Countering the Toxicity of Princess Culture

I used to ask my students what they wanted to be when they grew up and why. The answers were often very revelatory, illuminating what motivated them, what inspired their hopes, and not just what they wanted to be, but who they wanted to be. It often reflected their values or insecurities, sometimes both.

If you ask little girls what they want to be when they grow up, far too many would say “princess.” Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, contrasts this with her childhood, when being called a princess “conjured up images of a spoiled, self-centered brat.” The defenders of “princess culture” contend that it is merely a phase that girls will outgrow, but the values this culture promotes are often enduring. And they are toxic.

As Orenstein explains, “What was the first thing that culture told her (daughter) about being a girl? Not that she was competent, strong, creative, or smart but that every girls wants—or should want—to be the Fairest of Them All.” She found this confusing, as “girl power” messages and success stories abound, but the push to make the physical appearance of girls the “epicenter of their identities” has intensified and extended to younger and younger girls. In a study of 3- to 6-year-old girls, nearly half said they worried about being fat, while a third wanted to change a physical attribute.

What are the costs of this connection between identity and physical appearance? Citing the American Psychological Association, Orenstein notes that the focus on appearance and ‘play-sexiness’ can make girls more vulnerable to depression, eating disorders, having a distorted body image, and risky sexual behavior. From a Catholic point of view, we see that these girls become detached from their authentic identity as a unique, invaluable child of God, who is made in God’s image, through a degrading process of self-objectification.

While our culture often celebrates authenticity and “being who you are,” this message is often distorted by consumerist, materialist, sexist, and individualist filters. The result is the glorification of narcissism and individual choice, rather than achieving worthy ends with that liberty. Expressing who you are then centers around the construction, maintenance, and manipulation of one’s superficial identity. Girls (and boys) become alienated from their authentic personalities and distracted from their potential as persons and how they can go about realizing that potential. They define themselves not by their character, but by their shoes, their hair, their popularity, or personal tastes that have little to do with who they are at their core.

Princess culture is the starting point in this process of self-alienation and depersonalization for millions of American girls. What traits do cartoon princesses have that contribute to this? Orenstein writes, “Princesses avoid female bonding. Their goals are to be a saved by a prince, get married, and be taken care of for the rest of their lives. Their value derives largely from their appearance. They are rabid materialists.” Are these the values that parents want to inculcate in their girls? Do they want to teach them that happiness is found in things or the way they look? Do they want them to aspire to a life of idleness? Do they want their girls to treat other girls like rivals rather than persons made in the image of God? Do they want them to believe that a handsome, charming man will suddenly appear and make everything perfect?

For those of us who care about human equality and the common good—who want to see all girls have the chance to reach their full intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual potential as persons—the answer to all of these questions is emphatically no. No to the materialism, no to the helpless mindset, no to the superficiality and self-objectification, and no to a life without meaning and purpose.

Now is it possible to totally inoculate your child from princess culture? No, it’s too endemic. She will be exposed to princesses at some point. But that’s not the end of the world; overzealousness might backfire anyway. The key is to minimize its influence by exposing her to different values and consistently reinforcing these alternative values in the way you treat her and how you talk her (and others). The key is to make sure princess stories remain just that—stories  (even stories that entertain her), rather than something that shapes her identity and her aspirations.

Since kids inevitably look to others for inspiration, it’s important to find better role models for girls than princesses. And it is important to find heroes that spark imaginations and fuel creativity. These role models should display the values you wish to impart.  From Doc McStuffins to Malala, there are hard-working, creative, passionate, generous, loving, thoughtful, kind, resilient, courageous, and joyful role models out there. And some are men. Girls are more than their sex or gender; they should have male role models, just as boys should admire and wish to emulate female role models.

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Other steps can be taken to discourage a princess mentality. We can encourage girls to read and to read things that are worth their time. We can teach them the importance of community service. We can encourage them to play sports. Statistics show that participation in team sports is linked to lower pregnancy rates, higher self-esteem, and superior academic performance, among other benefits. Get them started early.

We can stop buying shirts that say “I’m pretty popular,” “the princess has arrived,” or “it’s all about me.” Even if they are supposed to be ironic, they undermine efforts to teach that narcissism and superficiality are unethical and lead to unhappiness. And if parents refuse to buy them for their girls, perhaps companies will make more “brave one” shirts for girls, like they do for boys.

It was great to see Mercy Academy’s anti-princess advertisements, which included the line: “Be more than just the fairest of them all.” Schools should be explicit about not only what girls can do to reach their potential and promote the common good, but also about the obstacles that stand in their way and can divert them from achieving what they hope to accomplish with their lives.

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Finally, it’s critical to explain the connection between authentic beauty and genuine love and to dispel the myth of objective attractiveness. Vigilance is required to tear down the societal prejudices surrounding notions of attraction that she is likely to absorb and that are the foundation of incalculable miseries. We must teach our girls to reject these irrational prejudices and to understand the importance of character rather than fleeting standards of what is hot, sexy, cute, and trendy.

If we do things, each girl stands a better chance of recognizing her own infinite worth. She is more likely to reach her full potential as a person. And our society is more likely to move closer to real equality, greater human flourishing, and the realization of the common good. We all have a stake in overturning the poisonous effects of princess culture. Let’s make sure every girl knows she can be more than a princess.

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