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.
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.