The Princess Debate
Are Fairy Tale Princesses Really Bad For Our Girls?
By Jennifer Dowd
In this article:
Many of the characters our kids look up to, whether they're princesses or pop stars, are beautiful people with beautiful clothes and exciting lives. Are we, by indulging them in these fantasies, doing more harm than good?
My daughter loves princesses -- especially Cinderella. At first, I was torn between my desire to let her enjoy such fairy tales, and the reality that no woman should sit around in a bad situation waiting for her prince to rescue her. Exactly what kind of messages do these tales send to our children? That women are weaker than men? That only beautiful women find their prince?
Let's face it, the majority of idols our kids go for, whether they're princesses or pop divas, are beautiful people with beautiful clothes and exciting lives. Are we, by indulging our kids in these fantasies, doing more harm than good?
So I asked my daughter, who's four years old, exactly what it was she loved about Cinderella. "She has a beautiful voice," came her reply. "And she wears pretty dresses." Are a preschooler's dreams of whimsy, fantasy and delight such a bad thing?
Then something occurred to me. My daughter could get something more meaningful from these images, but I needed to play a role.
I am aware that vigorous academic debate rages against fairy tale princesses and the sexual stereotypes they perpetuate, but those are not the only messages that can be taken from these tales. Just maybe, with a little help from us, our children could come to see other, more positive messages.
Our girls watch videos of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid. They see beautiful, kind women, facing difficult situations of one kind or another. It is our job to point out that besides the obvious gender roles these characters are placed in, each surmounts her particular challenge through acts of love, courage, and friendship. Whether they are birds, mice, fish, fairies, or a handsome prince, these friends play pivotal roles in each tale.
Disney's Cinderella is freed from the tower by her mouse friends, each of whom she once saved from the housecat. She is rescued from a dire situation by the love of a prince. Sleeping Beauty's prince would not have prevailed over the evil Maleficent if it were not for the help of the good fairies and a brave prince. And Ariel would not have defeated Ursula, the sea witch, without the help of her animal friends and the love of a man. In each of these stories the fact that the male character was a prince just makes the tale more whimsical and entertaining.
Nearly every book our children will read, or movie they will watch, will contain messages that can be construed as prejudiced or politically incorrect. It is in this light that parents need to step up and play a role in the way our kids interpret these messages. We have the ability to positively impact the way our children view the themes and characters of their favorite stories. We can downplay or eliminate these tales altogether, or we can embrace the messages instilled in them.
According to Bruno Bettelheim, author of "The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales," we are doing a tremendous disservice to future generations by censoring fairy tales. "Fairy tales can be the start of many intense discussion and learning projects on the traditional gender roles of men and women in the past and how they have changed (if they have changed) today," he wrote. "All children have an opinion about things like chores, parental expectations and the games that they like to play. This topic is a starting-off point for many great discussions. It also helps the children make connections about what they are reading."
And he's right. Tales of negative gender stereotypes and damsels in distress have had no adverse effect on the general attitude of our children. Studies show that the strongest influence in a child's life is her (or his) parents.
"Girls say they feel they can do anything," says Whitney Roban, Ph.D., citing a recent study of 1,100 eight- to twelve-year-old girls conducted by the New York City-based Girl Scout Research Institute, of which she is the Senior Researcher. "Over 93 percent of girls we surveyed told us they intended to go to college, and 76 percent said they're going to have careers."
"The good news is that we can make a difference when we give girls good messages early on and continue to do so," adds Heather Johnston Nicholson, Research Director for Girls Incorporated, a New York City-based, non-profit organization with programs for girls six to eighteen-years-old in more than 1,500 locations. "Our research tells us that the girls who succeed are the ones who have a loving, secure home environment and adults they can talk to."
"As the fairy tale Cinderella shows, sometimes things happen in a world that we have no control of," wrote Bettelheim. "Parents die unexpectedly. Remarriages occur. People can be cruel." These are the messages we can discuss with our children. Perhaps it is possible to use tales of fantasy, romance, and adventure to help our children gain an understanding of the behavior and events in our lives that, somehow, never seem to change.
Besides the angelic voice and beautiful dresses, my daughter told me she loves Cinderella because she is "...so nice to everyone." I believe my little girl has the right to live in a fantasy world full of magic, hope, and true love. I want her to revel in her girlhood as long as she can - she has the rest of her life to become jaded.