Princess Power?

I just read an intriguing article from the New York Times called What’s Wrong With Cinderella?, written by Peggy Orenstein, a feminist mother struggling with a daughter who is drawn to all the pink, frilly, girly stereotypes once considered damaging to a young girl’s psyche. It’s a well-balanced piece illustrating the struggle I think most of us go through when trying to figure out what’s harmful, what’s sheer marketing, and what’s just a fun princess costume.

The article covers the recent rise of Disney’s “Princess” line, which groups past heroines like Cinderella, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Ariel from the Little Mermaid, Jasmine from Aladdin, and Mulan.

Orenstein writes:

There are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. On the other hand, there is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs — who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty — are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception.

I take issue with the assertion that Disney’s princesses are necessarily bad role models. Does Mulan teach children to avoid conflict? In Mulan, that character cut off her hair and dressed as a boy in order to go to war to save her father. I was a big fan of Jasmine when I was younger — she dressed as a peasant in order to escape her wealthy upbringing and experience the real world on her own. Belle stood up to a terrifying Beast and saved the day with love and kindness. Cinderella, easily the most famous princess, was a bit of a pushover, but what if Disney had made the movie today? Cinderella would surely be reimagined as an ass-kicking, take-this-job-and-shove-it glamour girl. In fact, the Cinderella tale has been done and redone — in 1998, Drew Barrymore played the role in Ever After, portraying a strong-willed woman who rescues the Prince.

As a woman who loves her irony as much as her sexual independence, I found this paragraph particularly interesting and insightful:

In the 1990s, third-wave feminists rebelled against their dour big sisters, “reclaiming” sexual objectification as a woman’s right — provided, of course, that it was on her own terms, that she was the one choosing to strip or wear a shirt that said “Porn Star” or make out with her best friend at a frat-house bash. They embraced words like “bitch” and “slut” as terms of affection and empowerment. That is, when used by the right people, with the right dash of playful irony. But how can you assure that? As Madonna gave way to Britney, whatever self-determination that message contained was watered down and commodified until all that was left was a gaggle of 6-year-old girls in belly-baring T-shirts (which I’m guessing they don’t wear as cultural critique). It is no wonder that parents, faced with thongs for 8-year-olds and Bratz dolls’ “passion for fashion,” fill their daughters’ closets with pink sateen; the innocence of Princess feels like a reprieve.

I think that is a very good summary of what has happened over the past few years. It leaves many of us conflicted — is Britney a powerful symbol of our feminine sexuality, or is she a talentless twit sent from the depths of hell to torment us? Perhaps she is our Osama. We gave her the weapons needed to fight for freedom, and now she’s using them against us. Oops, we did it again.

Orenstein ends her article by referencing Disney’s next marketing push: fairies. Tinkerbell, who was at first accepted and then booted from the Princess pantheon, will lead her own team of sassy fairy chicks. In theory, I like it — they seem a bit tougher, a bit smarter, a bit rougher around the edges than the princesses. In practice though, they threaten to be whored up fantasy girls with more physically impossible bodies (and I don’t only refer to the wings). For Christmas, my brother and his wife gave me a great book about myths and legends around our home state of New Jersey. To keep my place, they included a bookmark that my brother found gleefully ironic — it featured, yes, one of Disney’s new fairy girls.

“A slutty, female Peter Pan?” I asked. My sister-in-law pointed out the fairy’s name: Beck. Oh dear god. I visited Disney’s fairy site and read up on Beck and her friends, and I have to say that I would have loved these when I was a ten-year old tomboy. Hell, okay, I kind of even like them now that I’m a 26-year old tomboy. “Rani’s” bio even notes that she sweats. SHE SWEATS. So, our young girls won’t exactly be following the exploits of a bunch of brain surgeons, but at least the kids can take comfort in the fact that their favorite characters have glands just like them. That’s gotta be a step up.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. They embraced words like “bitch” and “slut” as terms of affection and empowerment. That is, when used by the right people, with the right dash of playful irony. But how can you assure that?

    Any group that is trying to assert itself by reclaiming similar perjoratives faces that problem. It's a perennial dilemma, I would think. Inasmuch as there's an answer, it would seem to be to educate the younger members in the history of their group/community.

    Irony, in my experience, is a hard thing to cultivate and learn. One of those acquired tastes and skills that really takes a lifetime. Definitely an invaluable tool, though.

    A very interesting essay, Rebecca.

  2. If slut can be at least partway reclaimed — as people have done with geek and queer — then perhaps there is hope for skeptic after all. (See, in this context, Mark Liberman's brief note on the subject.)

    About a year ago, one of my friends found out there on the Interblag an MP3 of the Dresden Dolls singing "Hit Me Baby One More Time". As I listened to that lolly of pop nonsense transfigured into a plane of Brechtian cabaret steampunk, I came to a realization. We can try to nullify ourselves with commercialized, universalized, ubiquitized background noise, but there will always be accesses of poetic despair. The televised lustiness of all our Britneys is only a few molecules away from Helen's beauty, which destroyed Greece and Troy alike, or Lolita's nymphic pheromones which provoked Humbert's feral moans. . . .

    My mother got me Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things for Christmas, and after reading it through in a sitting, my brain has been tuned to some odd frequencies.

  3. >My mother got me Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things for Christmas, and after reading it through in a sitting, my brain has been tuned to some odd frequencies.

  4. As far as reclaiming "skeptic" goes, I'm afraid it's never been used as derogatory. Quite the opposite, it's been wrongly applied by people (usually to describe themselves) in an attempt to convince people that they themselves once were skeptics, but now they've opened their minds and they're convinced that it (whatever it is they now believe in) works!

    In a sense, there's nothing to reclaim, since they never really took it, or changed its meaning.

  5. exarch, while I think I grok what you're saying, I'd like to quote Phil Plait on this matter:

    Have you heard of the “Bright” movement? It’s an idea dreamed up by some skeptics. The basic thought is that most people don’t really understand what it means to be a skeptic. They think it means someone who denies everything, a nay-sayer, a cynic. It brings to mind a curmudgeon, someone who is, well, a jerk.

    But in reality, it means someone who demands evidence for a claim. That’s all. That’s not so terrible, is it? But the word is so twisted by others, the real connotation lost, that a lot of skeptics don’t like to use the word anymore. So some folks tried to think up a new word. Lots were tried, but none stuck.

    Then came the term “Brights”. They felt that this connoted a cheery mien, and took it to mean someone who has a naturalistic view of the world, unfettered by superstition.

    I find this ironic, since the people who dreamed it up are pretty smart, and the people who signed onto it are pretty smart as well. Yet, somehow, they missed the idea that this word is really pretty awful.

    Read the rest for the full deal. The following passage was basically what I had in mind when I wrote my earlier comment:

    The solution is rather simple, and right in front of us. What we need to do is take back the word “skeptic”. Gays have done it for the word, well, “gay”, as well as “queer”. Certainly they are a group that’s suffered at least as much as skeptics.

    Perhaps this will make my meaning more clear.

  6. I had a pincess phase when I was 5. I remeber it very well, I wanted to dress up as a princess and there was this woman in daycare who made really great princess drawings so we used to beg her to do another one. I tried to copy her style and my mom, who saved all our drawings, have lots and lots of princess drawings that I made with crowns and gowns and the whole thing. However, this phase went away just like all the other phases I went throguh. I had a phase where I would ask everybody if they believed in god and what they believed in and why. I has a phase where I collected all the pretty rocks I found on the beach. I also had a phase where I thought speed reading aloud was cool and I wanted to be the fastest, so I read so fast that nobody could understand me in class.

    My point is, kids go through all kinds of weird obsessions. The princess obsession is just one of them, and I don't think it is more or less dangerous than anything else.

  7. exarch,

    Blake's (and BA's) whole point in bringing up "Bright" is that it was a bad name from the very start. It failed because it sucked and was insulting and divisive. "Skeptic" has no such handicaps. Its negative meaning is actually pretty confined to true believer communities. Generally, it's a neutral term. That makes it perfectly ripe for adoption as a positive signifier… that is, if we don't get people running away from the term in order to… honestly, I don't know what the "Brights" thought they would accomplish. It was always such a goddamned stupid name.

  8. I just finished "Fragile Things" about two hours ago. If I weren't such an atheist, I'd say, "Neil Gaiman is a god!"

    Yeah, "brights" was stupid and asking for trouble. It was calling everyone else "dims" by default. Wasn't there a movement to use "free thinkers?"

  9. "Freethinker" is actually a pretty old term, dating back at least to 1700 or so apparently. It's also much better (and more precise, I think) than "Bright", since it doesn't imply that non-Freethinkers are stupid, just beholden to one particular system of thought (i.e., religion) to the exclusion of others.

    It's certainly an appropriate replacement term for "skeptic", but I also think that the term "skeptic" itself is perfectly acceptable and needs no replacement. It only has negative connotations within the true believer cultures. The only danger with "skeptic" is that some groups have tried to co-opt the term for denialism: viz. holocaust, global warming, 9/11 "skeptics". I say it's better to fight them for the term than to give up and say, oh, we're "Brights" now, ok?

  10. There's nothing wrong with being "skeptical" of things like the official 9/11 story. It's just that those who call themselves 9/11-skeptics aren't skeptical at all, they are 9/11-conspiracy-theory-believers.

    In fighting them, it's important to get that last bit very clear to anyone listening: they are believers, not skeptics.

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