A recent article in Newsweek discusses Peggy Orenstein’s new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which explores the effect of Disney princesses on young girls and their self-esteem. She makes the predictable argument that the exposure to princesses, Bratz, Miley Cyrus, the tiaras and pink frilly dresses, etc. does damage to girls and drives their need to feel sexy. She pokes fun at some of my childhood favorites, criticizing Ariel (The Little Mermaid) for trading her voice for a chance with a man she’s never met. The book seems to be her battle with raising her daughter and worrying that after years of writing on women and image that she won’t be a successful mother to a daughter. The article describes how her daughter’s lack of interest in everything princess changes once she enters school and is influenced by all of the other girls in her class. Orenstein’s final argument (according to the article) is that the difference between Disney-watchers in the past and little girls now is the massive surge of merchandise and marketing.
First to address the content of Disney movies. When you dissect the plot to a level like she did with Ariel, I suppose it seems silly. However, real people (both male and female) do “crazy” things for love. I don’t think it’s a message of a woman should do anything for a man as much as it is (1) a fairy tale meant to entertain kids and (2) a love story. Besides, if you really wanted to, you could make any movie sound stupid. When I was a kid watching Little Mermaid, I came away with wanting to live in the ocean so I could be friends with Flounder and a love for running around and singing Under the Sea. Nothing more, nothing less.
Orenstein does concede that today’s girls are excelling in school and working hard; but she maintains that the “Disney” effect forces girls to believe they need to be sexy in addition to everything else. I would say that self-esteem and image depend on a variety of factors. A solid upbringing and strong parents as role models play a much bigger part than cartoons, movies and toys. Growing up I LOVED Disney movies and I watched violent movies and I did a whole host of things that I’m fairly certain would make today’s “perfect” parents cringe (ice cream for breakfast, playing Nintendo into the wee hours with my Dad, etc). Still, I managed to turn out just fine: happy with myself, not loving everything in the shade of pink, non-violent. How could this be?! My parents taught me well. If your mom is a consumption-driven, must be better than the Jones’s, giant fake boob-toting superficial twit, then maybe Disney will play into your already warped view of how a human should act and what really matters in life. If your mom makes negative comments about your weight or looks, maybe seeing the beautiful princesses will make you feel worse about yourself. If you are surrounded by love, encouragement and a solid moral upbringing, you will likely be just fine.
There are also other options available. I don’t know too much about kids cartoons these days (no kids of my own just yet), but I know that there is Spongebob, Dora the Explorer, and Toy Story for example that don’t seem to have the same type of imaging as the “worrisome” elements of Disney princesses. Besides, not all princesses follow what Orenstein describes. For example, Mulan. Mulan poses as a man to save her father from military service, becomes a strong warrior and saves the emperor from invading Huns. And Belle in Beauty and the Beast was not just known for her beauty, it was her incredible kindness and ability to see past a person’s looks that made the spell break.
In the end, I’m not trying to say that there is nothing to her arguments. I just think that a lot of people searching for answers to societal problems are quick to blame others: obesity is because of McDonalds, image problems are because of Disney, violence is because of video games, etc. Be a parent, take responsibility. Don’t bring your daughter to get pedicures with you when she is nine, don’t let your ten-year old’s birthday party be at the salon (my sister is a hair stylist and this happens), don’t bring your eleven-year old to Victoria’s Secret to buy underwear, don’t buy your six-year old pants with words on the ass like juicy, or glittery t-shirts that say princess, hottie or sperm dumpster. Better yet, as a parent, I’m not saying you should wear frumpy mom jeans, but you shouldn’t wear pants that say Juicy on the ass either.