When I was a kid, my sister and I were obsessed with pretending we were Ariel from The Little Mermaid. Looking back, however, we were only interested in the first part of the story. Ariel was only cool when she was a mermaid—when she got to splash around and belt out songs and hang out with her aquatic friends. As soon as she lost her voice and got legs and hung out with boring old prince Eric—well, that was when we lost interest.
Was I a little feminist in the making? It turns out that there are plenty of people who have a problem with some of the more troubling aspects of The Little Mermaid (Giving up your voice to catch a man? At age 16?) and it doesn’t stop there. For many people, Disney princesses’ are a symbol of what is wrong with the current stories and products that are created for children: the ever-increasing gender stratification, the push for children to grow up faster, and the hyper-feminization of little girls.
Think people are overreacting? So did I, until I had a baby girl.
I optimistically planned on having a gender-neutral nursery, and planned to outfit my baby accordingly. A few baby showers later and I realized that there were few options for girls out there: purple, pink, and light pink. And princess terminology was everywhere! From sippy cups to Sesame Street, princesses are the new ticket to marketability. My unease with the lack of non-pink-and-tiara themed items for girls was magnified when I read the recent New York Times bestselling book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.
In the book, Peggy Orentstein chronicles her own journey into princess land with her daughter, and what the implications of our culture’s obsession with gender disparity means for our children. From Pottery Barn kids to Christian bookstores (see: Zondervan’s new princess-themed Bible for girls), little girls are being fed a narrower and narrower concept of what true femininity is.
So why should Christians care about Princess culture? I believe that God wants us to have an active say in what true femininity and masculinity is. For too many years the church has been content to let popular culture dictate how girls and boys should see themselves.
My own unease with princess culture can be directly traced to my own experience with the church. After four years of Bible college I felt like the church was equivalent to the pigs in Animal Farm, telling me that God created all of us equal–but some of us were more equal than others. Women were created in the image of God, but were not allowed to be the head preacher. Women were given the gifts of the Spirit, but were more prone to emotionalism and more easily deceived than our brethren.
Given these conflicting messages, I started to absorb an ugly heresy that women were somehow inferior to men. This kind of wrong thinking has been the cause of many, many atrocities the world over. For me, the impact was far less violent, although still devastating spiritually. Conflicted by my inherent inferiority as a woman and my God-given gifts of leadership and mobilization, I chose a third option: to disengage from my femininity and live life as if there were no gender differences.
As multiple scientific studies (and even a casual observation of a playground) have shown, however, there are distinct differences between the way boys and girls play, interact, communicate, and even think. Disney, the behemoth behind the princess phenomenon (Disney princess merchandise, first introduced in 2000, now sells a brisk 4 billion dollars worth a year) is quick to point out that they don’t force little girls to buy princess paraphernalia. Indeed, little girls tend to gravitate towards the pink and the purple all on their own.
If princesses, pink, purple and glitter are truly what little girls want, then why should not give it to them? The problem, says Orenstein, is in the continual narrowing of what little girls choose to play with, the stories they reenact, and the messages they are told that define what a girl is.
How, and why, does this narrowing happen? It’s no coincidence that marketers such as Disney are targeting younger and younger children. As they leave toddlerhood, children enter a stage where rigidity is important in all areas, including ideas about gender. If you are a little girl and a princess is upheld to be the epitome of femininity, then that is what you will want to strive for. Or else, in the mind of a four-year-old, you aren’t a little girl. Playing princess and waving wands may not be in of itself harmful, but the progression of always striving to conform to the societal representation of femininity is not something that any mother wishes for her daughter. And while I am generally not a fan of the slippery slope argument, our culture does have some specific trends when it comes to role models for girls. Disney Princesses lead to Barbies which lead to Bratz dolls which lead to Britney Spears (or Miley or whoever the next fallen starlet is).
Due to my own unease with gender differences, I have found my first impulse when confronted with princesses is to ignore, restrict, and ban as many aspects of the girli-girl culture as I can. Orenstein herself writes of constantly having conversations with her daughter about what it means to be a girl who thinks for herself, who is strong and courageous and can do without rescuing.
However, anti-princess propaganda can be just as damaging. I recently realized that I have somehow let the belief that women are inferior to men infiltrate me to the point where I believe all things feminine are sub-par, weak, or just plain bad. Pink and glitter and emotions and romantic comedies—all have come under my scorn at one point or another. Wrestling with princess mania has shown me that I have bad theology. I realized that I don’t believe God when he said that he created us, male and female, in his image. I don’t live my life like I believe that He created me to bring His gospel and His kingdom, to the ends of the earth. Instead I have bought into a lie that says I am inferior and therefore can settle into a comfortable passivity that passes as submission.
The church, and not Cinderella, should be the ones telling little girls what (and Who) their identity is in. I look forward to a future when my daughter can like whatever color she chooses and play with whatever toy she wants while still feeling secure in both her femininity and her calling in God’s kingdom.