Don't tell my daughter, but before the month is out, she's getting a princess-themed surprise party for her 4th birthday. We've hired a much-recommended princess party service to provide an actress who'll play Aurora (Sleeping Beauty, Heloise's favorite) and show up in full regalia to entertain 10 children for 90 minutes. Face-painting, a princess dance lesson, and other fun games will all be on offer. It's the one thing my daughter has been asking for since last summer, when she went to a friend's birthday party where another young actress offered a pitch-perfect Princess Ariel to a group of awed 3 year-olds.
We're keenly aware that we're taking sides in one of the many small conflicts that make up the larger contemporary battle to define good parenting. We're a princess-friendly household, a stance that puts us at odds with some of our friends and with at least a few experts on raising strong, independent girls. Writing in The Atlantic, Andy Hinds lamented his "ill-fated battle" to keep princesses out of the lives of his two young daughters. "‘Princessing' products marketed to little girls is like doping in the world of professional cycling: you don't stand a chance against the competition if you don't participate," Hinds declares. His concerns echo those raised in Peggy Orenstein's invaluable book warning about the straitjacket of "girlie-girl" culture Cinderella Ate My Daughter.
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.
Though we indulge Heloise's princess fascination without foisting it upon her, our real concern is for what happens when it comes time to transition out of her obsession with Disney royalty. Playing at princess when she's little draws affirmation from peers and parents, but the shelf life for that affirmation is brief. A four year-old dressed up as Snow White may be adorable, but a 12 year-old in a floor-length princess dress is more likely to risk being seen as odd and immature rather than praiseworthy. If girls want to sustain the same level of validation, their dress and their behavior will need to change.
As Peggy Orenstein and others have pointed out, the sexualization of tween and teen girls is a natural extension of the princess aesthetic. "Princesses mark girls' first foray into mainstream culture," she writes, a world in which the highest value lies in being "the fairest of them all." By the time puberty arrives however, being "the fairest of them all" in the eyes of one's peers calls for a much shorter skirt.
It's not as if that transition from the princess cult to preteen sexualization is an inevitable one. Much of that transition is driven less by the media than by adult men's behavior. Above all else, children are practical: they are excellent students of what works to get them what they crave. When a little girl catches her father, uncle, or older brother ogling young women, she learns quickly what really captures male attention. Girls who are raised to see compliments as currency soon figure out that if they want to keep that precious affirmation flowing in, they'll need to do more to "earn" it as they "age." The danger in princess culture lies less in the values that it teaches little girls than in the sobering reality that the rewards it promises are unsustainable and increasingly elusive. The male gaze, far more than Disney, is to blame for that.
With Heloise, I worry about all these things. I'm not so hubristic that I imagine that giving her a dad who doesn't gaze with desire at women other than her mother will be a sufficient vaccination against an intensely sexualized culture. I also know that just as she chose princesses rather than having them foisted upon her, she'll give them up on her own timetable rather than on ours. The best her mother and I can do is give her the tools to navigate, talking with her about what she likes and why. We can help her distinguish performance from identity, reminding her (as Sonia Sotomayor did so brilliantly on Sesame Street) that playing at princess can be fun, but it isn't a career. We'll watch the adventures of Sofia the First together as a family, talking about the newest young Disney character's adventures and choices. (If form holds, I'm betting that before the first season is out Sofia will have turned the malevolent Prince Hugo into her devoted friend. This will serve as an excellent opportunity to talk with Heloise about how in real life, boys and men cannot be charmed into transformation.)
Come the last weekend in January, Eira and I will give Heloise the party for which she's begged for an eighth of her young life. Whatever she remembers from what we hope will be a blissful day, we trust that playing with a "real" princess won't narrow her sense of what it means to be a girl.
Jezebel columnist Hugo Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College and is a nationally-known speaker on sex, masculinity, body image and beauty culture. He also blogs at his eponymous site. Follow him on Twitter: @hugoschwyzer.