Princess 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.