I have a confession to make: I wore a Belle (meaning Belle from Beauty and the Beast) dress to prom. Beauty and the Beast was always my favorite Disney movie growing up and I when I discovered my prom dress while shopping I was drawn to it. Not because it looked like Belle’s dress but because it was yellow, had a halter and honestly was gorgeous. Later I realized it looked like Belle’s dress and that somewhat thrilled the little girl inside of me. In fact, I was told several times the night of my prom that I looked like Belle. This was a big deal to me for several reason
1) I had never really wished I was a princess but surprisingly found out that I liked feeling like a princess
2) People who had made fun of my looks must think I looked pretty that night
3) I actually fit in for once. And in fact I even stood out a little in a good way. That had never happened before.
I want to go back to that “feeling like a princess” feeling. I’ve been reading Cinderalla Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Girly-Girly Culture by Peggy Orenstein and have been fascinated by what she reports. Did you know that The Disney Princess line that Disney now markets and sells didn’t originate till the early 2000’s? By that time I had already passed the Disney movie obsession phase (although I think a certain fondness for animals who sing about the circle of life and the unreachable goal of going on a magic carpet ride never really disappears). Before the Disney Princess line was created in character was never sold with the other. They existed separately and within their own stories. The line introduced the Princesses together and aimed to sell Disney Princess merchandise as a whole package. And BINGO! Disney suddenly found out that like me little girls (and teens and young women and older women) have that secret (women) and not so secret at all (for girls) desire to feel pretty and to be a “princess”.
So what are the princesses teaching? That the Princesses are all pretty and they all lived happily ever after. And how did they live happily ever after? Was it by learning how to be independent? traveling the world? having a dream job or curing cancer? No. They simply fell in love and kissed a guy, tried on a shoe or traded their voice in for a pair of legs. I understand it. I mean look at them. They are beautiful and yes I still look at my Belle prom dress and remember how much of a princess I felt in it. But really there is and should be more to life.
I’m not a mom so I can’t speak for what my daughter is learning but I can speak for what I learned from princesses and other female ‘role models’.
I wasn’t around for the full princess line-up but I learned my place in the world early on like most other little girls. And I can’t deny that dear old Walt Disney didn’t add to society’s expectations for little girls. I knew that girls like pink and boys like green. Boys played with trucks and girls played with dolls. Girls were supposed to play dressup and boys were supposed to track mud in all over the house. Thankfully I had a mother who encouraged all types of play and I grew up with an older cousin (Dave) and a younger brother (Chris). Chris and I played with all of the above. We often would create worlds where my paper dolls lived within his leggo cities. I played in mud holes and in return Dave and Chris played dress-up. So to look back upon my childhood years you would think that I would have avoided female stero-typing.
Well maybe I would have if I lived in a vacuum but then school started. Girls were supposed to be quiet. I wasn’t supposed to dress like a boy or play with them. And most of all I was supposed to be “pretty”. It was alright for the boys to harass me because “boys will be boys” and like millions of other women I was supposed to accept that excuse and lie down so they could hit, harrass and embarrass me. Where in the world did those beliefs come from? Not from my mother or my grandmother or my aunts. From specific teachers yes but mostly I just ‘knew’ the rules. I can only look to society and it’s influences. And it scares me how society and it’s expectations for little girls could suddenly replace all of the hours spent playing in the mud and dressing up with my boy cousin and brother.
So really, the Disney Princesses are only one example. The true problem of how little girls perceive themselves and what their ambitions for the future are is so much broader than Disney Princess sheets or Disney Dream House (Disney makes a lot of money from their princess line and honestly I find some of it quite adorable. I have a secret wish to have all things Belle). Society has somehow set the standards and expectations for how little girls should behave which then morphs into how women should behave. And what society teaches can be dangerous. I can speak for that from first hand experience (and will speak about it in another blog). So something has to change if we want young girls to grow up differently than I did and women to exist in a safer world. Don’t ask me what – I don’t know but obviously something does.
I do know however that what I experienced as I was conforming to society’s expectations of girlhood I was injured in the process.
And I don’t want that for any little girl and especially not for my two ‘nieces’.