In a little less than a month from now, Lord willing, my wife and I will welcome our first child into the world–a girl. Knowing that my baby is a girl has opened my eyes to the trends, advertising, and messages being communicated to young girls by popular culture.
Peggy Orenstein recently wrote a book called Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture in which she warns against what she calls the “princess culture” which encourages young girls to find their identity in their looks. “Princesses are just a phase,” Orenstein writes, but they mark a girl’s “first foray into the mainstream culture…. And what was the first thing that culture told her about being a girl? Not that she was competent, strong, creative, or smart but that every little girl wants — or should want — to be the Fairest of Them All.”
I am far from an expert on how pop culture influences children, and to be perfectly honest, when I first started noticing all this talk about the princess culture, I thought this was just another example of parents blaming the culture rather than taking responsibility for the early sexualization of their girls.
Now that my wife and I are expecting, I am seeing things differently. We live in a media-saturated world, and the values we seek to instill in our children at home are often contradicted in the surrounding culture. When that happens, we ought to at least take notice.
Orenstein says “the Disney Princesses” tell her daughter that her value is tied up in her appearance. But before we join Orenstein in lamenting how far our culture has fallen, let’s actually consider some princess movies. Sadly I can’t say that I have kept up with the most recent princess movies, but I have seen most of the Disney staples of the last few decades–so I’ll start there and as soon as Tangled arrives in my mail box from Netflix I will look at that one too.
I want to look at three princess movies, though they are not all technically “princess” movies each of these films has a lead female role that has been marketed as a princess for years: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Each of these movies has a beautiful female lead character who finds herself in a conflict that she cannot overcome apart from the intervention of a “prince.”
1. The Little Mermaid – A young mermaid falls in love with a man she has never met and sells her voice to a wicked witch in order to become a human. Ariel must win Eric with her beauty apart from her ability to speak. Its a very short romance–one based essentially on looks. Ariel willingly leaves behind all that she has ever known to be with a man that she doesn’t know at all. Additionally she swims around the ocean in the first half of the movie in a sea shell bra with a tiny waist and ample bosom.
2. Beauty and the Beast – Belle is essentially imprisoned by a bitter and potentially crazy “man,” Beast. He is verbally abusive toward her, yelling furiously at her when she does not do as he asks. He has her locked up and tells his servants not to feed her. When Belle escapes only to be attacked by wolves, we are led to believe that the Beasts’ true character comes out. Over time Belle sees this and falls in love with a man who imprisoned, controlled, and verbally abused her. The potential message that this movie conveys to young girls is disturbing–behind every crazy and potentially abusive man is a heart of gold.
3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – While the original Disney animated feature was first released in 1937, it very much feels like a movie from my generation due to how often it was remastered, re-released, and re-watched by so many young girls. This is at the very outset a story about physical beauty. Snow White’s step mother puts a curse on her because she is jealous of her being “the fairest of them all.” And again the movies ends with Snow White being saved from her wicked step mother by a dashing prince.
Some themes are clearly present–the exaltation of physical beauty over inner beauty, romantic relationships that have very little if anything to do with character, and young girls who find themselves at the mercy of more capable men who must save them from peril. To be clear, I am not ready to say that Disney and the myriad of princess movies that followed these films are to blame for the sexualization of girls, but I do look back on these films in a whole new light when I begin to think what they might be communicating to my daughter.
I want my daughter to love Jesus–I want her to ultimately find her identity in being made by God and offered redemption in Christ. I want her to know that she has value to offer that goes far deeper than the physical. I want her to see that she is fearfully and wonderfully made and I don’t want her to wait around for some boy to give her purpose. I want her to dream big and make a difference in this world for the sake of Christ. Of one thing you can be sure, I won’t sit idly by while my daughter is encouraged to try to “be the fairest of them all” so that some silly boy will come and rescue her from a mundane life.