Experts debate the possible harm of princess play

POSTED: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - 8:30am

UPDATED: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - 8:34am

Ask a little girl to name the Disney Princesses and chances are they'll rattle them off as easily as their ABC's.

If you shop for anything from clothing to toys to grapes (yes, the fruit) you will see the princesses' smiling faces looking back at you.

Author and speaker Peggy Orenstein says what used to be simple make believe is now a money making machine.

'It's $4 billion dollar industry aimed at little girls that's telling them not to just play princess, but to be a princess every day all the time, 365 days a year, 24/7 that's cannibalized all other form of play,' Orenstein said.

Orenstein's book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, chronicles the long-term impact of an industry that exploded in the last decade or so.

Orenstein says Disney went from making $350 million in merchandising in 2000 to $4 billion by marketing the Princesses separate from their movies and licensing more than 26,000 products.

Barbara Southworth, 10, of Berkeley says she had her share when she was younger.

'I had like 20 things when I was little,' she said. 'When I go to the store mostly half of the store is princesses.'

Her mom Kristen Southworth is okay with the princess play because it was tempered with the family messages of be kind, do well in school, love something other than fashion.

She sees it as just a phase, which, for Barbara, has already passed.

'Most girls only like it for four or five years then they throw it out,' Barbara said.

But Orenstein says it may not be much time, but it's the exact time that girls are figuring out gender roles and building their self-esteem.

And, while they may outgrow the gowns and tiaras, that merchandise will quickly be replaced with something else in what she calls the commercialization of childhood in which they learn to define themselves from the outside in, rather than the inside out.

'If a girl played princess only for a little while, that would be one thing. But you have princesses at three and LipSmackers at four and Bratz dolls at six and 'Keeping Up With The Kardashians' at 10,' Orenstein said.

Jennifer Berger is the executive director of the non-profit About-Face.org, which teaches media literacy.

'I completely understand why little girls love princesses. It's just that with most mainstream princesses, the Disney princesses, which are the ones most little girls like, the messages they send is that being nice and being pretty are the most important things in being a girl. Not being smart of assertive, or strong,' Berger said.

Her advice is to provide fairy tales and to engage girls in discussions about what they see.
 

Berger added, 'We're trying to teach them to be skeptical in a healthy way without turning in to pessimistic people and being able to take an objective view and decide what they're going to absorb and what they're not going to absorb from our culture.'

At San Jose State University different advice: Lighten up.

'Barbie hasn't yet ruined our daughters and she's been around for what, 60 years?' said Maureen Smith of the university's Department of Child and Adolescent Development.

Smith says that parents are much more powerful than princesses in teaching kids their values. She says little girls know the difference between pretend and real life, and that usually they're just borrowing from Disney Princesses to launch their own adventures.

Smith said, 'Little girls don't like to be passive victims, in their pretend play they become active heroines of their own grand adventure in which they control everything that happens to them.'

But Orenstein thinks the girls are hardly in control.

'All these products at such an early age push girls to focus on how they look. And when girls get overly focused on appearance, we see things like distorted body images, eating disorders, poor sexual choices, depression, low-self-esteem. So it's really important that girl learn to feel their feelings on their inside rather than focusing on how they look all the time,' Orenstein said.

She adds that princesses aren't going away and thus it is important to provide alternative definitions of femininity.

When she introduced child-friendly Greek myths to her daughter Daisy, she decided to dress up as Athena, Goddess of War and Wisdom for Halloween.

'It was a different archetype of what it means to be feminine, it was so much more internal, much more grounded, so much more powerful than Cinderella,' Orenstein said.

Orenstein advises providing balance between alternatives, setting limits and initiating discussion so they can start to question it themselves.

'Ultimately, you don't want to be the gatekeeper, you want them to be able to navigate this world and figure this thing out with their own critical eye,' Orenstein said.

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