Confessions of a so-called princess hater.
Dr. Sarah M. Coyne
This post was co-authored by Kaelie Crockett, a student at BYU.
In 2016, I published my rather straightforward social science findings on the influence of Disney princesses on gender stereotypes, body esteem, and prosocial behavior in children, concluding that girls highly engaged in princess culture tend to become more gender-stereotyped down the road. While I knew I might upset some with my recommendation that princesses, like a lot of things, are best in moderation, I received an uncommonly ugly response. After news coverage of this article broke, I was called terrible names, labeled an unfit mother, and told I should be immediately fired from my institution.
While I don’t discount the findings of my previous work, these responses prompted some soul searching and reflection. Why do we feel so strongly and deeply about princesses? Are they harmful or helpful? Can they be effective role models for our girls?
When I asked my 12-year-old daughter and her friend whether the world still needs princesses, the answer was a resounding “Yes!”—even though they have already outlived their princess fantasies and couldn’t particularly articulate why.
This post is an attempt to articulate my place in the Princess Wars between a “con” side, which contends that aspects of princess culture create unrealistic ideals for girls, and a “pro” side, which believes value exists in the deeper definition of what it means to be a princess. My name, Sarah, means princess in Hebrew, and my high school nickname was Pineapple Princess, so while I consider certain facets problematic, I’m at heart a believer in the self-worth, creativity, and potentiality that princesses can embody on a deeper level.
Princesses remind us that we have value.
When you peel back a layer, princess culture is less about a princess lifestyle and more about great depth of character, serving as a beautiful reminder of inherent worth–whether a girl is a princess or not. In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, Sara Crewe survived her many tragedies and hardships by remembering “I am a princess. All girls are…even if they aren’t pretty, or smart, or young. They’re still princesses.” Whether child or adult, all can benefit from the belief that no matter their circumstances, they always have value—that true self-worth goes beyond appearance or environment and is found deep within. No matter how difficult our circumstances, princesses encourage us to remember our worth.
Princesses encourage pretend play.
Spend much time with a four-year-old girl in the U.S., and you will likely see some sort of princess play, whether it be dressing up, acting out stories, or playing with princess-themed toys. This particular type of pretend play, called sociodramatic play, is vitally important to children. Lindsey and Colwell found that children who regularly engage in sociodramatic play have more positive emotions with peers, score higher on emotional understanding, and are better at emotional regulation one year later. Research suggests that princess play specifically can lead to rich experiences for children as they expand on the stories of familiar characters.
In line with the Uses and Gratification theory, consumers make media choices based on the needs they are trying to meet. In addition to wanting to connect with a fantastical storyline, children crave the opportunity to connect with each other. The common princess themes in childhood provide children with a way to connect to peers through make-believe play.
Princesses inspire potential.
Princesses also provide examples of “women who rule,” showing women and girls that they can be accepted as the heroines of their own stories and lead with wisdom and maturity. In other words —princesses inspire potential.
Adults often think of princesses in a negative way: someone who is entitled, obsessed with their appearance, or rich and snobby. But in children’s imagination, the word “princess” allows them to think about what they can become. Maybe they won’t save the world, but they will defend their values. Maybe they won’t have the perfect figure, but they can develop the confidence to move beyond appearance.
One Disney commercial described being a princess with the adjectives brave, scared, loyal, trustworthy, kind, and generous, and concluded with the following stanza:
“I am a princess. I believe compassion makes me strong,
kindness is power, and family is the tightest bond of all.
I have heard I am beautiful. I know I am strong.
I am a princess. Long may I reign.”
If this definition keeps girls and women coming back to their love for princesses, then it goes beyond stereotypes, the gorgeous ball gown, or the perfect prince on the horse. I believe something royal exists in each child: the ultimate potential to become anything that they want to be, not just a prince or a princess, but something of greatness. The reminder that princesses represent internal potential may be the most powerful reason they remain relevant.
Princesses, I must admit, may still be important today. The problem with princess culture arises when extremes prevail over moderation. Though they remain relevant, we need to pay attention to the messages we retain from princesses and be willing to talk to our children about the inherent power of princesses—and not just the beautiful, sparkly dresses.
Many aspects of princess culture remain problematic with princess culture (Hello, look at their waistlines!) but so much depth, truth, and goodness exist when we look at a deeper level. And with that, I will close with a wish that you, fair reader, live happily ever after.
Copyright Sarah M. Coyne