What are your dreams?” A recording that sounds like a live audience member shouts, “I want to be a beautiful princess!” to which Minnie responds, “Did you say be a princess? Me too!”

But being a “beautiful princess” is a shallow and uncreative goal, however special it may feel. When the “Disney on Ice: Dare to Dream” show comes to town, Tiana, Cinderella, and Rapunzel are all framed as being “daring” by following dreams that are ultimately uniform–marrying a prince, becoming a princess, and living happily ever after.

Is the princess dream really daring? No. Being daring means taking risks. The princess dream presented by Disney is standardized. What’s risky about dreaming for exactly what most major marketers say girls should dream for? Nothing.

Despite these flaws, many girls find princess culture fun and enjoyable. And why wouldn’t they? Glitter and glitz are great! But girls also need dreams that are more robust and fulfilling than the mass-marketed fantasy of becoming a pretty princess–and major cultural producers like Disney and their rivals are fully capable of presenting more daring dreams to girls.

This week, The Girl’s Guide to Swagger and I are tackling this issue: We’re writing about how princesses–and the girls who love them–deserve to dream of more.  We are calling on major producers, such as Disney and Dreamworks, to add more dimensionality to popular culture princesses. We want princess characters who dream of something more than beauty and romance. For example: Why not send a cartoon princess to college?

Disney has taken steps in the right direction in recent years. In The Princess and the Frog (2009), Tiana’s primary dream was to own her own restaurant–a healthy dream of entrepreneurship and a career that she ultimately achieves (while becoming a princess along the way). A couple of years beforehand, Disney also released a little-known direct-to-DVD video, Enchanted Tales: Follow Your Dreams (2007), in which Aurora and Jasmine tackle important royal responsibilities in their kingdoms. In Jasmine’s case, she has grown tired of spending time in the boring activities expected of a pretty princess, such as ribbon-cutting ceremonies and posing for portraits. She sings about how she could do so much more:

As the story unfolds, Jasmine works as an educator and takes pride in her various accomplishments.

Follow Your Dreams was supposed to be the first in a series of empowering direct-to-DVD princess tales, but Disney never released additional discs; Wikipedia cites poor sales of Follow Your Dreams as the reason. But five years later, the Follow Your Dreams DVD has an average rating of 4 stars on Amazon, with more than half of all raters giving it 5 stars. Comments note that the DVD has an “empowering message,” praising Jasmine for being “almost like a modern day politician.”

We are asking for more films in this vein, whether released straight to DVD or produced for the silver screen–and whether produced by Disney or a competitor.

"Ioni is graduating from the first year of school," a photo by Dimitris Papazimouris. (Used under a Creative Commons license.)

As a “dream,” being a princess can be about more than appearance and romance; it can be about the power to change the world for the better. And how better to do so than with a college education?

Today is International Women’s Day. Let’s ask Disney, Dreamworks, and others to give our girls princesses who dare to dream of more–starting with higher education. Join us by signing the petition at http://www.change.org/petitions/disney-and-dreamworks-send-a-princess-to-college. You can also post requests on Disney’s facebook page and Dreamworks’ facebook and Twitter accounts.

Talking about toys: Taking child’s play seriously

On occasion, people ask me why I bother taking children’s toys so seriously. “They’re just toys, after all!”

Yes, toys are just toys–but they’re so much more than that, too. Toys are a central part of children’s play, and to a child, play is very important work. Through play, children experiment with their visions for themselves and others in the world; play is part of their learning and socialization.

So, it’s worth talking seriously about toys, for they have the power to shape children’s dreams and worldviews.

Plus, as the infographic below from Frugal Dad explains, toy sales are big, big business. Family spending on toys went up during the recession, even as families’ grocery spending declined. The major manufacturers, Mattel and Hasbro, are aggressive marketers; when marketers harness children’s “pester power” so skillfully, it’s hard to resist the temptation to buy new toys.


Source: frugaldad.com. Used with permission.

It’s also worth remembering that if two manufacturers monopolize 40% of the toy industry, and aggressively market their goods, their worldviews can wind up permeating our homes. You know all the recent complaints about sexism in children’s toys? Take a look at who composes the boards of directors at Hasbro and Mattel.

Oh, and while you’re at it, check out the board of directors at LEGO and the executive team from Disney’s consumer products division, too.

See any trends?

If you said, “Wow, it’s mostly white men,” then we’re on the same page. If the people in charge lack racial diversity and skew heavily towards men, that has implications for the kinds of toys the major manufacturers will produce: dynamic, engaging toys for boys, and stereotypical, reductionist toys for girls–and poor representation of people of color, too.

Readers: What do you think? How seriously do you take toys? Parents, do you have any strategies for deciding which toys you deem fit to enter your homes?

Ponies, petitions, and girl power: This week’s roundup

Last week, I kept busy working on the My Little Pony petition, asking Hasbro to stop promoting superficial stereotypes of girls. Change.org invited me to contribute a guest post to their web site about the petition. It’s called “I Won’t Buy My Little Pony Toy That Makes Smart Princess Shallow.” You can read it here.

Mommyish.com also reported on the petition. Koa Beck wrote:

Hearing these [stereotypical] phrases from their favorite pony countless times a day cements the cultural message that girls consistently receive about their beauty being paramount. That their other achievements and interests, not matter how much they excel at them, will come second to beauty — and that’s because they’re girls.

Also of possible interest:

Thanks for reading, everyone. Has anything of interest come across your screens in the past week? What’s caught your attention?

It’s no joke: The Lorax trailers make punchline at women’s expense

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss is classic tale of environmental conscience, and it is a story that my three-year-old son enjoys. In fact, it was one of the first longer children’s books that managed to keep his attention for the entire story. Something about it just captivates him.

Today, I saw the trailer for the new Lorax movie for the first time. It’s a computer animated feature film based on Dr. Seuss’s book, and I smiled at the quality of the animation. There was a dream-like beauty to the Truffula Trees.

But as the trailer came to a close, it wiped the smile off my face.

Why? Because it ends with a joke that I don’t find funny at all.

Jump to about 2:20 in the above video, and you’ll hear the following exchange:

WOMAN: So who invited the giant furry peanut?
THE LORAX [gesturing threateningly]: I’ll go right up your nose! [He begins walking towards her, punching at the air. She leans towards him aggressively]
MAN: You wouldn’t hit a woman!
THE LORAX: [Incredulously:] Hoo! That’s a woman???

The “joke,” if you can call it that, is that the Lorax–voiced by Danny DeVito–doesn’t recognize his antagonist as a woman. After all, she is heavyset and not conventionally attractive, and she is behaving in a combative rather than demure way. So she’s gotta be a guy, right?

In other words, it is misogynistic and fat-shaming

The other trailer at the Lorax Movie’s official web site ends the exact. same. way.

Because it’s “just a joke,” it may seem like a small thing–but it isn’t. The comment demeans women whose bodies and behaviors don’t fit our culture’s overly narrow definition of feminine beauty. And when messages like these are relayed over, and over, and over, it becomes a really big deal. This “joke” reinforces the idea that it’s okay to objectify women–that women’s value is in their appearance–and that women who don’t fit the cultural ideal don’t deserve to be regarded as actual women.

I would find this joke reprehensible anywhere, but it really has no place in a children’s film. Surely the writers and directors could have done better! But, no–apparently the producers thought it was comedic genius. Cuz, you know, when women’s bodies aren’t sexy, they’re funny.

Readers: What do you think?

For further reading: It’s just a joke“: a theoretical but interesting discussion of offensive jokes

Order my book, Growing Up With Girl Power, today!

I’m delighted that my book, Growing Up With Girl Power: Girlhood On Screen and in Everyday Life, is now available from my publisher, Peter Lang Press! Won’t you buy a copy?

You can order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or directly from PeterLang.com. Orders placed now should arrive by the end of February.

Here’s a synopsis:

For more than a decade, girl power has been a cultural barometer, reflecting girlhood’s everchanging meanings. How did girl power evolve from a subcultural rallying cry to a mainstream catchphrase, and what meaning did young girls find in its pop culture forms? From the riot grrrls to the Spice Girls to The Powerpuff Girls, and influenced by books like Reviving Ophelia and movements like Take Our Daughters to Work Day, Growing Up With Girl Power charts this history. It considers how real girls who grew up with girl power interpreted its messages about empowerment, girlhood, strength, femininity, race, and more, and suggests that for young girls, commercialized girl power had real strengths and limitations–sometimes in fascinating, unexpected ways. Encompassing issues of preadolescent body image, gender identity, sexism, and racism, Growing Up With Girl Power underscores the importance of talking with young girls, and is a compelling addition to the literature on girls, media, and culture.

Professors: Are you considering assigning Growing Up With Girl Power in one of your classes? Request a free desk copy here, and check out my book’s companion website–it’s full of great content to prompt class discussion. If you adopt it for your course, I would be glad to visit or chat with your class via Skype. Email me for details!

Save the Childhood Studies program at Rutgers University!

In 2007, Rutgers University launched North America’s first doctoral-level program in Childhood Studies–a multidisciplinary program located at Rutgers’ Camden, NJ campus that also offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

The program’s creation was fantastic news: the program promised to serve as a pipeline for research and social action on issues relevant to children.

The fact that an institution as esteemed Rutgers saw value in a Childhood Studies program was a boost to our growing field (which also saw the creation of the Journal of Children in Media in 2007 and Girlhood Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal in 2008).

Now, in 2012–a mere 5 years later–New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has endorsed a plan to merge Rutgers University at Camden, hostile-takeover-style, into neighboring Rowan University.

Jettisoning Childhood Studies from Rutgers would sever the program’s faculty and students from the resources available at Rutgers–which could cripple this groundbreaking program. Professor Daniel Cook, director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers, explains:

All of this is threatened by this “merger” which would take the resources and name of Rutgers away and thrust us into incredible uncertainty. We are hoping to make the case to the Rutgers Board of Governors that our program is something unique and valued not only by us but others and an important part of that value comes from our identity as Rutgers.

Indeed, he is correct: Childhood Studies has symbolic value beyond Rutgers’ walls. A blow to the program would be a symbolic blow to our field.

Do you believe in the importance of Childhood Studies–in the value of treating children’s lives as a subject worthy of serious study?

If so, please sign this petition to help keep Childhood Studies part of Rutgers University. Thank you!

New at the Disney Store: Princess Dolls with Extra Sparkles! (and extra problems)

On a recent visit to my local Disney Store, I learned that Disney had just released a new line-up of Disney Princess dolls at the holidays. The new line-up was on the shelves–and so were some of their older counterparts.*

All of the dolls had new face molds (with larger eyes) and new dresses (which were sparklier than ever). Here’s what I saw:

The old Belle doll (left) has sparkling swirls on her gown's skirt, while the new Belle's dress is 100% sparkles. She also looks kind of worried. What's wrong, Belle?

The old Jasmine doll (left) has sparkly swirls on her pants, while the new doll's outfit is sparkly all over. Great news: She isn't wearing eyeshadow! She looks a little angry, though. What's wrong, Jasmine?

Our local store only had the newer Mulan doll in stock. It made me a little sad: Disney seems to want to “girl up” its tomboy. (Maybe that’s why the new Belle doll looks worried!) Check out Mulan’s tulle:

Hey, Mulan! Where'd you get that enormously poofy pink gown??

They didn’t have last year’s doll in stock (a sign that customers who like Mulan want a dress that’s true to the character?), so I found these online:

The old Mulan doll has swirly sparkles, like all of the older models; hers are just around her waist.

Watch out, Mulan--you're being swallowed by a rampaging ball gown. Run!!!

Did they put Pocahontas in a ball gown, too?

No ballgown here--but perplexingly, her feet are shaped for high heels. Old Pocahontas doll (left): sparkly necklace. New Pocahontas (right): sparkly necklace AND sparkly waistband! Good point: Her face mold seems truer to her on-screen counterpart. Big problem: The newer doll has noticeably lighter skin.

Disney lightened their Native American character’s skin? Hey, I bet that’s why Jasmine looks angry.

Not cool, Disney. Not cool at all.

In short, the new dolls have some good points (e.g., less makeup, a wider range of facial expressions) and some that cause concern (e.g., Mulan’s westernized dress and Pocahontas’s lightened skin).

Parents and Disney fans: What do you think of the new dolls?

*Note: My local Disney store did not have the older models of several dolls, including Rapunzel and Tiana (which have been selling very well). Has anyone seen the other dolls side by side? What did Disney do well? What could they do better next time?