Were You Ruined by Princess Culture?

by Evette Dionne

Disney Princesses1Princess culture almost ruined me. I was reared in the “happily ever after” fables of Disney, so I wore the character-endorsed merchandise and zealously absorbed the fairytales. Ariel, Jasmine, Cinderella, Snow White, Pocahontas and Belle were marketed as kid-tested, mother-approved characters.

Disney assured parents that there was no reason to be concerned with the images being peddled to their children. What harm could cartoons have on a kid who hadn’t even started kindergarten? I was often plopped in front of the television to watch a beloved princess sacrifice without complaint to snag her fated prince.

I was most intrigued with Ariel, star of “The Little Mermaid.” The redhead, mermaid-daughter of King Triton was the first fictional character I was ever drawn toward.

The “Little Mermaid” was released in 1989 – after a 30-year princess drought – and I was fixated with the movie from 1993 through 1995. I expressed my adoration for Arielle by donning clothing and shoes with her image stitched into them. My parents purchased books, pencils and even an expensive comforter-set to satiate my “Little Mermaid” obsession. I also owned the entire princess movie-collection and their accompanying books and Barbie dolls.

The innocence of childhood kept me from realizing how detrimental Ariel and her fellow princesses could be. I couldn’t fathom how their plots would factor into my understanding of femininity, relationships and overall contentment. Ariel, Jasmine, Cinderella, Snow White and the other doe-eyed, beautiful, passive women were my childhood pals. Their presence then still haunts me now.

All of the princesses were depicted as directionless, oppressed women that were incomplete without their prince. Ariel embodies these characteristics arguably more than her peers.

The mermaid-princess trades her beautiful voice for “a kiss of true love” from Eric, her human crush. She’s left mute and heartbroken. Ursula, the witch Arielle brokered the deal with, steals her voice and attempts to wed the man she loves.

Other princesses face similar obstacles before nabbing their loves. Jasmine, the Middle-Eastern princess in “Aladdin,” forgoes wealth and riches to pursue a burgeoning love with Aladdin. Her decision places them both in peril. Cinderella faces the wrath of her stepmother and stepsisters to get the glass slipper. Their sacrifices are rewarded in their films, but life doesn’t promise blissful endings.

Absorbing princess culture had an unforeseen impact on how I romanticized relationships.  I often envisioned the moment a man would place a glass slipper on my delicate foot. It would be the perfect fit and would solidify our love. We would traipse into our future together and never have a disagreement.

I twirled in the mirror in pink nightgowns that bore the faces of Ariel and Pochahantas and imagined meeting and falling in love with a handsome Prince Charming in knight’s gear.

The princess culture warped my expectations of love and romance. I’m still combing through the debris left behind. This impact is common for girls raised in the land of fairytales.

Princesses offer a narrow view of womanhood through the lens of virtue and innocence. Lyn Mikel Brown, co-author of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes, sees the marketing of princess culture as problematic.

“Playing princess is not the issue,” Brown argued. “The issue is 25,000 Princess products. When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”

Princesses are marketed without dimensions. All of the princesses are nipped, tucked and enhanced to reinforce the patriarchal image of womanhood that the brand should strive to subvert. Even defiant gems like Princess Merida of “Brave” undergo troubling transformations to suit Disney’s understanding of what constitutes princess-hood.

Cultural critic Peggy Orenstein examined the phenomenon of princess culture after her daughter became obsessed with personifying Cinderella. She published her observations in the book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, and strives to use her experience to encourage parents to limit their children’s exposure to princess culture.

In her research, Orstein found idolizing princesses strips girls of their ability to create reasonable expectations of romance and sexuality. This defect follows them into adulthood, as it did for me.

“The way that prematurely sexualizing girls or play-acting at sexy for them from a young age disconnects them from healthy authentic sexual feeling,” she said. “So that they learn that sexuality is something that you perform, instead of something that you feel.”

“And that can have implications as they get older in the culture, both because of that, and because that’s increasingly what they’re going to be presented with – the idea that their sexuality is something to perform for others,” she added. “And so starting that at the age of 4, 5, or 6 is troubling for a whole set of reasons that I hadn’t anticipated when I started this.”

Additionally, princess culture perpetuates a performative aspect that dictates how womanhood should be constructed and performed. Princess movies and merchandise send girls messages about how to behave and what’s acceptable for a woman.

Cute dresses and handsome princes are par for the feminine course. Shooting bows-and-arrows and wearing a frizzy, red afro is unacceptable. These cues keep girls trapped in a world that defines their identities before they’ve ever had the chance to explore their own understandings of girlhood.

Orenstein found this problematic as well, especially as girls’ age. She explained, “Once they get a little older and they’re creating profiles online and kind of performing their teenage identity as kids always do anyway, but suddenly doing it in this really public way in front of 322 of their best friends forever, right, and in this kind of disconnected fashion that we don’t know the full implications of, but all of it, for girls in particular, reinforces this idea that who you are is how you perform, and who you are is how you look.”

The real world forced me to disavow from princess culture. Heartbreak made me question if I had unrealistic expectations of romance, relationships and love. I did and still do. I thought love was what the movies explained it to be. This was also reinforced by my parents. My father was my mother’s prince. He was her first love.

I wanted that and didn’t achieve it, so I felt inadequate. Most of this angst could be traced to Ariel and her fellow princesses. I now watch the movies that I loved in childhood with a critical lens. I see the fallacies of princess culture now and strive to renounce it.

However, my two-year-old niece is obsessed with Ariel. She has blankets, books and DVDs that eerily-resemble the adoration I had for the mermaid-princess. I encourage her to sing along with “The Little Mermaid” and revel in the tradition of Disney classics, but I do so with context in mind.

When the credits roll, I tell her fairytales don’t resemble real life. It bursts her perfect bubble, but I am determined to teach my niece that her success isn’t tethered to the princesses of her childhood.

Princesses were designed to be innocent and harmless. Disney excised the violence and cannibalism associated with fairytales, and transformed them into children’s classics. Their intentions were honorable, but the execution of princess culture can ruin a girl. It almost ruined me.

Was princess culture influential in your lives, Clutchettes? How do you move past the falsities of fairy-tales? Do you allow your daughters to indulge in Disney princess movies?

  • Hollywood

    Nope. I was never one of those girls into the whole fairytale, princess thing growing up. I never even thought twice about it.

  • Gigi Young

    I watched most of the Disney films, and liked Belle, Ariel, and Jasmine, but I never saw them as anything else but interesting characters in a good movie.

  • SE

    I wasn’t into Disney growing up either so this doesn’t affect me.

  • GG

    Absolutely not. Majority of my family members are divorced so I had no idea of a knight in shining armor. I loved watching the movies specially Jasmine the princess of color.

  • Dlo

    I never did. Not once did I want to be a Princess. I wanted to be Diana Ross though.

  • Kellogg Liberbaum


  • L

    I never wore the dresses/wigs. Never played with the disney dolls or wanted to be a princess but I have always wish for that knight-in-shining armor coming to save me. So I’d say yes, the plot of disney movies did have an effect on me. But honestly the knight in shining armor plot is in most romantic movies.

    And am I the only one that couldn’t wait for the songs in Disney movies? I would sing them to death and I bet I still know the words to many :)

  • Blue

    The ONLY Disney princess I was obsessed over as a kid was Ariel. I loved to sing as a kid & she sings. The kids in my class asked me to sing the songs from the movie. I had the bed sheets, the dolls you name it.

    But I did admire Jasmine “I am not a prize to be won” You tell em, girl. Finger snap. Only a girl with a pet tiger will be so bold & confident.

    And Belle…smart & beautiful, loves to read & not into guys because of his looks. She looked on the inside.

  • MimiLuvs

    The Disney Princess culture? No.
    My father, my uncles, my brother and my male cousins? Yes. Yes, they did.

  • ChaCha

    I liked Princess Jasmine and Ariel while I watched the movies, but that was it. I didn’t care about princess-anything. My daughter on the other hand, is all about the princess life. It gets on my last nerves. I try to filter it, but it is everywhere. It’s at school, her friends talk about it, people buy princess costumes and dolls for her birthdays. She wore her princess costume daily, for hours until I tossed it. When you ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, she says that she wants to be a princess and have a royal ball with the prince (her way of saying wedding). Ask my son, and he says he’ll be a marine biologist or a teacher. I tell her to go play basketball or jog with me, and she says that she can’t because princesses don’t do those things. Ugh.

  • Marketing Gimmicks

    Black women are women and like all women we want the fantasy of being cared for, loved, honored and cherished. But in general black women aren’t catered to as princesses because many of us were raised in fatherless homes. In my experience your mommy cannot make you a princess; only your daddy can. Your dad is the one who models to you how a man is supposed to treat you and cherish you.

    Disney based fantasies and/or being put on a pedestal are ideas pretty much sold to women’s who’s fathers honored their roles in being provider’s and protector’s of their families. And it’s a great head start to have this modeled for you as a little girl.

    If a man protects and provides for his daughter he certainly has instilled invaluable life-long principles where she will seek men who are capable of giving her what her father gave her and not settling for anything less.

    Of course there are some black women who want the “Porscha Stewart” wedding fantasy but for the most part many of us don’t have the option of living in that kind of delusion.

    For the most part many men out here don’t know squat about being a provider and protector let alone treating their women like princesses or queens. Unfortunately many of our men are taught how to be men by their grandmothers and mothers…without provide and protect fathers setting the necessary example.

    And so…here we are.

  • http://melodymoose.deviantart.com/ catpopstar

    This might be the wrong generation to ask. The princess craze didn’t really hit until the early 2000s.

  • http://gravatar.com/hsm36 Whatever

    I loved watching movies with princesses but I wasn’t ruined by it. As a little girl, it’s fun to wear pretty dresses and tiaras and imagine you live in a castle with your knight in shining armor… but then, you must grow up and be mature enough to realize that was you as a child using your imagination. Reality should hit sometime around your tweens/early teens.

    As much fun as I had, I am so happy I escaped the wrath of Disney’s brainwashing. If I have daughters, they won’t even know what the fuck Disney is. Throw Barbie and American Girl onto that list as well.

  • Razina

    As a GenXer, I can say NOPE. The whole princess thing was a non factor growing up, incluidng the movies, books, parties, and costumes, etc.

    This whole princess marketing scheme (started gaining steam in 1990 when the Little Mermaid started making major monies-they switched up when MuLan wasn’t cashing out) is just sad.

    Adults should not let the Mouse influence and market continually to their children, and particularly their daughters. The Mouse is out for a buck, and Disney will manipulate as many fairy tales as possible to put as many princess movies or products to make money. I would state other entities but Disney seems to be the biggest culprit.

    These movies and the candy pastel colored imprinting of ‘romance’, ‘love’, etc are the psychological equivalent to candy, and we all know candy rots your teeth and your brain. If your daughter,little sister, cousin, niece, god-daughter, etc. has a room that resembles the Disney princess section at Target, it’s no different than a child having a 3-a-day Snicker bar habit.

    It would be a matter of moderation, balancing these images with some true parenting. That doesn’t happen anymore. So, now it’s a constant barrage of pastel junk shoved into the heads of these girls. Let me put it like this. Your personality (core) forms by age 5.  You add some layers through individual life experience, but the core forms before you graduate kindergarten. So, what is going into their psyches?

    The fantasy consumers never stop if not checked. Is the Bachelorette not an example? Let’s get more basic. Bridezillas anyone? It is up to the parents to make sure that this culture is one that your daughter visits (RARE as it should be) but doesn’t live in.

  • Razina

    Layers of growth and maturity. My fault I forgot a line. I replied from my phone.

  • http://enchantedroots.wordpress.com Najat

    I believe this was a very thoughtful article. Fairy tales as told by Disney are a hallmark in many girl’s lives. While Disney may drop the ball in instances listed in your article, I don’t believe fairy tales as a whole do. I love that you call it “Princess Culture.”

    In my black fairy tale, “The Prince and Timberance”, published in 2012, the two share a friendship. Timberance, the maiden who eventually falls in love with the prince, has her own career.

    You can read more about this tale and why I believe it belongs on the bookshelves of every girl at my blog. I plan to explore issues concerning this.

    While Princess culture may need some serious editing, the world of children’s fairy tales could do with a breath of fresh air. “The Prince and Timberance” attempts to do this.

  • Ash

    I may have been ruined slightly by princess culture. However, I can’t blame all my problems on Disney. lol

  • Merersu

    I wasn’t ruined by it, but my mother was. She insisted that I play with dolls, have tea parties, and Barbie townhouses when I wanted chemistry and race car sets. To this day, I despise dolls and everything to do with stupidity inducing “Princess” culture. Hell, the only Disney Princess I’ll allow my children to view is Merida from Brave.

  • E.M.S.

    Of course not. I think we don’t give parents or children enough credit when it comes to understanding the difference between fantasy and reality. Disney movies & characters are fiction, teach your children that those are good stories for bedtime but not a way to live your life & there’s no problem.

    Tiana, Ariel & Jasmine are my favorite Disney Princesses, but I learned early they weren’t real and expecting or wanting my life to be like theirs is silly.

  • E.M.S.

    Of course not. My mother taught me the difference between a good bedtime story and reality. Disney movies are great fantasy but teach our daughters they should not want or expect their lives to be that way and there’s no issue.

    Disney’s job is to create memorable fairytales, a mother’s job is to teach her daughter that she is not a Disney Princess.

  • JS

    Lol, this is some feminist BS to me, sorry if I get neg votes for this.

    I lived, breathed, ate and slept Disney when I was younger. My nickname growing up was Pooh bear and for the short 3 year span I lived in CA growing up I had Disney annual passes.

    Princess culture definitely influenced me but if anything I’d say for the better. I have never settled in life or in relationships. I dream big and work hard. That is a theme in Disney movies, going against the odds and making it and it has driven me to accomplish things. As far as relationships it has helped me as I don’t settle for anything less than “prince charming.” Yes all meaningful relationships take work and are a progress but unlike other friends who will settle or fight for relationships for the sake of being in relationships, I don’t feel that need. I see more positive aspects than negatives.

    Also how were most of the princesses submissive/passive at all? Ariel disobeyed her father, Jasmine went against social structures, Mulan saved her whole damn country, Cinderella never stopped dreaming even when she lived in shitty circumstances faced with abuse, Pocahontas united nations (I know this isn’t her real life story, in the Disney version), the list goes on. Only stories I can think of with passive princesses are Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, although to be fair they were changed because the actual Grimm’s Fairytale stories were too gruesome, especially Sleeping Beauty.

  • Geez lady

    You’re being rather mean to your daughter & not establishing a good bonding relationship with her.

    You “tossed” her princess outfit out? Do you realize how traumatic and damaging that is? Why is it all about “you” and not about your daughter who LOVES being a princess? She’s the child, yet you act like one.

    “It gets on my last nerves.” – so what? She’s the child, you’re the mother, let her be who she wants. You’re so in the wrong here, it’s really upsetting. I can’t believe you would do this to your daughter.

    You’re mean. You don’t deserve to have a lovely sweet daughter.

    “When you ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, she says that she wants to be a princess and have a royal ball with the prince (her way of saying wedding)…..I tell her to go play basketball or jog with me, and she says that she can’t because princesses don’t do those things.”

    Do you even HEAR yourself and how awful, abusive, horrible, mean & crazy you are? Do you?

    Your daughter is probably a sweet sensitive child. You are an abusive mean horrible BW who should be shamed in the community. What you are doing is NOT RIGHT in the least. Live and let live. Stop complaining! Stop WHINING! Be grateful you have a healthy, sweet lovely daughter.

    You make me ashamed to be a BW.

  • rhea

    @Geez lady

    YOU are the one being mean and ridiculous! That woman is just trying to be a good mother. She knows that her daughter has options in life, just like her son does, yet her daughter is being swallowed by one of the few options that the culture others her: wait for a man. Even grown women get caught in this princess trap. “Yeah, you have that education and that success, but you ain’t got no Prince! Don’t you feel shame that you are lonely while all the other black women willing to play princess got a man? You should lower your expectations.” She’s trying to save her daughter from that expectation and inoculate her from that shame. This mother is trying to do a good thing for her daughter. Good for her. You go take a seat. A quiet one.

  • http://www.lillian-mae.com KnottyNatural

    The Little Mermaid was the first movie I’ve seen in the theater! I loved her too!

  • http://www.lillian-mae.com KnottyNatural

    You should be ashamed of your silly comments!

    I’m child-free; in the event that I’m married and conceive a daughter, she will NOT be fed the princess fairytale! We are a STEM family!

  • Apple

    No, maybe because they were cartoons and not played by human people. Other media like rap videos ruined me more (at the time), I will say movies with the constant life working out for the best and romantic love does have an effect on me as an adult. But I loved those Disney movies , Cinderella Snow White and Cruella DeVille(bad bitch) to this day!

  • MimiLuvs

    In regards to the “princess daughter” situation between ChaCha and Geez Lady:
    I understand both points of view.
    ChaCha wants her daughter to learn that there is more fun and awesome things for girls than just being a princess.
    I believe (despite how rude and presumptuous her message was) Geez Lady was stating that her daughter shouldn’t feel bad about wanting to be a princess.
    Slightly off-topic:
    IMHO, I feel like little black girls are raised as if they shouldn’t be treated like little girls. I feel as if they don’t have the luxury of being innocent and nutured.
    Like black boys, girls are saddled with other people’s expectations. Instead of being criminalized, they are sexualized (either by outside figures or by members of their families… perhaps both) or we’re just… “raised”.
    I know in my own family, the older generations coddled and nutured the young males because they felt like the “outside world was going to sh*t on them anyway”. While us girl-children were exposed to the adult-like factors at an earlier age.
    So, when I see little black girls dressed up as princesses and hearing them speak about wanting to be one, it causes my spirit to glow like the moon.

  • ChaCha

    Shut up. I swear people always want to tell others how to raise their kids and how bad they are at parenting. The princess culture gets on my nerves for good reason. And yes, she is the child and I am the mother. Exactly. And yes, I tossed the costume, and guess what? She asked about it ONE time, I told her it was time to let it go after 3 years and that it was stained, and she said “Oh…ok. Well, can I wear my new skirt?”. Oh, how traumatic and damaging (sarcasm). How abusive. Call CPS and a Psychiatrist.

    Yes, my daughter is very beautiful, talented, and smart inside and out–just like the woman she came from–and she should know that she isn’t limited to being a limiting fantasy that a white racist company created. She can be girly, sporty, smart, bookish (and so on) and aspire to be many things and not just a princess. And yes, I do deserve my daughter. You know nothing. I couldn’t care less if I make you happy or “shame you” (like you’re my great grandmother or something) because you mean absolutely nothing to me. I also don’t have to explain anything to a random, faceless person, so I don’t know why I even took 3 minutes out of my day to address you. I swear, where do people get of attacking others on the INTERNET (especially because they don’t support the Disney Princesses dream)? Get another hobby. (Oh, and I see that you camouflaged your name, but I can tell you are a regular commenter, coward.)

  • ChaCha

    Yes, you are correct, and there are many ways to make a girl feel feminine, pretty, and cherished. Not supporting the princess marketing does not make me a bad mother nor does it mean I am crushing her spirit or not allowing her to be a girl. She still loves princesses, but I refuse to allow the flood of princess everything in my house (and her obsession was deeper than anyone who doesn’t live with us could know). Books, education, physical activity, and health are very important in our home and I want her to know that she can be pretty and feminine without ignoring everything else.

    That Geez Lady person seems crazy.

  • SayWhat

    I’m being ‘general’ here, but given that young black girls are raised to be ‘strong black women’, I would say that as a group, we were not ruined/influenced by the princess culture because we could not relate. Again, I am thinking to all the black women that I have ever met.

  • Another BW not happy with you

    The only one that seems cray cray is you ChaCha. You are an abusive person, most likely bipolar & borderline. I feel for your daughter or anyone in your family that has to put up with you. Poor things have unfortunate lives. You have a huge chip on your shoulder.

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