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Saturday
Oct082011

Where Are the "Astronaut Makeovers" for Little Girls? 

A few days ago, while my daughter was watching a t.v. show, I happened to catch a Disney commercial (more like an infomercial) in which a lucky girl was surprised with a Disney Princess Makeover. The little girl gets whisked off into makeover land while her parents are interviewed behind-the-scenes about her princess obsession ("When she dresses up, she always dresses up like a princess!") and the little girl is interviewed about which princess she likes best: "Belle" she replies. Her makeover expert asks her what she likes about her, "She's kind." "How does it make you feel to be a princess?" "Proud," says the little girl beaming while her hair is being put up and her lips coated with lipgloss. The final "reveal" is the moment when the little girl sees herself in a floor length mirror wearing a pale yellow gown and sparkly tiara for the first time and her parents come in to see the finished product with the father proclaiming, "She's my princess!" (That's when I cringed.)

I wondered what the little girl (who by the way was African American and had not chosen the one African American Disney princess, Tiana) saw in the mirror. She was now a complete princess transformed as if by magic because there was little she had actually done to become one. She just sat passively while someone made up her face, gave her an updo, and helped her don the dress and tiara and...voila! Basically, becoming a princess means you get to look pretty. Then what? And while I commend the little girl in this Disney piece for choosing a wonderful quality such as kindness to describe her favorite princess, all I could think was wouldn't it be nice if she could identify with a character that is kind, but one that also offers something more in terms of substance? 

Something that further illustrates this phenomenon of becoming a princess is Mattel's video for Barbie's Princess Charm School. It is in fact very similar to the makeover process that the little girl receives in the Disney bit. While I haven't seen the entire video, the trailer says it all (I don't think it's necessary to watch the entire video). A little girl named Blaire gets whisked off to Princess Charm School ("Wow! You get to ride in a carriage!") where she immediately is introduced to her "personal princess assistant" and begins to learn all the ways of princess. Cut to scenes of her walking while balancing books on her head, and dancing with a handsome young man. Blaire says, "We just use some hard work to unlock our princess potential" as she is seen getting a facial with her hair wrapped in a towel while fairies yell out "manicure time!" The voice-over tells us that "she'll learn what it will take to become a real princess" while the head mistress of the school says, "I believe every one of you has princess potential!" 

With ten current princesses in the Disney Princess franchise (Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, and Rapunzel), and those who are considered unofficial princesses and a host of other princess options, every little girl has their pick of the royal litter. Of course, it wasn't always this way. I was born in 1965 when there was just Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty (didn't even know her name was Aurora). I recall seeing the movies, but have no recollection of anything else. I never dressed up as a princess and there certainly were no princess sections in toy stores like there are now. Technically, princess culture was not created until the year 2000. That's when Peggy Orenstein, in her now well-known book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, notes the intentional strategy by Disney to form a princess group. She says, "It was a risky move: Disney had never marketed its characters separately from a film's release...[t]hat is why, these days, when the ladies appear on the same item, they never make eye contact. Each stares off in a slightly different direction, as if unaware of the others' presence." Once the princesses were marketed this way, profits literally exploded: "Within a year, sales had soared to $300 million. By 2009, they were at $4 billion."

She goes on to say that there are more than 26,000 Disney Princess items (and I'm sure that's growing) on the market. Twenty-six thousand (26,000)! So, when I hear some say that it's not right to move in on the princess ideal or that being "anti-princess" isn't right or that "You don't want to alienate girls who like princess"--I remind them that there are 26,000 princess items on the market--who is anti and who is alienating? Aren't there enough tiaras for everyone to literally drown in? And shouldn't there be more alternatives to princess given the over-abundance of sparkliness that seems to be reproducing faster than the rat population? 

As I watched the Disney Princess Makeover moment with my daughter, who is as non-princess as you can get (not all girls have--or want to have--princess potential), I wondered how we got to be this instant makeover society that teaches young girls to value appearance over almost everything else while thinking adults simply accept the false premise that it is completely normal for girls to be obsessed with princess. That's because it's been like a slow, steady IV drip adjusted by large corporations over the years--you don't even feel it.

Look--I am not unemotional or coldhearted. I see how much wonder and excitement young girls seem to feel when they dress and look like a princess and it can be sweet. It's a fairy tale moment. But it is a fairy tale. Sure, a lot of girls grow out of it, but many are locked into an unattainable idea of perfection and beauty that never ends--or as my friend Lori Day puts it in her article, The Gender Pendulum: "Girls fall down a rabbit hole of beauty propaganda from which they may never emerge." Do you want that to be your daughter? Just think if there were a surprise makeover for a girl in which she was told, "I believe you have astronaut potential" or "scientist potential" or "heroic potential." Why always princess? Wouldn't it be amazing if you could watch your daughter's face light up thinking she could be president someday? After all, the chances of her becoming president are greater than her becoming a princess.

Reader Comments (9)

I'm the aunt of 3 beautiful girls that have grown up surrounded by Disney Princesses and a father referring to them as "Princess" ALL the time. I can attest to the fact that this has done absolutely nothing for their self esteem. They are completely focused on their looks and have basically no career goals. My oldest niece, 21, has always done well in school but turned down Loyola University and chose to stay home and attend a community college just to be closer to her friends. She's currently working in retail (her 8th job) and loves fashion. I hope that works out for her but, again, she's focused on the external and I don't see that changing anytime soon. My 16 year old niece is in private school and they really push the kids to choose a career early on there, yet she remains absolutely clueless about what she wants to do. She doesn't even have a top five in mind with regards to a career. However she is totally focused on putting her Halloween costume together that may or may not be "too slutty" in her words. The youngest looks like she is headed towards an acting career since she has proven to be a complete drama queen since birth. Don't get me wrong, the girls aren't bad kids but while their parents have been so busy focused on their own looks and keeping up with the Jones', my nieces were raised by Disney movies and their marketing and it doesn't look promising.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSandy in Miami, Fl

First of all, to Sandy in Miami, I am blown away by your comment. I know SO MANY families like this and it is heartbreaking. I hope the girls will be ok, but it's very hard to develop depth of character, goals, and self-esteem when the formative years are spent in these ways and with these influences. I worry about an entire generation of girls. Very, very upsetting, and thanks for writing.

PFZ, many thanks for the shout-out! The is a GREAT blog post, one of my favorites. The essential question you ask at the end is exactly what is NOT being asked in families like the one Sandy writes about.The last sentence is killer. No kidding. NO KIDDING. I hope this post gets around a lot--it says something really important that we all need to think deeply about.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLori Day

I really appreciate these comments and feedback. Thanks, Sandy, for providing a real example of the potentially harmful effects of princess culture. How sad that your three nieces don't seem to be motivated to succeed. But that's what the princess ideal tells girls: You don't have to DO anything. There is no sense of accomplishment that goes along with being a fairy tale princess.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichele from PFZ

I have one daughter, who is 18 now. She grew up watching the new princesses on Disney. When she would watch them I would talk to her about the wonderful characteristics they displayed, such as, bravery, kindness, strength, etc. I taught her that made them great women. You can have them watch the princesses just change the focus from them being simply beautiful to focusing on the women's strong character.

I also taught my daughter to be involved in sports. To me there is nothing greater to teach women they are worth so much more than how they look. I taught her that she had a great day if she came home covered in dirt from head to toe. She received a full scholarship to play Division I Women's Softball in college. As parents, we have to teach our girls to change their focus.

I had my daughter very young, so all of my friends are now having children or have girls that are between the ages of 8 to 10. They used to tell me all the time I was crazy because we spent so much time focused on sports. Now all of their daughters are playing softball and wearing my daughter's number because she has been such an inspiration. It is truly the greatest feeling you can have as a parent to have so much pride that your daughter is helping other young girls realize they can be so much more than just a pretty princess.

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlicia

Thanks for your comment Alicia--you absolutely get it. Talk to your daughters about what they're seeing and pull out the positive messaging instead of reinforcing the more detrimental. Sounds like you have raised your daughter to be a strong, independent thinking woman. Good for you!

October 12, 2011 | Registered CommenterMichele

My daughter is 10 and is bright, beautiful, and kind-hearted. She loves Disney and Disney movies, but she balances that by also loving the Mythbusters and anything related to science. Her room is filled with books - you can find "Introduction to Physics" next to "Inkheart" and "Harry Potter" on her shelves.

She loves creating her own outfits and costumes and we encourage her unique fashion sense - hey clothes can be fun! - but she knows that what is inside her head is just as important. We have raised both our kids to be aware of marketing and the reasons behind it, so while she enjoys the Disney princess movies, she knows they are not the be-all and end-all of what it means to be a girl. I hope she'll stay this smart and self-confident as she moves into her teenage years!

October 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJane

I loved this. It really, really irritates me that being a princess is seen as a goal for young women, when movies and shows make it apparent that "princess" is interchangeable with "window dressing." This isn't a goal for girls to aspire to, it's a way to keep them insecure, focused on their appearance and spending money. The trailer you linked to sparked something in me, so I spent last night and this morning recreating it around a more powerful image of what it means to be a princess (I linked to it in my comment). History offers so many awesome examples of what princesses and queens accomplished, and I would be ecstatic to see Disney make a movie about a real princess.

October 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBailey

Thanks so much Bailey! I don't see a link--would love to share it. Please email me through the website.

October 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterMichele

Hi Michele - I just saw the error in my comment, I actually linked to it in the "author URL" bar, so if you click on my name, you should be able to see it! Sorry about that.

October 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBailey

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