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What Disney Princess Culture does to us

Little girl holding a Disney Princess doll (Dick Loek/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The word "toy" implies something frivolous, fun — not to be taken too seriously. But as Peggy Orenstein, a journalist whose primary focus is gender issues, tells me: "toys are not just toys." Rather, they are imbued with deep meaning that rubs off on our children — and can warp, or affirm, their sense of self. 

"From the earliest ages, [girls] are trained into consumerism and how that defines femininity," Orenstein tells me. "They learn to see themselves from the outside in. And what they play with when they are little does matter. Toys have always been used to communicate to children what our expectations are of them for their adult roles." Orenstein says girls were encouraged to play with baby dolls in response to Teddy Roosevelt's fear that "old-stock" white women weren't having enough babies, while Erector Sets were pushed on boys in a bid to win the Space Race.

Orenstein's work never fails to pique my interest. I remember tearing myself away from my infant daughter for the first time on a Sunday to see her speak. Afterward, I cited her in an essay on female pubic hair, an article on why girls' clothing these days still rarely has pockets, and a mythbuster on girls preferring pink. As a parent, Orenstein's book "Girls & Sex" changed my thinking, and then "Boys & Sex" came along and did it again. All of which is to say, I'm not impartial. I have faith in both the rigor of Orenstein's research and the rightness of her impulses when it comes to female-identifying kids and the many crosses they continue to bear.

"From the earliest ages, [girls] are trained into consumerism and how that defines femininity," Orenstein tells me. "They learn to see themselves from the outside in. And what they play with when they are little does matter. Toys have always been used to communicate to children what our expectations are of them for their adult roles."

And so, Orenstein's work came to mind immediately after reading an installment of Emily Oster's ParentData newsletter entitled "Are Disney Princesses Ruining Your Daughter?" Oster, an economist who has turned an analytic lens on parenting, is wildly popular with a subset of parents these days. Her books, including "Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Is Wrong — and What You Really Need To Know," are all about approaching childrearing armed with the tools of her trade — things like critical reviews of academic literature and Bayesian reasoning. In the newsletter on Disney princesses, Oster's conclusion was this: "I do not see anything in the data that would suggest your child will be less successful if they like Disney princesses, although we'd likely do well to remind them as they age into puberty that princess proportions are not for people." 

Through the lens of Orenstein's oeuvre, red flags waved: Nothing in the data?! Waiting for puberty?! So I gave Orenstein a call to get her read. Our exchange has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Emily Oster starts her newsletter post with a question from a reader: "I have friends who make a big deal about how girls who like princesses grow up to be less successful than girls who like superheroes. I was wondering if the research supports that?" Oster, who often writes about the importance of carefully framing questions, recasts the inquiry fairly narrowly as, "What, precisely, do we know about Disney princesses and their impacts, nefarious or otherwise?" And she cites your book, "Cinderella Ate My Daughter." How would you sum up that one?

That book is really about the encroaching sexualization and commodification of little girls. When I was writing the book, I saw that many of the things our daughters were playing with revolved around beauty. The science kits for girls were things like, the science of perfume, the science of lip gloss. That has an impact on how they think of themselves. 

Part of what concerned me about the Disney princess thing was the massive amount of marketing to three- and four-year old girls, starting that sad process of teaching them that their bodies constantly need to be improved, that they are not good enough as they are. That is a really new phenomenon. But to frame the question as, "she'll be less successful" — I'm not sure what that means. Will she make less money when she grows up? I don't know. There is certainly evidence that by age 6 girls are less likely than boys to think they can be "brilliant," for what that's worth. 

What I do know is that girls are bombarded with messages that reduce their value to their appearance. That starts from pretty much birth and accelerates during those preschool years; by the time they're on social media, it's a fire hose. Does that mean that if your daughter plays with Disney princesses at three she'll be anorexic at 15? That would be absurd to say. But it does mean that if we're not in there thinking about and countering the ways the media is training our girls around body image and sexuality, we are letting them raise our girls for us.

What I hear you doing is zooming way out. Oster framed her next question as, "Does this mean that girls who play with princesses are destined to feel the need to adhere to more gender stereotypes?" But in answering it, she seemed to set aside a vast body of research on media and self-image and turn instead to a much narrower universe of papers: those specifically on the Disney princesses and their evolution over time.

Any Russian troll with a Facebook page knows that media affects our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and actions, even when — maybe especially when — we think it doesn't. Understanding that, to say that media, including what you play with, has no impact on how you see the world or how you see yourself is ridiculous. I think it's disingenuous to limit the conversation to those specific studies. What you need to look at, in terms of research, is the American Psychological Association's two different reports on girls and body image and media. They have done a survey of all the studies and the conclusions are damning and important. 

So that would include studies like the one on teens who love reality TV reporting less egalitarian gender role beliefs; or another showing that girls who watch cosmetic surgery shows rather than home improvement shows report more dissatisfaction with their weight and appearance. And it's not just girls. There's one on video games featuring muscular avatars and how they leave males with decreased body esteem. 

That's called "bigorexia." There has been an uptick in guys who are engaging in unhealthy behavior around supplements or around dieting because they think they are not big enough, and it can be seriously unhealthy. And it is linked to social media use.

Going back to little girls, I looked at a study where preschool girls were shown two drawings of a girl, and one of them had sort of nondescript, loose clothing and the other one had tighter clothing, lower-cut clothing, jewelry — not "sexy" exactly, but more body conscious. And they were asked things like, which was more popular, which was nicer, which would you rather be friends with? They overwhelmingly chose the more sexualized figure. 

There is also a study with game board pieces, little figurines. Preschool girls were asked to choose between ones that were sort of more square looking, the classic kind that we had as kids, and ones that were thinner. They wanted the thinner ones, and they wanted them because they were thinner. So those messages have already been absorbed by girls before age 5. Will that make them less "successful"? I guess it depends on how you define that. Professionally? I don't know. But could it affect their psychological well being, their sense of self, their happiness in the world, their ability to take pleasure in their bodies? Yeah. There's pretty good evidence that yeah, it sure could.

The other piece, which is not female-specific, is about scripted play. So much of kids' play, again because of our media age, has become about reenacting the same pre-prescribed stories over and over. And that is unhealthy. So maybe instead of giving your daughter the Disney-branded costume, give her some Playsilks, these large pieces of pastel-colored and jewel-colored silk. Yes, you can play princess with them, but you can also make them into a cape or do whatever you want. That encourages actual imagination. 

Okay, we're starting to put a finger on the daylight between your views and Oster's message. She writes, "It's not clear from the research that this princess play is actually changing anything. It might be!" She turns to causation and says even if there's a connection between girls who engage with princesses and buy into gender stereotypes, it might be that girls who were already more likely to do the latter are doing the former, rather than princess culture driving mindset. Fair enough. But then she concludes, "Based on what we see, I think any such links are a big stretch." Which seems like a leap!

I don't want to say that princess play is inherently bad. Kids have been playing princesses and knights since time immemorial, and that is perfectly normal and legitimate and fun. I think the issue is with the commercialization and also the emphasis on body and beauty. When "Tangled" came out, there was such a great image of her leaving the tower and coming into her own and recognizing who she is, and then you go into the store, and that moment became — this was a real product — the "Escape from the Tower Lip and Nail Set." So it's not really the movies that are the problem necessarily, though even there I would recommend alternatives. "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's Delivery Service" are movies with strong, interesting, complex, fallible, little girl characters who look like little girls.

This is where I see a divide. Oster writes, "The ways in which modern society imposes a particular body ideal on girls are undoubtedly more complicated than one set of movies," which is what I'm also hearing from you, but then she essentially tells parents not to worry about it. That's the overall tone. And you're saying, "Don't just worry about Disney, also worry about xyz."

I would agree, we can't pin it all on Disney. But I think you can pin a great deal on media and marketing to girls. It's imperative to help them be critical consumers, to help broaden their ideas. So if you're somebody who is like, "My daughter can play with princesses," okay, fine, but what else is she playing with? How are you trying to help her get beyond thinking that beauty and body are going to be the most important thing to her? 

When does that start? I think the other important piece of this is timing. We should not be waiting for the onset of puberty, right?

If you think you're going to enter the conversation when your daughter is 15, good luck with that. You want to start conversations about femininity and consumption in an age-appropriate way, teaching them to question what they're being fed early so that when they're eventually on social media, you've already established the foundation. You can ask a question, like, "Gee, I noticed that the princess's eyes are bigger than her wrist, are your eyes bigger than your wrist? I wonder why they make them that way?" Or: "Look how tiny her waist is. I wonder where she keeps her uterus." 

"Girls' bodies are a battleground in the culture, and it's more intense than ever, even as girls have more opportunity educationally and professionally than they did in the past. Our role is to help them feel as embodied and as whole as possible, to value their bodies for what their body does, for how their body feels to them."

It's a lot harder to enter the conversation at puberty because they've already absorbed myriad messages, plus you have made the topics taboo by not mentioning them. The truth is, there will be so many voices competing to be the voice in your daughter's head; you better have your voice in there too. 

My daughter was a beautiful child and people commented on it all the time. And I would always say, "Pretty on the inside too." And just thinking about her body being hers, that what's important is how it feels to her, not how it looks to other people. There are little things, like when she's eating a piece of fruit, you can say, "Isn't it wonderful that you got that juicy sweet orange? Isn't that a great flavor on your tongue?" Or even, "Doesn't that feel nice when you stroke your arm?" The sense you want to convey is that your body is for you, that there are other ways to feel good in your body besides how it looks to other people.

Thank you for drawing that connection. I know some readers are saying to themselves, "y'all were talking about body image and princesses and now it's sex, and what does the one have to do with the other?" The idea is if we want girls to enjoy sexual pleasure when they are old enough to do so consensually, the messaging about their bodies and what their bodies are for has to start a lot earlier, yes?

Yes. That was why I went from "Cinderella Ate my Daughter" to "Girls and Sex." One of the main things I found was how overwhelmingly often girls felt that what sex was about how they looked to somebody else, and how their partner felt, especially male partners, but not about them. And not only did it diminish their own sense of joy and pleasure, but it was putting them in danger. Girls' bodies are a battleground in the culture, and it's more intense than ever, even as girls have more opportunity educationally and professionally than they did in the past. Our role is to help them feel as embodied and as whole as possible, to value their bodies for what their body does, for how their body feels to them. And that's something we can start in little ways from when they are very young.

I'd love to hear about the Netherlands and the research on what happens when we have these kinds of conversations with kids.

Our culture is simultaneously super-prude and super-sexualized, which is just a toxic brew. In other cultures, like in Holland and Denmark and places like that, they start having conversations with kids around bodily autonomy, around relationships, around family at really young ages and build toward open discussions about sexuality. The differences in outcomes are significant. There was a study comparing early sexual experiences of 400 randomly chosen girls from Dutch versus American universities that were demographically similar, and they found that everything we say we want for our girls was true of the Dutch girls, whether it was fewer pregnancies, less disease, less regret. They were more likely to have enjoyed their experience; they were more likely to be able to communicate their wants, needs, and limits. Whatever it was, they had it, we didn't, and the big difference, when they talked to them further, was that Dutch parents — they weren't more comfortable having conversations about sex, but while American parents tended to frame them exclusively in terms of risk and danger, the Dutch talked about balancing responsibility with joy. 

So back to three-year-olds playing with princesses: We start out with the "none of it matters," and then we shift in adolescence to "risk and danger, risk and danger!" And nowhere along the line do we talk about what does this all mean, how do you decode it, what are the responsibilities that you have to yourself and to other people, and what does it mean to feel joy in your body and relationships? So, yes, it's a little hard to fathom when you have a small child, but it's not irrelevant.

I want to say one other thing about the "successful" piece. Even if you construe that very narrowly around professional success, there is research, and it's compelling, that how girls dress and present themselves affects their cognition. One of the foundational studies of objectification theory was called "That Swimsuit Becomes You." They took male and female college students and put them in fitting rooms in a mall and gave half the men and half the women sweaters to try on, and half the men and half the women bathing suits to try on. And the girls in the bathing suits had one-pieces so they weren't really skimpy, and they had heaters in the fitting room so they wouldn't be cold. Then they had them all take a math test. And I believe the students were all in a math class together so there was a common baseline. And the girls in the bathing suits scored lower than the girls in the sweaters. There was no such differential for the boys. So dressing in a way that calls attention to their bodies or gender stereotypes did directly affect cognitive performance. 

There was another study where when students wore a doctor's coat in a test — a math test — they did better. 

Does that mean that wearing a princess dress when you are three is going to mean you won't do well on a math test when you are 15? Again, I can't say that. It's a bigger issue, but that contributes.

It matters. We are not going to know, we are not going to definitively prove causation because there are too many factors, but the weight of the evidence …

Yes, it's that it matters. The weight of the evidence is that princesses are just the tip of an iceberg, and as a parent you have to start thinking about how you are going to raise a daughter who doesn't feel like her appearance is disproportionately important versus who she is or what she does or how she feels. And the best news is: You can have an impact.

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