There’s No Such Thing as Girls’ Toys and Boys’ Toys

We’ve had a lot to say about princesses, Disney-style and otherwise, during this past week. Our relationship to princesses is as much about our personal identities as it is about the social messages about princesses that come from both popular culture and corporations. Throughout it all, I think the essential question that nags at us is this:  What does it mean to be a girl?

The answer is complex and is generated by each and every one of us, females and males, kids and grownups, authors and artists, movie studios and toy companies. The social construction of girlhood in general and princesshood in particular is like a crazy funhouse mirror maze in which we all project and view different images, simultaneously trying to figure out which ones we like, which ones we don’t, and which ones we actually resemble.

Although I have these kinds of conversations with my friends all the time, I was astonished to have a chat about gender, toys, and marketing with a Disney representative the other day. Several weeks ago I bought my son a gift on Disney’s online shopping portal. Some time passed and I received an email with an invitation to take a survey about my shopping experience. I take those surveys. Every time. It’s easy enough to kvetch about things you don’t like, but corporations are not mind readers. They need actual feedback and your views can’t be considered if you never voice them.

I voiced my opinion. Overall, I like their website, it was super easy to find what I needed, and I was happy with the quality of the product I ordered. The only thing I had to say that wasn’t positive was a small comment about the gendered nature of the toys. I can’t stand the way they are categorized as toys for girls and toys for boys. In response, I received an email asking if I would mind providing my phone number so that they could talk to me more about this. Really?  I was game, and after a couple of missed calls, I found myself on the receiving end of a call from Disney’s presidential service team.

I expected someone who was either disengaged from the issue or a corporate representative who was in some way going to try to continue to sell me on Disney despite my concerns. That is not what I got. The man on the other end of the phone sounded like he actually understood.

“I think girls should be more empowered to play with active toys,”  I said. “I agree!”  he replied. And so it went, even when I explained that I wanted my son to feel more comfortable with toys typically marketed to girls.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that Disney’s entire corporate structure is going to change as a result of this call. I recognize that more than any other company that markets to children, Disney has mastered the art of making its customers feel cherished and welcome. In fact, when people ask me what it was like to spend a day undercover with a cult (true story), I often explain that it was a lot like being on a cruise ship or at Disney World. Everyone makes you feel loved and welcome and snuggly inside. To draw you in. And get your money.

Photo: Jessamyn

Nevertheless, I was very impressed at the effort that was put into a small comment that reflected a big thought. I’ve always told my son that there is no such thing as girls’ toys and boys’ toys. Toys are just toys. I wish that marketers would consider this too, and stop playing such a strong role in defining gender for our children. I had the chance to say that to Disney, and hung up the phone pleasantly surprised.

On such small pebbles are castles built. Perhaps even castles with self-rescuing princesses.

Castles By Disney, Interiors by Geekdom

Photo via Creative Commons, Adapted by JennT

Every girl wants to be a princess, right? No. No, no. Nope. If that hasn’t been made clear on GeekMom thus far, you’ve been skipping posts again. I never wanted to be a princess. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some ball gowns (mostly worn to Wal-Mart) and I would not be opposed to marrying a prince, but swirling around in glittery taffeta, my hair wafting down in inhuman curls,  was never my cup of tea. Nor, actually, was having a cup of tea. Though, there was something that princesses had that I wanted, desperately. Every princess had a castle. I could take or leave the tiara, all I wanted was the castle. As a young child I was attracted to history, which could explain the attraction to castles. Then came Disney. It was a big day in my home when Disney was no longer a “pay” channel. Any natural attraction I had for history and castles was only bolstered by the princess phenomenon pushed by the Disney of my youth. I  am a Disney girl through and through. I was weened on Little Mermaid, memorized every word of The Lion King, and reveled in the new age which dawned at the release of Toy Story. It is in my blood and I was pleased to see my daughter exhibiting a tendency toward Disney. While she is intrigued by nearly all of the cartoons, she exhibits the highest enthusiasm for the princesses, especially Belle from Beauty and the Beast. (Hey, I have no qualms with her liking the geekiest princess on file…no problem at all.)

As a I grew older, none of my obsessions really waned. I briefly entertained a major in historical architecture while in college just so I could study castles. Then I realized they let plain historians study them too, without the engineering courses. Heck yeah. And I still love me some Disney. So what better time to combine the two than Princess Week at GeekMom? Disney hasn’t done too bad a job with their castles through time. I mean, really, they have come up with some fantastic designs with some elements that point to real life. In the most efficient use of my time ever, I’ve decided to analyze a few of the castles Disney has produced for your reading enjoyment. Because everyone needs to know the real-life background of animated architecture. So there.

A quick background on castles: Originally castles were built as fortresses to house not only the ruling family but to pull in the villagers and livestock in case of an attack. Many scholars believe that the oldest castles were little more than large communal buildings, often domed or built with solid rooftops. The Bayeux Tapestry which depicts an 11th century battle of Britain’s William the Conqueror depicts such a “castle”.  The oldest castle to be built in stone and looks more like what most of us think of as a castle is the Doue-la-Fontaine in France. As time progressed castles became a status symbol and a representation of wealth. Many of the earliest castles were actually built by the town as a whole rather than a wealthy individual. The ruling class lived in them but only by permission of the townsfolk.  By the 12th and 13th centuries, with the rise of feudal culture and new invention in modern warfare such as the trebuchet and later the canon, protection became less of a focus when designing and building castles primarily because if one was going to be attacked, there was little a castle was going to do for you. Armies were far more useful for protection thus castles needn’t be so heavy and fortified. Advents in architecture, building materials, and an increased interest in the aesthetic bore castles with the tall spires and lavish turrets and gaudy decor most people associate with the idea of castle. By the 19th century castles were being built nearly exclusively by monarchies and the upper-class and those, purely as an exhibition of their wealth. OK, enough history lesson. On to Disney.

Photo from flickr user somegeekintn via CreativeCommons

If not the first, certainly the greatest, the Cinderella Castle as depicted at Disney World is rated among the most recognized structures in the world. More people can identify this make-believe castle in a theme park than can name St. Basil’s Cathedral or the Taj Mahal. It is actually my least favorite. Nearly impossible structurally as it appears in the movie and the most useless castle from a design standpoint it is still the ever endearing and enduring symbol upon which the Disney empire is built.

Photo via WikiTravel
Above is Sleeping Beauty’s castle as depicted at Disneyland. Note the extreme similarities between this castle and Cinderella’s above. Wonder why? They were modeled after the same castle. Both were drawn using the Castle-Neuschwanstein, built in the late 19th century by an Austrian recluse.
Photo Via Wikipedia
And once more, Snow White’s castle. Looks pretty much the same as the rest of them thus far. Wanna take a guess as to which castle it was modeled after?
But, Hark! What is this? Disney did start using other castles? Yes, ’tis true!
Really, you have to give the animators a break for the three castles. They were still figuring out Technicolor.

An underwater castle made of golden sand with the most amazing flying buttresses and catenary arches. Physics defies this one to exist on dry land. I’ve often wondered if actual architects designed the various castles. Although as pretty as this one is, I’m not totally sure where one actually lives in it. I can only identify one or two areas that are not open to the air (or water as the case may be). I would guess that merfolk would want some privacy at some point. I also haven’t the foggiest idea how to go about decorating  a large number of round rooms. One must also wonder about the nature of sand underwater. Many fish and crabs make sculptures of sorts out of sand…and vomit. Perhaps I’ll pass on this one. It may be my favorite princess story but the castle I think I’ll leave for the birds. Or fish. Whatever.

A particular kind of crab eats sand to produce these cute little sand turds to impress the lady-crabs with. Gross. Natural and cool. But still gross.

Bet you never expected to know so much about Disney castles! Other castles were depicted throughout Disney’s illustrious dabbling in princesses  such as Jasmine’s Turkish palace, Belle’s enchanted Gothic Revival attempt, and their newest toss-up, Tangled’s single column tower, and but I’ll never again have the justification to end a post with crab sand turds. So I’m done.

(PS: For you history geeks out there, you’ll notice that I didn’t source my blurb on the history of castles. It’s legit, I promise. Most of the info was drawn from memory from a thesis paper I did as an undergrad; The Important Progression of the Castle Through British History: A Brief Examination of the Evolution of Castle Architecture in Britain. Although I view Wikipedia as a quaternary source at best, and even then suspect validity, a quick check of their sources  in the Castle article reveals that I drew on a good number of the same. Ignore the article, scroll straight down to the sources. I leaned particularly heavily on McNeil, Coulson, and Thompson.)

Why I’ve Resisted the Princesses on Principle

My daughter's new, giant, slightly creepy Rapunzel doll. PS3 controller offered for a sense of scale and to up Rap's gamer cred among other giant, creepy dolls.

I know a lot of moms hate Disney, and specifically the Disney Princesses, for feminist reasons. The lack of strong female role models. The helpless girl who needs to be rescued by a big, strong man. But my Disney problems started before Andy Mooney launched the Princess franchise, increasing both his consumer products division’s sales by 900% in five years and the feminist moms’ rage.

My objections started in 1998, years before my princess-loving daughter was born. That was the year of the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), or as I think of it, the Oh Crap, Mickey’s Copyright Is Running Out Act.

The details of the act and potential effects if it had not been passed have been the objects of much discussion–if you’re not familiar with the story, you can read more in the references linked at the bottom of this post. What concerns me more is the actual result:

Nothing new will enter the public domain in the United States until 2019.

We just passed another Public Domain Day on January 1. That’s the day that we should celebrate everything that is entering the public domain in that year. Because of the changes to copyright laws, including the CTEA, we have nothing to celebrate for another eight years. What are you missing out on?

For literature lovers, you’re missing the ease of easily teaching from, quoting, translating, and making derivatives of anything created in or before 1954. Without the changes to copyright, the 2011 list of public domain inductees would have included Lord of the Flies, Waiting for Godot, Horton Hears a Who, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Oh, and a couple of books I doubt any of you geeks are familiar with–The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.

Are you a movie buff? You could be showing clips and remixing and making documentaries all you like of the movies from 1954. You’d have Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and Creature from the Black Lagoon, as well as On the Waterfront (“I coulda been a contender”), and to get back to Disney, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Speaking of clips and remixes, or freely available sheet music, musicians would have had “Mambo Italiano,” as well as one of my favorites, “Mister Sandman.”

Furthermore, under the original copyright rules, you had to renew your copyright, which 85% of creators never did. And that means more than just 1954’s work. This year you’d also have had 85% of 1982’s work.

But I understand if you’re not convinced yet. Read my “Theft! A History of Music” series to see how sharing and derivation are critical to the history of creativity. It’s from a music perspective, but the principle applies across the arts.

Disney itself relies on that principle. It’s hardly a secret, but since it’s Princess Week at GeekMom, let’s look at the origins of those lovely ladies.

Princess Disney movie Origin
Snow White Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937 Brothers Grimm, 19th century
Cinderella Cinderella, 1950 Brothers Grimm, 19th century
Aurora Sleeping Beauty, 1959 Brothers Grimm, 19th century
Ariel The Little Mermaid, 1989 Hans Christian Andersen, 1837
Belle Beauty and the Beast, 1991 La Belle et la Bête, 18th century
Jasmine Aladdin, 1992 The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, 1710 translation volume

OK, you’re still not convinced. I get it. Putting Tolkien out there makes you too nervous to eat your second breakfast, much less elevenses. Perhaps I can convince you on the grounds of preservation. Film is particularly a problem, as the old types are physically degrading. They’re also often orphan works, covered by a seemingly neverending copyright, but without a known owner. And the law prevents them from being copied or used, even to duplicate them for the sake of saving them. According to the Center for the Public Domain, these orphan works include approximately 6,500 films at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as many of the 150,000 films at the Library of Congress and 46,000 at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Thousands of documentaries, newsreels, and other productions that are soon to be lost to history forever.

Copyright–and artists’ rights, if you’re in doubt–are both important to me. And that, not the potential psychological damage of the Princesses, are why I cringed when my daughter came home from day care at the age of two pronouncing her love for The Mouse, followed shortly by her adoration of Ariel and Cinderella. However, and this may surprise you, even I have bent. For Christmas this year, I bought her Rapunzel, the last of the Princesses. But have no fear–she’ll be a teenager by the time anything enters the public domain again, much more able to understand mom’s feelings on the issue. Maybe you and your geeklings can join us for a real celebration in 2019–just don’t show up wearing your vintage Disney Princess gear.


The following are older stories, still informative, but read them in the context of the timeline.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles

dragons, fairy tales, magic, princess, wizards,
Fans of fantasy will love the feisty Princess Cimorene

I have two boys. I didn’t have to worry (like some of my friends with daughters did) that reading or watching movies about princesses saved from peril by handsome princesses would inspire a “rescue me” attitude. Even so, I did want my boys to grow up knowing that women are just as capable as men. We watched Disney princess fare without qualms, but I also made sure to include plenty of opportunities for them to meet strong female characters in books and movies (and of course, in real life!).

In The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, author Patricia C. Wrede offers up a perfect combination of adventure, magic, and feisty princess. In the first book of the series, Dealing with Dragons, we meet Princess Cimorene who is not at all interested in towing the princess line. No lady-like embroidery and arranged marriages for her, thank you very much. She wants to learn to fence and speak Latin, both of which are frowned upon activities for princesses.

While other princesses in the kingdom fret over being captured by dragons, Princess Cimorene leaves her mundane royal life behind and runs away to the Enchanted Forest where she takes up with the dragon Kazul. Cimorene endears herself to Kazul by making a most coveted dish – cherries jubilee – and proceeds to create an anti-flammable potion to withstand the dangers of living with fire breathing beasts. As Kazul’s princess she discovers unscrupulous wizards plotting against the dragons, learns about magic, and spends enough time turning away the persistent princes who have come to rescue her that she finally posts a sign warning potential suitors to stay away.

Princess Cimorene is exactly the kind of female character that I have tried to expose my boys to over the years: confident, smart, feisty, and kind. Her willingness to stand up for what she believes in, whether it be following her own life choices or going to great lengths to help her dragon friends is admirable, and coupled with the humor and adventure in the books, probably one of the reasons we loved the series so much. We read the entire series aloud several times when my boys were early elementary age, and my eldest read the entire series again when he began reading on his own. (I daresay, it’s about time for me to read it again!)

Dealing with Dragons is followed by three more books, all featuring Princess Cimorene and a grand cast of dragons, wizards, witches, and magic spells, with cameo appearances by stereotypical princes from throughout the kingdom: Searching for Dragons, Calling on Dragons, and Talking to Dragons.

Princess or Predator?

I was never a ‘Disney Princess’ kind of girl. I had less than zero interest in gowns, fairy godmothers, or charming princes. Glass slippers were a liability where I grew up, in the vast, super-heated wilderness of the American Southwest. No, while other girls twirled and sang like Belle and Ariel, I was off gallivanting around the desert like a rather different sort of cartoon character…

Actually, I tell a lie. It’s true that I could never identify with the boy-crazy princesses (in cartoons, or in life, really), and it’s also true that time spent in the arid environs of my childhood left me well-prepared for both track meets and science fairs, but I never held the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons in particularly high esteem. Sure, they’re timelessly funny, but I grew up in the Sonoran Desert. As diverting as the cartoons were, it always kind of bothered me the way the writers and animators got their facts wrong.

I know, I know! It’s just a cartoon. But I’m talking about some very basic biology, here. As a geek in love with both cartoons and ecology, I desire to correct the animated record on these fascinating but misrepresented species.

Let’s start with the Road Runner, because that’s where the cartoons disappoint the most. Real roadrunners aren’t that big – two feet long, and a foot tall at most. The cartoons make them look like big blue ostriches! Also, they can either give a quiet, thrumming call or clack their beaks loudly, but they never make a sound like ‘beep-beep’. Most importantly, roadrunners are canny predators. I’ve seen them catch and kill lizards and rattlesnakes with ease, and I’ve even seen them snatch smaller birds out of the air and eat them. The only time they eat plant matter is during the winter, when their normal prey is scarce. In other words, Wile E.’s usual bird seed bait wouldn’t be much of a draw.

Now, on to the genius himself, Wile E. Coyote. Actually, coyotes are pretty wily. I’ve seen them taunt slavering guard dogs by sauntering by, just beyond the lengths of the dogs’ chains, and I’ve seen them blithely steal food out from under the noses of larger predators, like bears. Coyotes are omnivores, which means they can eat almost anything, and they’re consummate opportunists, which means they’ll exploit almost any food source or territorial niche they can reach. Because of this adaptability, most coyotes don’t have to waste energy pursuing any single meal if an easier food source is available. Of course, most coyotes have more sense than Wile E. This adaptability also makes them both a nuisance and an asset to humans – everyone knows that coyotes will prey on livestock and outdoor pets, but in Chicago, coyotes actually work for [the] man by controlling rodent populations. In the sad event that easier food is unavailable, a starving or overly ‘humanized’ coyote may attack a person, but those events are incredibly rare and are usually associated with habitat loss.

And for the record, coyotes are primarily nocturnal and anything but silent. When I was a kid, I used to camp out on the roof of my back porch so I could stay up late listening to the local packs making their rounds; laughing like jesters and wailing like sirens. Growing up as I did, surrounded by these wonders of nature, is it any wonder that I still prefer predators to princesses?

The Princess Who Saved Herself

Image by Len Peralta, used with permission

I’m celebrating Princess Week at GeekMom by putting my favorite kids’ song from last year on endless repeat, “The Princess Who Saved Herself” by the fabulous and geeky Jonathan Coulton. (The poster above is by the fabulous and geeky Len Peralta, of Geek a Week fame.) On his blog, Coulton describes his reasons for writing this awesome princessy tune:

…my daughter is obsessed with princesses, so I am forced to think and talk about them a lot. None of them really kick ass as much as I hope my daughter kicks ass when she’s all grown up, so I made up one that does (she ate a whole cake!).

There’s a break in the song where the princess takes a call from the prince she met at the ball. It’s so hilarious to both me and my daughter that on a driving trip to Maine, we listened to only that song just about the whole way through Connecticut.

Here’s something even cooler. My favorite kids’ song of last year came on my favorite kids’ album of last year, Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti. If you love kickass princesses, go download this song, and the proceeds will benefit the Haitian People’s Support Project. Win-win!

Who Is The Geekiest Disney Princess?

Belle and her book. (Image: Disney)

Princess Week got me to thinking, which Disney Princess is the geekiest? All the princesses have their little quirks. Cinderella is a clean freak who has trouble keeping track of time. Sleeping Beauty wants to marry a guy she met in the woods and seems upset to find out she is a princess. Pocahontas can talk to the trees and magically understand English. Mulan exhibits courage by taking her father’s place in battle, cross dressing, and using her wit and intelligence to defeat the Huns. But which one exudes geekiness? Which one thinks outside of the proverbial princess box?  The answer: Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle.

Belle is an independent thinker, was raised in a geeky household, and loves to read. Her dad loves to tinker and make inventions and growing up in a house like that she was bound to be geeky. In a time when it was unheard of for women to think for themselves, Belle does exactly that. She is not afraid to speak her mind, even when her thoughts are unpopular. She is curious and often indulges her curiosity to learn things. For instance, the Beast forbids her to go to the West Wing, but curiosity gets the better of her and she goes anyway. Sure, she ends up with the Beast angry with her, out in the snow, about to be eaten by wolves, but if she hadn’t gone up there she would never have known about the magic rose.

A Belle fan, with X-ray glasses. (Image: Jen D)

Belle cares nothing for convention and the customs of the day. The entire town sings a song about how different she is, for Pete’s sake. She reads when it is unpopular for women to do so. Gaston even comments on how “It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas and…thinking.” That line irritates me every time. She rides a horse on her own without a male chaperone. She is independent and takes care of herself. She is smart enough to know that Gaston is a loser. Despite being all muscle-y he is missing it where it counts, in his brain. While the blonde bimbettes moan and groan about how gorgeous he is, Belle rejects his advances and even calls him a monster at one point.

When she finds herself in an enchanted castle with talking tea cups and clocks, she is shocked at first but then takes it in stride. She does her best to adapt to her situation and even attempts to make it better. She seems to enjoy spending time alone and doesn’t seem to seek out the company of others much.

I see some of my geekiness in Belle. My love of reading, strong opinions, flaunting of conventions, and intelligence helped me achieve my geeky happily ever after just like they helped Belle achieve hers.

Review:The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke

Book cover image Chicken House Publishing

On one of our trips to the library last summer my daughter was pulling books off the shelf willy nilly and asking to take each and every one home. She loves to read and in her mind there was no reason that she couldn’t read all those books. I limited her to 10 books because that was how many I could keep up with and not lose. There is a notorious story in our family from when I was a child about a library book being lost for seven years. Yes, you read that right. At least we did find it and return it. Eventually.

While she was carefully choosing her books from the pile, the title of one caught my eye. The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke. We aren’t princess freaks, but she does like to dress up and pretend play, so I thought a princess book with that title would probably have some redeeming qualities other than needing to be rescued by someone else. I thumbed through it quickly and added it to her stash. Thus she got to check out 11 books because one was for mommy.

The author introduces us to Violetta, who is the youngest child and only girl. Her mother dies in childbirth, which unfortunately happens a lot in these stories, and her father is left to raise her alone. Or at least with the help of a nursemaid. Since the King doesn’t know what to do with a girl, he decides to teach her the same lessons he taught his three older boys: jousting, fighting, and how to give orders. While she is encouraged to try typical female pursuits of the time such as needlepoint, she is also allowed to be trained in combat like her brothers. Her brothers tease her mercilessly, and Violetta is so small in stature it is difficult for her to keep up with them. Her nursemaid tells her that while she may not be as strong, she is much smarter than the boys. Through Violetta’s persistence and sneakiness, she trains in secret at night until she is able to keep up with the boys easily. When she turns sixteen, a tournament is held for those seeking her hand in marriage. Not to ruin the ending but Violetta is less than pleased with this turn of events and ends up taking matters into her own hands.

The illustrator for this book, Kerstin Meyer, took inspiration from the Bayeux Tapestry when illustrating this story, which makes for a nice historical teaching moment.  While some of the views in this book are more to the time period of the story, such as when her nursemaid tells her to stop learning “silly fighting” and learn something useful such as embroidery or weaving, this is a small part of the story and was also an interesting teaching moment for my daughter. She didn’t get how those things were useful — and certainly didn’t understand why Violetta wouldn’t want to do what the boys were doing. The story does a good job balancing the typical woman’s plight during the medieval era with a modern day sense of women taking care of themselves. Violetta is a fabulous self rescuing princess that extols the virtues of courage, independence, and persistence. My daughter loved this book and so did I.

Wake the Sleeping Queens

Sleeping Queens from Gamewright

On a recent blizzardy day, the kids on our floor had an impromptu playdate in the hall. Once everyone was exhausted from the obstacle course, someone brought out the card game Sleeping Queens. The kids plunked down on the floor in two teams: a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old versus a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old. The game was labeled 8 and up, but with the teams and a bit of math help from the moms, the kids did just fine. It was the 4-year-old who explained most of the rules.

Twelve queen cards lie face down, and the goal is to wake five queens or score 50 points according to the numbers on the queen cards. You can play a king card to get a queen — a fair trade, I’d say. You can play a knight to take a queen, but beware your opponent’s dragon. Magic potions will put queens back to sleep. There’s some special rules with the queens, too. If you find the Rose Queen, you get to wake another queen. And, naturally, you can’t have the Cat Queen and the Dog Queen at the same time. They simply don’t get along.

Beneath all this royal story-play is a math game, where older players will need to help out the younger ones. To swap cards into the deck to get more power cards, you can trade back cards that make up an addition problem. You can trade a 6, 3, and 9 back because 6+3=9. Want 4 new cards? Pass back your 2, 3, 5, and 10, because 2+3+5=10. My 5-year-old did fine with this part, but she needed help adding her queen points to 50.

Like every other Gamewright game we’ve had, the card sets lend themselves to making up new rules. You can forgo the math parts of the game completely, and simply pass back one card at a time and forgo the queen points. The game is also easily modified for a different number of players.

Sleeping Queens is good fun, and what’s especially cool is that it was created by a 6-year-old named Miranda Evarts, who dreamed it up one night instead of sleeping. With the help of her family, she brought these Sleeping Queens to life.

Disney Gives Princesses The Boot

At the end of last year, just before the holidays, Disney announced that they would cease making princess movies. Women around the world took in a collective gasp, some of relief and others of horror. The era of the Disney princess was drawing to a close.

The actual statement made by Disney executives says fairy tale movies, but since the majority of Disney’s fairy tale movies have revolved around princesses, it means practically the same thing. Especially when you read further and learn the reason they are putting princesses aside: Boys won’t see movies with icky girls in them, and Disney does not want to risk alienating any boys.

I will pause long enough for you all to bang your heads against your desk. Feel better? Yeah, it didn’t work for me either.

Women often have a conflicted relationship with the princess, ranging from fond remembrance, outright loathing, and the old love/hate thing. GeekMoms are no exception. For the next few days, a number of us are going to be weighing in with thoughts as the princess makes her final appearance on the big screen.

While the adult part of me is somewhat happy to move beyond the frilly dresses, glitz, and helplessness of the princess, the child in me mourns her passing. When I was young, princesses were only an occasional indulgence. My exposure was limited to the rare outing to the kid-friendly movie and the even rarer trip to Disneyland itself. That actually worked out perfectly because, instead of being bombarded with an already assembled and prepackaged princess mythos, I got to make up a lot of it as I went along. My most vivid memory of playing princess has me dressed in the fanciest thing I owned, a red nylon nightgown with puffed sleeves and rows and rows of ruffles on the neckline. Alas, I had no glass slippers, but I did have a pair of white ankle-high go-go boots. Nor was I particularly pining for Prince Charming to come along; I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Spock (thus being way ahead of the curve on mash ups.)

As a parent, I only have sons so I honestly don’t know how I would have felt raising daughters with so much princess merchandise, DVDs, TV shows, and media tie-in books everywhere they looked. I imagine the 24/7 princess onslaught would have been a bit daunting. Perhaps the true villain in this tale is mass merchandising, rather than the innocent princess.

Although perhaps not. The princess in pop culture has taken on all sorts of unpleasant characteristics: She is vain, materialistic, shallow, and far too focused on catching the attention of Prince Charming, often at horrifying cost to herself. Not to mention the whole helpless-and-needs-to-be-saved thing.

Historically, real princesses were privileged but powerless, often nothing more than pawns in their fathers’ political aspirations and machinations, a way to cement new alliances and bridge old feuds. And let’s not forget—give birth to the next generation of the dynasty.

However, if you go back to the early folktales, the ones that Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm drew from, you will find that it was the heroine’s own quick wit, intelligence, and cleverness that allowed her to effect her own rescue. Long before Disney came on the scene, the princess’s role was being diminished in fairy tale retellings.

“Sleeping Princess” by Viktor Vasnetsov Wikimedia Commons

For all that there is not to like about princesses, princess stories also have a hugely important role in a child’s development. Fairy tales, like the myths that preceded them, codify and teach on a subconscious level. As Bruno Bettleheim explains in his book THE USES OF ENCHANTMENT, kids need to see undesirable behaviors at work in order to understand how wrong they are, but in a way that is far removed from their own selves. It is too overwhelming to recognize one’s own narcissism, much easier to see it in an evil queen who is threatening an innocent figure the child identifies with: the princess.

Even the most passive of princesses, Sleeping Beauty, conveys an important truth to today’s kids: sometimes in order to grow and move forward, we must accept moments of quiet and inner focus. Usually not as dramatic as a hundred year nap, but still. Huge growth is often preceded by periods of inactivity, even lethargy. Beauty from Beauty and the Beast not only rejects rank materialism for a simple rose, but experiences the rewards of looking beyond the surface to the richer depths below.

Cinderella’s problem with her stepsisters captures an essential truth about the daunting experience of being overshadowed by one’s siblings. It is the perfect mirror of many children’s feelings of having their chores be the dirtiest, dullest, most thankless and least appreciated. And what child hasn’t felt as voiceless as the Little Mermaid?

Fairy tales are rife with these sorts of hidden messages, a subconscious telegraph to the psyche. And before feminists everywhere scream at me, that is the point, I would like to point out that what is developmentally appropriate at five or six may seem downright creepy at twenty-five. Look at the sheer number of adults who were seriously creeped out by SpongeBob SquarePants or the Teletubbies. That is the beauty of good literature and stories—we take what we need from them based on our developmental needs.

There seems to me to be two problems pop culture princess. The first is that a lot of the negativity associated with princess has nothing to do with the princess characters themselves, but rather the word has, like b!tch, become a catchall used for the vain, shallow, materialistic, passive, and narcissistic.

The second problem with princesses seems to me one of arrested development: today’s princess never moves far beyond the Orphan stage of her archetypal journey. The orphan stage is all about fear of abandonment, looking for safety, wishing for rescue, wanting a caretaker. It’s all about quick fixes, the easy life, little responsibility. Of course, it is not only girls who spend time in this stage of human development, but popular culture geared toward younger girls focuses so much on the princess that it overshadows everything else.

However, whether you love princesses or hate them, the biggest reason princess movies are important is that they convey that girls can be heroes of their own BIG story. That girls’ interests and concerns are just as deserving of big screen time as boys’ interests and concerns. My biggest worry with Disney’s farewell to princesses is, what will step in to fill that gap in popular culture? My fear is—nothing.

Where will girls see themselves in today’s films? Where will their unique issues and interests be addressed? Where are the movies that will show young girls as the hero? This taps into the phenomenon that girls are expected to be satisfied with a steady diet of ‘boy fare’ whereas boys cannot possibly be expected to endure a single girl movie.

What if, instead of deciding princess stories were too uninteresting to inflict upon boys, studios and directors and producers worked to create stories that captured the original mythic underpinnings of fairy tales and broadened their appeal. Let’s show the heroine journeying beyond the innocent and the orphan stage into maturity, experience, and—especially—the warrior. And while it’s true that now more than ever, there are a huge variety of strong, clever girls (including princesses) in books, none of them are making it to the big screen—and won’t if studios persist on believing that a movie staring a girl won’t be interesting to boys.

Clearly I have just touched the tip of this huge subject and we invite you to joint us in our week long conversation as we discuss the pros and cons of princesses, talk about why we love or loathe them, and how we see their role in today’s culture!