There is some concern in feminist circles that the current girly-girl culture of adolescent and tween girls is harmful to their future as independent, free thinking, strong women. The idea is that all those pink tutus, perfect princesses, high heeled shoes and plastic jewelry is negating the hard-fought struggle for equality of the sexes. This young generation appears to be taking a step backward, embracing the frilly and feminine.
But is that really so bad? Perhaps there are benefits to the youngsters’ move away from sameness between the sexes; maybe the real problem comes in when adults get involved in the equation. Maybe the younger generation sees something that we adults are missing in the princess, girly-girl trend.
For example, a young girl’s perception of what makes a princess is largely based on the movies they watch and how adults talk to them. When a five-year-old is complaining that she wants a new toy and her mother gives in and says, “Oh, you’re such a princess!” the little girl files away in her brain the information that complaining till you get what you want is the right thing to do. But the same scene could be played with the mother instead pointing out that Cinderella proved herself a princess by learning how to deal with what she had, never complaining and re-using her old clothes to make something new.
After all, the princesses in most Disney movies, TV shows or fairy tales are young women with virtues. While everything works out for them in the end, it is not without struggle and determination on the girl’s part.
Thus, Cinderella is kind and innovative. She never loses her temper with the new chores she is told to do. She never yells at her step-sisters. She’s environmentally minded, thrifty and economical – re-using the things left behind my others.
Belle, from Beauty and the Beast, my personal favorite, sees the true beauty that exists beyond the exterior. She is honest and forthright, speaking her mind when the situation calls for it. And she is a true friend, sticking up for the Beast when everyone else is against him.
Tiana, from the Princess and the Frog, is an entrepreneur, working hard to achieve the goal she had set when little. And yet, while working to achieve this dream she is still kind to those in her life and puts others before herself.
Jasmine, from Aladdin, refuses to be cowed by cultural norms that tell her she must marry royalty. Instead she acts according to what she knows is right, even if it goes against what society thinks and expects.
These princesses all have a lot to offer the younger generation if things are explained in this way. But it would be up to parents to point out these positive images of what a woman should be. Instead, what often happens is that girly culture falls victim to adult sexualization. Suddenly Jasmine’s ability to buck an unjust social trend is degraded to a midriff-baring Halloween costume. Or Cinderella’s kindness and modesty is swapped for a strapless poufy prom dress on a high school girl who thinks her knight will be asking her to dance (and who knows what else) that night.
There is a notable difference between focusing on the virtues and positive character traits of these princesses, and letting children (and adults) parade around in the Disney-inspired clothing. True, high heels, make-up, jewelry, and pretty dresses are normal childhood playthings for a young girl, and perhaps this is where a gray area comes in. When is playing dress-up just a good creative childhood pastime for a young girl and when is it projecting an image of someone far beyond her age and wisdom?
The pageants and youngster beauty competitions play on this princess theme, desiring to make even the most innocent and unassuming of children into next top models or beauty icons. At that point princesses are no longer the dramatis personae of a girl’s imagination and creativity, but rather a way to flaunt exterior beauty and the perception of perfection. While it is true that many of these events have a non-beauty related component, giving the young lady a chance to showcase talents and offer her thoughts on weighty matters, these too often become contrived routines specifically engineered to win. The responses and talents are often missing the true princess qualities of honesty, ingenuity and uniqueness.
Still, rejecting the girly-girl youth culture for these reasons would be like failing to discern the princess beneath Cinderella’s rags. Wouldn’t it be much more fruitful to encourage proper princess behavior? Adults could give young girls a true concept of the strong, determined and courageous women portrayed through their favorite princess, while encouraging them to be equally inspirational in the realm of daily life.
Katie Hinderer is a freelance journalist currently based in Boston and editor of the MercatorNet blog, Tiger Print.