Do You Want To Be A Princess Too?

Many girls, and even women, dream of becoming princesses, but what does it really mean to us, and why do we aspire to it? Furthermore, is that aspiration contributing to more gender-specific behavior and hindering the development of more diverse feminine identities?

The Princess Wedding Dress

Until I was six years old, I refused to wear trousers and insisted on wearing full-length dresses to every party I was invited to. I wanted to be a princess.

My princess phase didn’t last long because I discovered horses at six years old, but, for a while, there was nothing I wanted more than a medieval cone-shaped hat with a long train.

With so much hype around the damage the princess myth is doing to our daughters and ourselves, and I wanted to find out if this princess phase plays any role in developing our feminine identities. Or does it merely reflect society’s unhealthy fixation with what a woman ought to look like and how she ought to behave?

What Is The Princess Culture Doing To Our Children?

One of the problems with the princess culture is that it “suggests that a girl’s most valuable asset is her beauty, which encourages an unhealthy preoccupation with physical appearance.”

Worse still, it “implies that girls should be sweet and submissive, and should expect a man to come to their rescue in the act of love at first sight.”

A study by Sarah Coyne, published in the Child Development Journal in 2016, reinforced this, finding that “princess engagement was concurrently related to higher levels of female gender-stereotypical behavior.”

Coyne also discovered that the “Disney Princess culture… may contribute to a ‘girly girl’ culture in which gendered behavior is common and highly valued.”

Perhaps even more disturbingly,  Coyne could find “no evidence that the girls’ engagement with princess culture influenced girls’ behavior for the better.”

Coyne is not the first to highlight the potential of the princess culture to negatively influence our notions of what it means to be a woman. Are princesses real? Well, of course, they are, but not in the way young girls envision such a magical life.

Over 70 years ago, in her groundbreaking book, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “Woman is Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, she who receives and submits.”

In 1974, Andrea Dworkin wrote an essay on the message fairytales, like those depicted in Disney movies, influence our perspectives on gender behavior and, more importantly, what we then believe society expects of us as women.

Dworkin finds few positive things to say on the matter, asserting that, although we are lead to believe that all fairytales have happy endings, they also tell us “that happiness for a woman is to be passive, victimized, destroyed, or asleep.”

Princess Story: Identifying As Women?

For me, the princess phase was just that – a phase – and, after the age of six, I spent very little time dreaming of becoming a princess or being rescued by a prince. This is, it seems, a common psychological phenomenon.

Psychological studies[1] suggest that “many children develop basic stereotypes by age three” and that their understanding of gender differences is initially associated with external signs.

In her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein draws attention to psychological research that showed “until as late as age 7, children are convinced that external signs — clothing, hairstyle, favorite color, choice of toys — determine one’s sex.”

As Orenstein points out, “It makes sense, then, that to ensure you will stay the sex you were born, you’d adhere rigidly to the rules as you see them and hope for the best.”

This, she says, explains the “the magnetic lure of the Disney Princesses,” suggesting that “For a preschool girl, a Cinderella dress is nothing less than an existential insurance policy, a crinolined bulwark to fortify a still-shaky sense of identity.”

In a world where gender is becoming increasingly diverse and evolving away from male and female polarities, anyone may want to be a princess. I wonder to what degree the princess phase is still important in the development of feminine identity, however.

Furthermore, what are these stereotypes telling us about what it means to be a woman?

Are Princesses Starving Us To Death?

In a recent study published in December 2020, Professor Erin Ryan suggests a connection between animated princesses and eating disorders.

Ryan proposes that the depiction of the traditional “‘Disneyfied’ princess,” with her “delicate limbs… pale complexion, and big eyes,” is giving “children a warped idea of how they are expected to look.” As these characters are animated, this ideal is physically impossible to attain.

“When we compare ourselves to that, we are always going to find ourselves lacking, which makes us feel bad about ourselves and wanting to improve,” Ryan writes.

She suggests that girls as young as five years old start dieting in the hopes of achieving the same body as an animated princess – something that can only end in failure and disappointment.

How Can We Challenge The Princess Culture?

Ryan suggests we should combat the princess culture by “depicting characters that look more like children,” like Dora the Explorer, for instance.

I query the efficacy of that, given that even Dora, with her more realistic body shape, has ridiculously full-bodied hair and perfect skin.

Others suggest that we “drift away from the Snow Whites and the Cinderellas of the fairytale world,” and show that there is “also room in the world for girls that travel to the stars and sacrifice their lives and battle with evil sorcerers—not for a prince, but because they can.”

Maybe, for the sake of our daughters, we need to start wearing princess dresses while doing the washing up, riding horses, climbing mountains, or going to the gym – to show them that not every woman in a long dress is waiting to be rescued. This is true princess gold.

It is up to us, as women, to change the next generation’s perspective of what that means. Sure, we can have princesses, but can’t we have princesses that are liberated enough and strong enough to rescue themselves? I believe that’s the next step forward.

[1] Carol Lynn Martin & Diane N. Ruble, “Patterns of Gender Development,” PubMed Central, August 2013.