Royal visit

How did 74 Disney Princesses get into my house and what are they doing there?

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I grew up in the great renaissance era of Disney. Between 1988 and 1999 the studio made some of its best films including The Little Mermaid (‘89), Beauty and the Beast (‘91), Aladdin (‘92) and The Lion King (‘94). Pocahontas came out a year later, by which time I considered myself too grown-up for cartoons and turned my attentions to the like of Clueless and Sweet Valley High. Clearly I should have hung around for the free-spirited Native American princess who was troubled by the expectation for her to marry, cartoon or not. I’ve still not seen it.

Nevertheless, VHSs had a hefty price tag of about 15 quid and I only had two – The Little Mermaid and Lady and the Tramp. I watched them many times, the rest I probably saw a handful.

But in the last six months I have watched Beauty and the Beast 432 times*. I know the lyrics to every song (including the painfully flat bonus song Human Again, which didn’t make the final cut and that I’d never seen before). My four year old does sometimes correct me on the order of the verses and my two year old’s rendition of Little Town is the best thing I have ever seen. I have seen Frozen 1,261* times and I never mix up my verses.

I share my home with 74* Disney Princesses. Some of them are shaped like cups and bowls, some are soft toys, others are pencils, towels and pajamas, one is Play-Doh. I don’t think my household is particularly unusual for one lodging two little girls. In fact, I imagine we are at the lower end of princess inhabitation as I’ve actively resisted their occupancy. But I am soft at best and have little-to-no control most days so a few have slipped through the net. I have never bought anything from the Disney Store though (small wins).

A big problem I have with these imposters is they resemble their original incarnations very little. They are Disney Princesses plus. Plus contouring, Atkins, collagen and glitter. The Disney Princess toy range has taken on a life of its own and it’s an omnipresence I am growing apathetic towards. It is bigger than me. I am just one person. When Disney made Toy Story towards the end of its renaissance it was sending a clear message – they are alive and they live among us.

Among the 74 imposters in my home 16 of them resemble Snow White – minus a few pounds. Twenty-one resemble Sleeping Beauty – plus a few cup sizes. My children have never seen either of these films. But that’s irrelevant. You don’t have to drink Coca-Cola to know it tastes sweet. This is the power of this £4.11 billion brand.

Disney Princesses contribute to body esteem issues among young girls

Disney did not define my childhood but I worry that it will, in part, define my children’s.

It’s not news that the storylines in Disney films are problematic at best. Belle, for example, is essentially sold to a volatile beast by her father and spends her time trying to change his abusive behaviour. Snow White serves not one, but seven men with a whole spectrum of issues and is later literally saved from death by a kiss from a handsome prince. Ariel changes species for Eric. The soundtracks, however, are incredibly catchy.

But it did make news this week that Disney Princesses contribute to body esteem issues among young girls. Research by Sarah Coyne, family life professor at Brigham Young University, Utah, found that engagement with Disney Princess culture introduces girls to the thin ideal at an early age and that girls with worse body esteem engage more with the Disney Princesses over time. It also influences pre-schoolers to be susceptible to potentially damaging stereotypes.

“I think parents think that the Disney Princess culture is safe,” Coyne said. “But if we’re fully jumping in here and really embracing it, parents should really consider the long-term impact of the princess culture.”

Coyne assessed 198 pre-schoolers and found that, for both boys and girls, more interaction with the princesses predicted more female gender-stereotypical behaviour a year later. Gendered behaviour can become problematic, the study points out, if girls avoid important learning experiences that aren’t perceived as feminine or believe their opportunities in life are different as women.

“We know that girls who strongly adhere to female gender stereotypes feel like they can’t do some things,” Coyne said. “They’re not as confident that they can do well in math and science. They don’t like getting dirty, so they’re less likely to try and experiment with things.”

The Disney Princess franchise made the $1 billion mark in revenue in three years

I reason it’s not my job as a parent to shield my girls from these stories – it’s my job to tell them they’re a load of rubbish. Besides, I couldn’t if I tried.

The Disney Princess franchise was conceived by former Nike (of child labour and sweatshop fame) exec Andy Mooney who, in his new role of Disney Consumer Products division chairman grew concerned when he noticed, at his first Disney on Ice show, that little girls were dressed as unofficial princesses and that he wasn’t making any money from it. In 2000 he began working on a legitimate range and the brand was born. The franchise made the $1 billion mark in revenue in three years.

One of Moody’s stipulations, when lumping together a group of girls from different centuries and continents on merchandise, was that they should never make eye contact with each other – presumably so they wouldn’t find strength in numbers and rise up. A viral rap battle between Belle and Cinderella, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar – who did such good work slaying vampires (and challenging female representation in mainstream entertainment) with Buffy, at the tail end of the renaissance – serves to prove that these girls are indeed rivals, not friends.

The original line-up consisted of nine film characters – with Tinkerbell later removed (not a princess) and Tiana, Rapunzel and Merida added in a series of bizarre coronations at the New York Palace, Kensington Palace and Disney World’s Cinderella Castle. It’s news to me. Despite the inclusion of the diverse characters Pocahontas (Native American), Mulan (Chinese), Tiana (African American) and, god love her, Merida (a ginger Scot with no love interest and the least successful Disney princess) I am yet to see them on the merchandise that dominates every clothing and toy aisle I dare to enter. Our Disney nighties (from Asda) feature the almost identical blondes Rapunzel, Aurora and Cinderella, as well as Ariel and Belle. Our Disney towels (from Aldi) feature Belle, Cinderella and Aurora. Our Pretty Princesses Busy Book features nightie plus Snow White and, occasionally, Jasmine.

The Muslim princess was the first of ethnicity, but let’s not forget she was not the heroine of her film. She had Aladdin and (my all-time favourite Disney character) the Genie to compete with for screen time. All the women in Aladdin combined, in fact, are responsible for just 10 per cent of the dialogue.

That nifty bit of analysis comes from linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, who counted the percentage of words spoken by male and female characters in the princesses films.

“We don’t believe that little girls naturally play a certain way or speak a certain way,” Fought, a professor at LA’s Pitzer College, told the Washington Post. “They’re not born liking a pink dress. At some point we teach them. So a big question is where girls get their ideas about being girls.”

Among their findings was the fact that Aurora speaks only 18 sentences in her 75-minute film. Of course, she spends a good proportion of Sleeping Beauty comatose. But more shockingly, behind Brave (Merida’s unpopularity becomes a tad clearer – not a man, talks too much) Sleeping Beauty still has the highest percentage of female dialogue – 71. The more outwardly progressive the films have become, the less the female characters actually speak in comparison to men.

My girls were crowned fresh from the womb. “Here’s your princess,” I was told before I had seen any aspect of actual girlhood

It seems ideological then that talking Disney dolls are few and far between. None of the products in the franchise available at Disney Store talk, although on Amazon you can pick up an Electronic Talking and Light-up Cinderella doll from the US for a cool £200. But language around these imposters manages to invade my life regardless.

My girls were crowned fresh from the womb. “Here’s your princess,” I was told before I had seen any aspect of actual girlhood. By shop workers, educators and the relation who can’t enquire about my children without using the blonde princess emoji I am told I am raising princesses. I hope the more they hear it the more meaningless it becomes, rather than ingrained.

I can only put the pervasive rhetoric down to the Disney franchise – I don’t recall ever being called a princess growing up and I had not a single princess frock to my name. Modern mothers might feel sorry for me but I was given affirmation in other ways and I’m fine, mostly.

Some of the girls around at the beginning of this franchise are women now and its impact is becoming clear, on my social life at least. Recently some friends got married. The dress was positively princess. The bridesmaids each wore shoes decoupaged with images of each princess (imagine the debate over who’s who!). The first dance – Tale As Old As Time from Beauty and the Beast.

My biggest problem with my children being surrounded by these images and told they are princesses is the suggestion that their success can only be achieved in relation to a man. Worldly goods are inherited, or acquired by marriage, and not earned – unless you count winning men over as work. They are free to love pink dresses and have princess-themed weddings if they wish. But I will not accept them not making their voices heard or putting their fate in the hands of men, beastly or charming.

* inaccurate
* also guesswork
* unverified – there may be a couple down the back of the sofa

Antonia Charlesworth has also calculated the damaging effect of gender stereotypes in children’s books

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