My latest at Jezebel looks at the “princess wars” and the debate over how much access to Disney characters parents should give their daughters. Excerpt:
While the reasons to be troubled by princess culture are myriad, parents like us who are more relaxed about our daughters’ enchantment with Disney’s royal entourage tend to fall into two distinct camps. One group embraces what Hinds calls “princessing” with uncritical abandon, seeing their daughters’ fascination with all things royal as an opportunity to inculcate a myriad of presumed virtues. Ever since Ariel (the Little Mermaid), Belle (Beauty and the Beast) and Jasmine (Aladdin) appeared in the early 1990s as part of Disney’s expansion of their historic princess franchise, fans have pointed to what they insist are the feminist leanings of this new generation of animated heroines. This faux royal egalitarianism is on full display in the latest offering from the House of Mouse, Sofia the First, a show that Hinds makes a point of refusing to allow his daughters to watch. In an episode that debuted just last week on Disney Jr., the title character bucks restrictive gender roles by becoming the first princess at “Royal Prep” to enter the previously all-boy equestrian steeplechase competition. (As one would expect, Sofia triumphs, defeating a sneering and scheming chauvinist nemesis named, to my daughter’s delight, Prince Hugo.) See, Disney and its defenders claim, little feminists can wear tiaras and defy stereotypes at the same time.
The other camp –- and this includes my wife and me as well as the parents of most of Heloise’s friends -– is wary of the claim that modern princessing offers much in the way of empowerment. Like Hinds, we recognize that “even the most feminist-friendly princess derives her social currency, her political power, and her personal identity as ‘princess’ from the make-believe patriarchy.” At the same time, we’re optimistic, perhaps overly so, about our daughters’ ability to leave the less healthy lessons of princess culture behind as they age. When I was Heloise’s age, I spent most of my non-school hours dressed as a cowboy, wearing a six-shooter on my hip. My mother trusted, rightly, that I’d grow out of a fascination with firearms. She also knew that forbidding me from having war toys would increase rather than diminish their allure. Toy guns are only one small way in which toxic messages about manhood get taught to little boys, and making them more appealing by banning them is a most ineffective vaccine against male violence. The risk in fighting an (almost inevitably unsuccessful) battle against princess culture is the false hope it gives that a de-Disneyed daughter will be a more empowered one.