Dr. Rebecca Hains

Why boys should play with dolls

No one is surprised about seeing dads with strollers anymore, yet biases with toys persist.

As Black Friday deals approach, I’ve been spending time thinking about my 7-year-old’s Christmas wish list. Thankfully, it’s short and sweet: a Beanie Boo, a Hess truck, Star Wars LEGOs, a LeapPad, a baby doll.

The fact that this is a boy’s list might spark some surprise, since it includes a classic “girl” toy, a baby doll to nurture. But today we’re on the cusp of a new children’s culture in which delineations between so-called girls’ and boys’ toys — between dolls and diesel trucks — won’t exist.

My son spends equal time playing with boys and girls and delights in playing house and video games alike. “Toys are for everybody,” he insists with admirable stubbornness.

But not everyone sees it that way. This summer, I appeared on the radio show NightSide With Dan Rea to discuss Target’s decision to stop labeling toy aisles for boys or girls. People from across the country phoned in, incensed. Many callers claimed that those of us who supported Target’s decision wanted to make “boys and girls the same,” arguing that we were promoting some kind of unisex, androgynous dystopia. […]

Read more at The Boston Globe.

Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.

Target will stop labeling toys for boys or girls. Good.

Target will stop labeling toys for boys or for girls. Good.

Yes, your daughter can play with blocks, and your son can play with dolls.

by Rebecca Hains for the Washington Post

Target’s decision to eliminate “boys” and “girls” signs from its toys and bedding departments makes a bold statement: Gender stereotypes and gendered marketing are passé. Many parents have spent years calling for the desegregation of children’s products, and this decision from the second-largest discount retailer in the U.S. signals a real cultural shift.

The announcement has met both high praise and extreme outrage in the past week. For every progressive parent celebrating the demise of the pink and blue aisles, a conservative parent is furious that Target has taken the other side in this culture war. Their outrage seems to stem from a widespread misunderstanding of the concept of “gender neutral” in a marketing context.
For example, a recent statement from Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, echoes many conservatives’ comments on Target’s Facebook page. Graham is calling for consumers to boycott. He called Target to complain about its decision, because, he says, “It’s not gender-neutral people out there” who led to Target’s success. Graham added, “Jesus said, ‘Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female (Matthew 19:4). You can’t get any clearer than that.”

“Gender-neutral marketing” doesn’t signify an attempt to make males and females the same, however, or to ban traditionally gendered toys like Barbie and G.I. Joe, as some allege. Rather, as I have explained on “Fox and Friends” and in the Boston Globe Magazine, it simply means organizing products children already love according to interest or theme — not by boy or girl. It’s actually a throwback to a bygone era that many critics of the practice grew up with: Gender-based marketing only came into vogue in the 1990s, when companies realized they could convince parents of children of both sexes to buy twice as much stuff by introducing gender segmentation to kids’ products.

In fact, toys used to be sold to kids in broad categories and organized by type, not by who would use them, according to Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist and lecturer at the University of California at Davis who has researched how the gendered marketing of children’s products has evolved since 1905. “So this move by Target is neither radical nor unprecedented,” Sweet says.

So, why this change, and why now? […]

Read more at The Washington Post

Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.

YMCA pool to mom: Baby girls need to wear swim tops. But, why?

Infant girl and boy at the pool

Angela writes that while visiting her local YMCA yesterday on one of the hottest days of the year, staff in the pool area informed her that her one-year-old daughter needed to wear a swim top. “It was fine for the baby boys not to wear a top,” Angela notes incredulously. “So as long as it’s a blue swim suit, then it’s okay?”

In my opinion, such a policy is problematic. First of all, it sexualizes infant girls. At such an early age, the only physiological way to tell a boy from a girl is from their genitalia. Their chests are undeveloped. Why would any reasonable adult think baby girls’ chests need to be covered?

Secondly, such a policy can only be enforced by relying upon stereotypical expectations regarding a child’s attire. As the campaign Let Clothes Be Clothes continuously reminds us, there is no such thing as “boys’ clothes” or “girls’ clothes”—just clothing with various colors and design elements, some of which fit our stereotypical expectations of what boys like and what girls like. But children (and their parents; and everyone, really) should feel comfortable dressing in whatever they like, without facing cultural pressures to conform to arbitrary gender stereotypes.

In other words, with children so young, unless the YMCA staff plan to implement diaper checks–which, clearly, they would not–they shouldn’t be policing girls’ swim attire. Doing so constitutes discrimination against those wearing stereotypically feminine swim attire, while allowing those of either sex who are wearing blue or gender-neutral attire to swim free of harassment from staff.

As Angela concludes regarding the photo she attached in her message to me: “My baby girl on the left—unacceptable swim attire. Baby boy on the right—acceptable. Really???”

Angela plans to address this further with leadership at her local YMCA, and her local moms’ group is even considering planning a “topless toddlers” day at the pool to press their point.

Readers: Any advice or suggestions? Have you successfully countered a sexist policy like this?

NYU Bookstore pulls body-shaming “I hate my thighs” onesie hours after complaints begin

"I hate my thighs" onesie

Yesterday, NYU employee Jason Y. Evans snapped this photo of an “I hate my thighs” onesie for infant girls in the NYU bookstore.

He alerted several student and alumni groups, and they complained to the bookstore. In fewer than eight hours, the bookstore had removed the onesie from its shelves.

To many, however, it’s shocking a university bookstore had stocked the item in the first place. It’s the same onesie that made international headlines two weeks ago after being roundly condemned by critics for body-shaming baby girls. The t-shirt’s producer responded to that original controversy in a tone-deaf (or perhaps intentionally baiting) way, claiming it was “ironic,” adding further fuel to the fire.

Evan’s photograph has prompted another round of attention for the onesie in part because of the contrast between the girls’ body-shaming onesie and the boys’ “I’m super” onesie. Their presentation together underscores the differences in girls’ and boys’ socialization regarding self-esteem and body satisfaction in a truly heartbreaking way. (As one commenter on my Facebook page remarked, it “pretty much sums up the difference between clothes design for boys and for girls.”)

Kudos to the NYU community for letting the NYU bookstore know that this kind of product is unacceptable. It’s a good reminder that collective outcry can make a difference, however small. With any luck, other retailers will pay attention, pull this item from their shelves, and send it back to the manufacturer for a refund, hitting them where it hurts.

Excerpts from the original Facebook post are below.

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On the NYU Bookstores Facebook page, a bookstore spokesperson confirmed the product had been pulled, noting it had been their “oversight” in stocking it in the first place:

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 10.02.30 AMAs one commenter on my page noted, however, it’s mind-boggling that products like these go through so many levels of approval and are approved at every step of the way, from concept development to presentation at retail:

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Consumers need to continue the backlash and let corporations of all kinds know that they will not earn our patronage by body-shaming girls.
Looking for tips on raising empowered girls in a princess world? Check out Rebecca Hains's critically acclaimed book, "The Princess Problem."

Learn how to raise empowered girls in a princess world: The Princess Problem by Rebecca Hains.

Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.


In Disney’s ‘Cinderella,’ courage and kindness are a victim’s strengths, but a film’s weakness

“Have courage, and be kind.” This sentiment recurs throughout Disney’s new live-action Cinderella. From the moment Ella’s dying mother offers her this advice, it becomes the driving force in Ella’s life and the through-line in her characterization by actress Lily James.

cinderella-final-poster-405x600Imbuing Cinderella with courage and kindness has a purpose: Director Kenneth Branagh uses it to give 2015’s Cinderella more agency than her cartoon predecessor from 1950. After all, in the broader media culture, bold, empowered young women are on trend (think Frozen’s Anna and Elsa, Brave’s Merida, and Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen). Passive victims like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty are passé, out of step with modern values.

In Branagh’s retelling of Disney’s animated classic, then, Ella makes a courageous choice to stay in her father’s home with her stepfamily. She chooses to respond to their cruelty with unearned kindness, even when they eject her from her room, stop feeding her properly, force her to tend an estate once managed by many servants, and taunt her, calling her Cinderella instead of Ella. Because it is her choice, the film positions Cinderella is not merely a passive victim, but a young woman with agency.

Young women’s agency is a hot topic. Parents, critics, and members of the pro-girl-empowerment community want girls to grow up to feel they are in charge of their own lives. As presented in Cinderella, however, Ella’s choice to submit graciously to abuse is a problematic message that weakens the film. If Ella’s courage and kindness allow others to abuse and deprive her, what good is it?

Here’s the underlying problem: All choices happen in a context. In the cultural context of Ella’s (vague and undefined) historical era and geographic locale, what range of choices would a young woman in her position really have? Could she have chosen to leave her family home if she had wished to? Did she have any extended family to go to? With her skills and mannered upbringing, could she have pursued employment as a lady’s maid, or would that not have been appropriate for a young woman of her station?

None of these questions are addressed in the film, which is unfortunate. It would have been easy enough to address them in the market scene, where a former servant of her father’s household asks Ella why she stays with her stepfamily. Her answer makes little sense: She states that she promised her parents to always cherish the family home, and so she stays. It’s a strange answer, for surely her devoted parents would never have wanted her to value a mere building more than her own health and well-being. From a storytelling perspective, it’s truly an opportunity lost: A quick conversation on the constraints Ella faced as a young woman alone in the world would have strengthened the film, giving it more power. As Joanna Weiss points out in the Boston Globe, “An easy answer, had Disney chosen to give it, is history. Unmarried women weren’t always free to move out on their own. Say that out loud and spark millions of deep conversations in minivans on the ride home.”

The long and short of it is this: While Branagh presented Disney’s newest Cinderella as less of a victim because she made a courageous choice, her choice was merely one of which way she should endure her abuse. What were her options, really: to endure her situation with grace, or anger, or despondency? Agency of this kind is incredibly limited, and Branagh’s inattention to the cultural context of Cinderella’s world is a weakness of the film. Accepting one’s victimization does not make one any less of a victim, even if you do so with such grace and dignity that you are a bride fit for a prince. Ultimately, Cinderella still requires the interference of a prince to change her fate from that of a victim.

In interviews, however, Branagh and his cast have asserted that Cinderella’s relationship with the Prince was irrelevant. As Richard Madden, the actor who played the Prince in the new film, stated in an interview: “This young woman in distress doesn’t need a man to save her. That’s totally irrelevant—she’d be fine without the prince, she’d get on with it.”

This sentiment sounds wonderful, but the film offers no indication that Cinderella would have “gotten on” with any other life kind of life. As long as her stepfamily was around, she seemed destined to remain a quietly courageous victim engaged in no better than slave labor. How would the continuation of that status quo have been “fine”?

Viewers may be also frustrated by the abruptness of the Fairy Godmother’s bumbling but good-natured and entertaining intervention. (Aside: Why did this film and Maleficent reimagine fairies who were portrayed as competent, powerful, gray-haired older women in the original animated films as younger and ditzy?) She only shows up when Cinderella wishes to attend the ball, but Cinderella needed so much more, so much earlier. Is this further evidence that in her socio-historic context, Cinderella’s choices would have been so limited that her only real “choice” was to stay with her abusive stepfamily or find a man? It seems all the magic in the world could not afford her a way to save herself. The best it could do was to help Cinderella deliver herself into the arms of the most eligible, handsomest, near-stranger bachelor around.

On the other hand, though, viewers may be pleased with subtle but important changes to the Prince’s storyline. Some good points:

1. The Prince seems to be drawn to Cinderella’s personality, her passion for courage and kindness, more than her beauty. It’s not a love-at-first-sight tale, but rather, one of love at first meeting, first conversation. Their first encounter is in the forest, when neither knows anything about the other. Cinderella loves animals (she is a Disney Princess, after all), so she chastises her new acquaintance for hunting a stag. The Prince, in turn, is taken by Cinderella’s words and spirit. The idea that he is drawn foremost to her personality is a step in the right direction for Disney, which tends to over-emphasize the perceived value of its heroines’ appearances.

2. The Prince has a close relationship with his dying father, who calls him Kit (which is very sweet), and who on his deathbed gives him his blessing to marry for love rather than political advantage. Father-son relationships are rarely depicted in Disney films, and this backstory is refreshing.

3. The Prince knows that the “mystery princess” from the ball was the girl he had become smitten with in the forrest. He recognizes her, and that—not her physical appearance—is why he seeks her out to dance.

4. After Cinderella leaves the ball without revealing her identity to the Prince, he sends an announcement to every village, declaring that he invites the “mystery princess” to join him at the castle so that he may propose to her, if she is willing. But she does not join him at the castle. He wonders whether she was somehow prevented from accepting his invitation, so in an effort to ensure she has a choice in the matter, he launches a search for the woman who fits her glass slipper. In an interesting twist, the Prince does not actually need the glass slipper to identify Cinderella, as he has seen her in both commoner and princessly form. Rather, the slipper serves as an excuse for his staff to approach every maiden in every corner of the kingdom to ferret out the young woman he is seeking, wherever she may be, and give her the option to accept or decline his offer of marriage, without the interference he worries may be at play.

Like other parts of Branagh’s Cinderella, then, the Prince’s search positions Cinderella as having a choice, as having agency in the matter. Unlike the stag the Prince was hunting earlier in the movie—which I read as a parallel to the beautiful maiden the Prince was essentially hunting in Disney’s 1950 Cinderella—today’s Cinderella is not a prize to be won. She is treated by the Prince as a person in her own right, and he appears to take her wishes are into consideration, aware of the possibility she might decline to be with him.

Realistically, of course, if we consider the significant matter of context, it’s hard to imagine her choosing the alternative. Why would she continue to be abused, with no exit strategy possible, when she can leave her abusers and become a princess?

Nevertheless, the idea that the Prince recognizes Cinderella’s agency and hopes she will choose him, rather than assuming that she is there for the taking, is perhaps the most important revision to the film. The theme of courage and kindness fall flat, but the fact that the Prince does not feel entitled to have her unless she consents is a meaningful improvement to the story.

After all, girls are not prizes to be won by male suitors. They’re people.

For further reading: 


Looking for tips on raising empowered girls in a princess world? Check out Rebecca Hains's critically acclaimed book, "The Princess Problem."

Learn how to raise empowered girls in a princess world: The Princess Problem by Rebecca Hains.

Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.


Balancing princess culture with significant women: A reader report on raising empowered girls

Empowering the Next Generation: Women’s Day
A guest blog post by Katie Grant

In today’s world, most girls go through a princess phase: princess outfits, tiaras, shoes, curly hair, makeup, nails, the whole nine yards. I went through that phase, even though my mom had a problem with princess stuff. She knew I played with LEGO, Batman, and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, but she did not like that I was also so obsessed with being a princess and playing damsel in distress. This, as my mom likes to say, “didn’t fly.” In response, my mom instituted “Women’s Day” when I was about seven years old—a once-a-month excursion to the public library to research the lives of significant women in history. She created it as an antidote to princess culture, and it worked.

In hindsight, it isn’t surprising to me that my mom came up with the idea of Women’s Day as a solution to my “princess problem.” My mom is an innovative parent, and she has cooked up some clever ideas help me overcome my Autism. She’s had me reorganize all of my shoes to learn left and right and hang up all of my clothes after she took them off the hangers to learn dexterity, and she purposely wrapped me in my least favorite textures to help me learn coping skills.

Women’s Day solved another problem beyond my princess obsession: It bridged the gaps in my education. My dad was active duty in the military for the first eleven years of my life. As a result, my brother and I sometimes had wide gaps in our education. Every state had a different curriculum, so we might have been ahead in one state and behind in another. We often spent summers visiting museums, zoos, playing outside, and in the library catching up on our education.

Women’s Day is a simple concept. One Friday out of every month, my mom, my brother and I would go to the library. Mom would give us each a name of a woman, and we would research her. The main questions she always asked us were, “Who was she? What did she do? What is she remembered for? Do you find anything interesting about her? Would you want to do what she does/did? Does she have any notable quotes?” Sometimes, we had a side project like, “Draw the day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat,” or “Write Marie Curie’s final journal entry.”

When we were younger, we would simply tell her what we had learned about our assigned women. As we grew, we wrote reports. The report had to be at least three handwritten loose-leaf pages, front page and back, using our best handwriting and with perfect grammar, as Mom’s background was in linguistics.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt

Princess Diana

Princess Diana

One time, she said, “Katie, research Eleanor Roosevelt. Alex, Princess Diana.” Off I went to the non-fiction section to research Eleanor Roosevelt. Somewhere during my research, I became sidetracked and took a peek at my brother’s topic and was enthralled. I completely forgot about dear Eleanor. The report I turned in was on Princess Diana, not Eleanor Roosevelt. My mom was about to say something when Alex came back; his report was on Roosevelt. He had misheard whom he had and thought he had Eleanor Roosevelt the whole time! At least we had done two different people, and she had a good laugh about it.

Over the years, I’ve researched quite a few women for Women’s Day. I’ve researched household names like Marie Curie, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Russian Empress Catherine II, Anne Boleyn, Joan of Arc, Mother Theresa, Audrey Hepburn, Belle Boyd, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. I’ve also done reports on less famous women like Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the United States, and mountaineer Annie Smith Peck. Mary Jane Bowser, a highly educated former slave gifted with eidetic memory who was planted in the Confederate White House by the Unions as a spy, is one of my favorites.

When I went on to college, Women’s Day informed some of my school assignments. For example, one of my papers was on Camille Claudel, a less famous sculptor institutionalized against her will by her brother after an affair with Auguste Rodin went south. I took what I learned from Women’s Day as a child and chose a sculptor who was overshadowed by her mentor, even though she had a voice of her own. I have kept this paper as a memento because I could relate to Claudel on a personal level.

In other words, parents don’t have to ban princesses, Barbies and toys that put women on a pedestal to raise children who view women as strong individuals. It’s about finding a balance. Barbies are fun, but so is learning about real women who have impacted society. Parents don’t even have to look that far back in history to teach children about strong women today. A few of my favorites that parents and children can explore include:

  • Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, whose charities are children’s hospices.
  • Angelina Jolie, who is a UN High Commissioner for Refugees Goodwill Ambassador and works with over twenty charities.
  • Malala Yousafzai, who is not only a neer-peer in age to today’s children, but who also won the Nobel Peace Prize at 17 for her unerring work in promoting women’s education across the globe.
  • Lupita N’yongo, who is the seventh black female to win an Oscar and her speeches are empowering women of color to celebrate themselves for what color they are, not what color they should be.
  • Emma Watson, who at a conference for HeforShe at the United Nations in 2014 stood up for feminism and gender equality. The video of the speech went viral within minutes.
  • Michelle Obama, the first black First Lady in the White House.
  • Sonia Gandhi, one of India’s most influential politicians.
  • Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey, two of the most influential news broadcasters in the United States of America.

There are so many women to choose, especially with modern day technology. No school will ever teach children about all of these women, but you, as a parent, can.


Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be kind in your comments.  It takes bravery to publish a personal story. Unnecessarily harsh comments attacking the author of this reader story will be removed or edited.


About the author: Katie Grant is a 26-year-old Army daughter. She was born in a tiny town called Bamburg in West Germany; she moved to the States when she was nearly three. She’s lived in four other states aside from the one she lives in currently. She was diagnosed with Autism at a very early age; her mother has been a backbone in aiding her education so she kept up with other kids. She is three classes away from an Associates Degree in Art from the College of Lake County. Her passions include crochet, jigsaw puzzles, fairy tales, mythology, and comic books, especially Batman. Often seen with her Decker Terrier, Zena, she has a love for all canines and is currently expanding her love to horses; she’s currently doing therapeutic horseback riding at a stable near her home.


Looking for tips on raising empowered girls in a princess world? Check out Rebecca Hains's critically acclaimed book, "The Princess Problem."

Learn how to raise empowered girls in a princess world: The Princess Problem by Rebecca Hains.

Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

Rebecca is on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoyed this post, you may follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at rebeccahains.com/blog.


Princess Awesome Kickstarter Signals a Cultural Tipping Point

Princess Awesome dresses

It’s a familiar story: A mom, shopping for clothing for her two-year-old daughter, sees nothing but gender-stereotypical offerings. To give her little girl some diverse choices, she ignores the girls’ and boys’ signs, and buys a few items from each department.

I remember my mom doing this for me in the 1980s, in order to get me a shirt with my beloved Mickey Mouse on it (which for some reason was only available in the boys’ section).

I remember moms doing this for the little girls I interviewed for my Growing Up With Girl Power book around 2005, in order to get their daughters science-themed shirts.

And I have been doing this for my own sons since 2008, seeking out non-stereotypical options in both department—with favorite finds including a cute bomber jacket and an epic black-and-white print Madonna “Who’s That Girl 1987 World Tour” t-shirt, which my son rocked at age three. Both were in the girls’ department, rather than the boys’, even though they struck me as delightful gender-neutral items.

But Rebecca Melsky, like a few other brave and entrepreneurial parents before her, went one step further: After a fatefully frustrating shopping trip for her two-year-old in 2013, Melsky and her friend Eva St. Clair decided to do something. In the same spirit as their entrepreneurial predecessors who created t-shirts, books, and dolls, Melsky and St. Clair took on a different challenge: girls’ dresses.

The dresses they designed break the pink frilly dress mold with aplomb, featuring equal parts style and cleverness.

Princess Awesome dresses

Princess Awesome dresses

In this way, Princess Awesome—a small, indie, mom-owned business—was born. Two years passed, and Melsky and St. Clair could not keep up with demand: People wanted more of their well-designed, colorful dresses than they could sew. So, on February 3, 2015, Princess Awesome launched a month-long Kickstarter campaign to move their brand into factory production, with a goal of raising $35,000.

Kickstarter tells its campaigners that when they receive one-third of their funding in three days, that’s a good predictor of success.

Consider the significance, then, of the fact that Princess Awesome was fully funded in three days—and that now, 10 days later, they’re rapidly approaching the $100,000 mark.

In the meantime, their incredible designs have gone viral. They’ve been featured everywhere from the Huffington Post to BuzzFeed News, and when I shared their campaign with my own Facebook community on the day their Kickstarter launched, my readers reacted with palpable excitement.

“OMG, my girls would have LOVED this!” one mom said. “We did ballet dancers and fairies, but that was about as far as anyone could stand—and only in bed sheets.”

“Yes!” exclaimed another. “I know my LO would love a dinosaur dress.”

“I like cute pink dresses for little girls but I also like options,” noted another. “Can’t wait to buy these one day when I have a daughter too.”

Even Brenda Chapman, director of Disney/Pixar’s Brave, weighed in: “A kickstarter I think all princesses could get behind! Thanks for sharing, Rebecca Hains!”

Melsky and St. Clair are delighted and perhaps a bit surprised to see that they’ve stuck a chord with so many people. “When we were just starting out and told people our concept for Princess Awesome, almost every single person said, ‘That’s a fantastic idea!’,” Melsky reflects. “We figured that when we launched the Kickstarter we’d find out if people were just humoring us or if we’d really hit a nerve. I’m pretty sure at this point we can say that people weren’t just humoring us.

“Our Kickstarter message inbox is filled with people telling us about their daughters who love all sorts of things—tutus, trucks, Ninja Turtles, math, dinosaurs,” she adds. “They keep saying how happy they are to have some dress choices that honor that range of interests.”

The public’s enthusiastic response to the Princess Awesome dresses raises an interesting question: Why are people so excited about this option—and why now?

From my perspective, the groundswell of support for Princess Awesome tells us something important about our current cultural context. Today’s girls face a strikingly monochromatic girlhood. As I explain in my book The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, the dominance of pink frilly dresses and other stereotypically pink products exploits a developmental stage called “appearance rigidity.” During this stage, about two-thirds of little girls—unsure what makes boys boys or girls girls, and unsure of the permanence of their sex, and therefore a little nervous about whether using “boys'” items could turn them into boys—attach themselves to the most stereotypically girlish items they can find. In so doing, they are announcing to the world that they are girls and proud of it, as they celebrate and cement their identities as girls. 

Marketers know this, and so girls’ products in all categories, from apparel to toys to home goods, have become dominated by the color pink. After all, the color pink is like low-hanging fruit: It’s an easy and lazy way for marketers to declare, “Hey, girls, this is for you!”

Unfortunately, monochromatic girlhood drives a wedge between boys and girls—separating their spheres during a time when cross-sex play is healthy and desirable, and when their imaginations should run free.

Meanwhile, marketers (and some critics of the girl empowerment movement) blame parents for the very situation the marketers themselves have created. If parents would vote with their dollars and stop buying stereotypical items and boycott the pinkification of previously gender-neutral items (like wagons and infants’ stacking rings and globes), they say, the marketplace would respond. Then, and only then, girls will have real choices once again.

Many indie clothing brands and their supporters have heeded these words, fighting back against monochromatic girlhood and the stereotypical division of the sexes by creating clever unisex items, like t-shirts in colors and designs that are meant for boys and girls alike.

But thanks to the developmental phase I mentioned earlier, many little girls favor dresses over t-shirts (and many parents do, too). After all, a dress announces to the world that its wearer is a girl, which means that by wearing a dress, girls can celebrate girlhood. Plus, dresses are undeniably pretty, and fun to twirl in—and play dress like those offered by Princess Awesome are easy to move and run in, and look nice with leggings, too. For some families, then, gender-neutral tee-shirts don’t always fit the bill, and they’re not always that easy to find, either. Parents need to have a bit of cultural capital to locate indie brands in the first place.

Princess Awesome "Pi" Play Dress

Princess Awesome “Pi” Play Dress

Princess Awesome is arguably the first serious alternative to stereotypically girly-girl dresses to enter the marketplace in recent years. Given parents’ increasing frustration with princess culture and girls’ constricted, stereotypical, pink-upon-pink “options,” Princess Awesome’s timing is perfect. Perhaps it’s even the harbinger of a new zeitgeist.

Lori Day, a psychologist and educational consultant who authored Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, agrees. “I think one of the reasons Princess Awesome is hitting it right now is that in today’s girl culture, we have a spectrum with much-needed brands like Princess Free Zone on one end—featuring clothes for girls who want nothing to do with dresses or girly. On the other end is the super girly-girl style—all pink and Disney gowns,” she explains.

“But,” Day adds, “the middle is a popular place to be right now. Think of how many moms say, ‘My daughter is girly and likes to wear dresses and collect bugs,’  or ‘My girl plays in the mud in her Belle gown.’ Princess Awesome taps right into the ‘my daughter likes princess and…‘ concept: girly dresses with neutral or traditionally ‘male’ themes in the fabric.”

In short, the Princess Awesome Kickstarter campaign has gone viral because there is indeed an unmet need for clever, non-stereotypical, vibrantly colored little girls’ dresses in the marketplace. They juxtapose stereotypically boyish themes with traditionally girlish stylings—which some readers may recall as the formula that led girl power to success in the late 1990s.

Princess Awesome’s traction may be read as a cultural referendum on the relentlessly monochromatic girly girl culture we’ve lived with for more than a decade—a signal that we’re approaching a cultural tipping point on the subject. And that’s a good thing.

To support the Princess Awesome Kickstarter campaign, click here.
Looking for tips on raising empowered girls in a princess world? Check out Rebecca Hains's critically acclaimed book, "The Princess Problem."

Learn how to raise empowered girls in a princess world: The Princess Problem by Rebecca Hains.

Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. 

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