Synchronistic Reader

Where Life Intertwines With the Books I Read

Lauren J Barnhart

Lauren J Barnhart
Seattle, Washington,
April 11
Author & Publisher
Knotted Tree Press
My memoir 'No End Of The Bed' spans my search for truth through differing perceptions of sex, with some surprising parallels made between the fundamentalist church and the sex-positive movement. It is now available at most online retailers. You can also find my writing in past issues of Jersey Devil Press and Monkey Bicycle.


Editor’s Pick
MARCH 28, 2012 10:53PM

Disney Princess Nightmare

Rate: 20 Flag

            Imagine you are living in a universe where everything is pink, every girl is a princess, and men are vague figures on the periphery, only appearing when a girl needs saving.  This to me sounds like a nightmare, and yet little girls are taught that this is a dream come true.  A few weeks ago I saw Peggy Orenstein give a lecture based off her new book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, defining what is wrong exactly, with princess culture in girl land. 

            “… princesses avoid female bonding.  Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married…  and be taken care of for the rest of their lives.  Their value derives largely from their appearance.  They are rabid materialists.  They might affect your daughter’s interest in math.  And yet…  parents cannot resist them (Orenstein, 23).”

            In the Disney Princess franchise, for the first time we are allowed to see the Disney Princesses grouped together as long as none of them are looking at each other.  They each exist in a universe, all their own.  They only make friends with those who are not on equal footing; such as crustaceans, raccoons, birds, dwarves, fairies.  No one is as special as they are. 


Not only does princess mentality isolate girls from other girls, inspiring competition and a lack of empathy; but it also creates a huge divide between girls and boys.  Boys are given active toys that include all the colors of the rainbow.  They are encouraged to be doers, and to learn through play with tool sets, chemistry sets, etc.  For girls, however, there is a major emphasis on primping and materialism – spa day, shopping, and make-up for your six year old.  The girl’s version of a chemistry set revolves around learning to make perfume.  In the Monopoly Pink Boutique Edition, girls can go on shopping sprees, buy a mall or a boutique.  This all teaches them to strive to be spoiled and valued on the basis of their appearance.

At a toy fair, Orenstein observes:  “The preschool girls’ section was decorated with a banner on which the words BEAUTIFUL, PRETTY, COLORFUL were repeated over and over (and over) in pink script…  In the next room, a banner over the boys’ section, scripted in blue, exclaimed, ENERGY, HEROES, POWER (Orenstein, 51).”

            Words used for girls are passive descriptions of how an object looks.  Boys on the other hand get all the action, the doing, the winning, the leadership.  Over and over boys and girls are ingrained with these perceptions at an already difficult stage of social development where they are first coming to terms with categories of gender. 

            “By the end of the first year of preschool, children spend most of their time, when they can choose, playing with others of their sex.  When they do have cross-sex friendships, they tend not to cop to them in public – the relationships go underground (Orenstein, 68).”

            Some of my earliest memories are of playing with my friend Patrick.  My dad’s favorite story to tell is of me at around age four playing football with Patrick and his little brother Freddy.  Apparently I pushed Freddy down and he went crying to his dad.  His dad turned to him and said, “But that’s how the game is played, son.”  At a later age, I can assure you, I would not have had the guts to push a boy down.

            Since I was the second child, my parents were a little lax with teaching me a few basics, so Patrick taught me the alphabet and I taught him a few ballet moves.  I loved playing Heman with him and I was convinced that boy’s toys were better.  Barbie was fun, but all she did was primp and go to parties.  Her big climatic moment was when she danced with Ken.  They would fall in love and begin to fly.  Then they would go home, take off their clothes and lie naked on top of each other in their Barbie bed.  My neighbor friend and I would gaze at this mysterious act with awe.  All the effort went into making Barbie look as beautiful as possible so that Ken would sleep with her.

            Heman was active.  He was a hero.  There was something more empowering about being a boy.  I was jealous.  I was also jealous that Patrick didn’t give a shit about what people thought of him.  One day he pulled down his pants and peed right on the sidewalk.  It didn’t matter that there were ten other kids playing around him when he did it.  I couldn’t imagine ever feeling that free.

            As soon as we entered kindergarten, though, Patrick rejected me.  He wouldn’t be caught dead talking to a girl in public.  I felt heartbroken.  I realized our friendship could only exist in my mind as a memory.  But I still admired him from afar.  Matters were made worse when in the first grade we were all lined up to go in after recess.  I was at the end of the line, Patrick was up ahead, and the boy in front of him (who I didn’t like), yelled out, “You like Lauren?!”  It was as though the most embarrassing thing you could possibly do was like me.  Everyone started laughing.  Patrick looked humiliated.  I wanted to disappear.  It was hard to understand why this was such a horrible thing.

            So then we entered a new phase.  Since Patrick “liked” me, I now had a crush on him.  This explained to me why we were no longer allowed to talk to each other.  Everything became secretive, underground.  It was now all in the non-verbals, like when he silently chased me on his bicycle.  I pedaled as fast as I could, laughing hysterically over the excitement of the chase.  For a few short moments, he was actually acknowledging that I existed.

            At that point the major gender separation in toys was really just beginning.  It was the early eighties, that big bust of consumerism.  My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears – all inactive toys that were cute and had no real function.  I barely knew what to do with any of them, but of course wanted them all. 

            Much more memorable is the summer when the girl next door and I decided to make a mud factory out of the piles of dirt behind the garage.  We made mud pies and even mud hot dogs, which my aunt told us, looked more like poop.  Then there was the year in grade school that I started an icicle hunt at recess – a game that spread like a virus till the whole grade school was involved in a battle of who could collect the most icicles, as well as the biggest.  I felt like a HERO.  I felt POWER.  I felt ENERGY.  It felt good!

When Peggy Orenstein finished her lecture on princess culture, the audience was invited to ask her questions.  Every woman that went up to the microphone bumbled through her words, skittishly made apologies, and skipped backwards through the aisle like an uncertain little girl.  Then a young man got up to ask a question.  He spoke directly with authority.  When he was finished he calmly walked back to his seat with assurance.  Just in that moment, it was easy to see, how we are all shaped by society’s messages on gender.  

It’s time for women to create a new female archetype for the future – heroic, intelligent, with guts, courage, charisma and empathy.  She is prepared to fight to protect the right to be anything she wants to be.  A woman who doesn’t need saving, yet understands that we are stronger when we unify.  She is the best in all of us.



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Although, in general, there are a powerful women, they are in the minority. The men in charge of the world have made a horrible mess. I very much would like to see what the women would do.
I suppose my girls somehow missed the Princess thing though they did have a few little ponies. They weren't much fun beyond having their manes brushed, aside from Barbie they didn't have any girlie things. Luckily we bought a dumpy house with a pool and in So. Cal. it means all the kids in your yard all the time. Now I feel better that I couldn't buy them all that stuff.

I'm very grateful to have read this post, my youngest (32 yo) has a baby girl and we've had concerns about the changes in young women. As I walk the toy aisles again there is irridescent pink stuff covered in maribou feathers everywhere. I'll be sure to suggest she look at your post and be aware of the information out there. I want the little one to be happy, active and free to enjoy her life.
Thank you for the post.
Growing up, I was a tomboy through and through. I despised princesses and girlie stuff. So boring.

As an adult, I find them vapid and shallow. Disney princesses in particular are usually motherless. Dad often depends on his daughter to take care of him. They're relegated to traditional household roles until they're rescued by a man. Not exactly positive role models for our daughters.

I adore, however, the evil stepmothers and wicked queens. They're far more complex and much more fun.
Considering the zombie craze, with a few rewrites "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" could be the next YA best seller.
Love this analysis. Did you see the Disney Princess sketch on Saturday Night Live? Check it out. Let me know if you can't find it and I'll dredge up the link.
the idea of sex differences mainly due to culture & conditioning is imho largely debunked by solid science/evopsych findings/research, but few feminists have gotten the news bulletin.
I really dont know why there is so much princess paranoia lately. there was a clip of a 3yr old girl or so that went viral where she complained about princesses. admittedly its a stereotype, but it seems mostly harmless to me, or at least not very serious compared to other problems in the world. it seems like a red herring to me. there are studies that show at a young age, unconditioned, girls prefer girl toys and boys prefer boy toys, and every adult whose raised a kid is likely to understand that.... is it bad for girls to aspire to be beautiful? to find a dashing mate? I think not. its an ageless goal that will be around as long as humans are.
in short the princess thing is starting to grate on me as a strawman....
@Cedar Burnett - Yes, I love that clip! Here is the link:
@vzn - A lot of those other problems in the world exist because women and girls are disempowered by limiting archetypes and roles. By age 3, children have been conditioned a great deal. And having been around many children at that age, it's quite obvious that boys like to wear nail polish and wear pink boots, and I for example wanted to play with super heroes instead of barbie. But by preschool, kids (not yet understanding anatomy) begin to feel insecure about claiming their gender and fitting in.
One hundred years ago, the color pink was associated with boys, and little boys and girls all wore dresses. Toys were less gender specific than they are now.
I don't think there is anything wrong with aspiring to be attractive, and finding a dashing mate. That's biology. But it is wrong when women find their value (a value that slips away quickly) solely in their appearance and whether or not that mirage can attract a mate who will rescue them. This does not make a woman happy. In fact, it makes her miserable, depressed, and catty.
Happiness comes from the passion that we can all find and express from within. But I've come across countless women who are afraid of their gifts. They repress them, and relegate themselves to a house of cards, aka the prince and the castle. They've been told to do that since they were little girls.
Couple of things I'd note. Have you ever seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer? The Bionic Woman (The original one, not the wimpy sequel NBC tried a few years ago.) Xena, Warrior Princess?

Some of what you are angry about may just be biology. Girls genetically like pink and passivity. They may grow out of it - the three shows I mentioned above are certainly "growing out of it" - but little girls love that stuff.

I agree that the sexes rarely mix or work well together in most kid media. But then, they didn't in the live-action movies I saw as a kid in the 60's. Women were in those male adventure movies like Master of the World, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, From the Earth to the Moon and the like, but they were only there to prove to the public that the male characters weren't gay. Most guys would have preferred that action movies would be like the homoerotic 300 - without the obvious homoerotic costuming and posturing.
It isn't really the parents who push as much as it is everywhere. The princess thing is ubiquitous. You cannot escape, as if you don't introduce it, it will still show up at your kid's preschool.

On the other hand, I have friends who refuse to recognize the socialization aspects of male and female in our society. "You watch!" one friend said. "You watch. She'll be loving pink and purple and wearing crowns. It's what little girls do." Her world was blown when my child's favorite color rotated between green, blue, black, and white. And my child's best friends are still boys. I'll be sad if she gets rejected by these same boys in grammar school, if not surprised. She does love the sparkles on her dresses, but she also adores toy cars.

But my friend has decided that my child is the weird exception. I think it's more likely I didn't stop her from liking toys that were "for boys." Also, when she said that once, I said that the 'for boys' thing was silly. If you like something, you like it. That really sunk in for her. We need to think of better ways to socialize our kids, so that they all love math and play with dolls, if they want to do that.
PS--No, vzn. I don't know what studies are you discussing, but all the studies I've read are studies that point more and more to socialization as the most vital component in determining things like preferences and strengths. Of course, it is very, very complicated. But, one study discussed how, when the brain is studied in older children, the scientists found brain developments that suggested that girls had an area that was more developed for things concerning empathy and care. Okay, they said, this is great! We've proven that's genetic. Then, they moved the study back and discovered that, when very young, boys were more likely to be more developed in this area. The suggestive conclusion is that, as a person grows, their brains change, depending on what is necessary to have in that society.

Very fascinating study.

I know you'll never be able to go there and really look at that stuff with an open mind. That's okay. You have to believe what you have to believe to get along. But, studies don't support it, nor is it a done deal. Sorry.
What I would hope for a young girl/woman growing up is the flexibility to imagine herself in any role, scientist, laborer, princess, mother, artist, etc., and realize that she really is someone well beyond a role. Her thoughts and feelings, philosophy, and interests are deep, varied and well-rounded. She is not defined by others or by a stereotype of any role she plays. She can associate with a flippant princess or a tough politician, royalty or the homeless and still be herself. She fits in anywhere in the world, is curious, and does not judge others too rigidly.
I have loved Peggy Orenstein's work for years, but have lately felt that the lines of analysis are drawn a little too sharply. My daughter just turned 7 and loves, loves, loves the Disney Princesses (albeit some more than others). So, understandably, I listen in when she is playing with her Barbies and Disney Princesses. When they are not saving somebody from some life-threatening danger, they seem to take a prodigious amount of care of younger siblings and injured animals. So far, so good, in my experience. My daughter wears pink as much as possible but refuses to brush her hair. Did I mention she plays hockey with her brothers, both of whom have maintained cross-sex friendships into elementary and middle school. The "like" stuff still happens, but the kids I know just kind of roll their eyes and sled through it.

People are saying that Katniss Everdeen is the anti-Disney Princess. I have not seen the movie, but I read the triology and can see that point. What do you think?
Well, when you put it like this, I guess I'm glad Disney has never created a Latina princess.
@odetteroullette - excellent insights! Socialization has a lot more to do with all of this than gender. Love your feisty response to vzn.
@jackie2 - beautifully spoken. It's all about freedom.
@Jennifer Prestholdt - I haven't read the Hunger Games, but am planning to see the movie this week. Katniss Everdeen does seem like a survivalist super hero and Jennifer Lawrence has really cornered the market on that type of character. 'Winter's Bone' was intense.
I abhor the whole princess scene and refuse to buy my little granddaughter any of that dreck. My daughter although very feminine in nature really didn't go in for it either.
Well written incisive piece.
Ever notice that the Princesses never have living moms?
This phenomenon of women's self-presentation makes me crazy! I see this so much in my students -- a sort of apology for their voice. At the same time, my students tell me that I (at 4'11" on a good day) am "intimidating." I think you made me realize that this is because I talk like a man: standing straight, looking forward, consciously eschewing "ums," and speaking with clarity and volume. Can we de-gender self-confidence, please?
He-Man is gay -

The new female archetype is here -

Colorful is an adverb.
As for new, more empowered female archetypes, there has been many for quite some time. Throughout history and even in our contemporary world (Xena, Buffy, etc.)

I see the grossness in the Disney approach, but fairy tales were never meant to represent reality. They are supposed to represent aspects of all of our personalities. So a princess can't be that multidimensional. Nor can the prince. Or the bad witch.

They're symbolic of aspects of our personality. Carl Jung wrote about it extensively. Joseph Campbell. And who was the big fairy tale dude...Bruce Bettleheim? Yes, I think that's the one.

What MARKETING does with these archetypes is a whole other animal. And I think that's what you have issue with, and rightfully so. (Really, Disney has made me sick for a LONG time. What a sick machine.)

You can't change fairy tales, in essence. They've been around since the beginning of time and contain many of the same tenets throughout the world. It's our collective unconscious and it can't be altered to be more feminist-friendly. It just doesn't work that way. It's like changing your dream content. It's beyond our consciousness.

And gender separation started WAY before the 80's! Barbie, for instance, whose been around for eons. And baby dolls and doll houses, etc. Girls have been taught to play house for a long time now.

So while I get how good it feels to tap into the freedom that was presumably given to boys, even that is not so simple. Boys are taught to fight, to war, to love guns. That's not so freeing, in my opinion. It is active, that's for sure. But it's not a case of "their modeling is cool and ours isn't." (Though I loved the little boy who peed on the sidewalk! Ha...)

For someone like me, who had very little girlish modeling, those "pink" things made me feel very good growing up. I was a fierce tomboy yet I longed for dolls and pretty things like other girls. To this day, I still bring aspects of that girlie childhood into my own life, for my own healing, for my own feminine healing. I didn't get enough of it. you see, it's a complicated topic. A long-standing one tied deeply into our psyches. And its individualized. Again, I needed those pink things for healing; other girls might need to be more rough and tumble to compensate for all of that marketing crap.

I don't think the answer lies in rewriting fairy tales and making them more empowered. That just seems like forced politics.
Great insights! I too have often struggled with finding a healthy balance between the feminine and masculine sides of myself. I felt limited by the feminine growing up, then denied that side of myself through my twenties, and now am finding more of a balance.
Mythology plays a very strong role in our psyches. But in the hands of Disney and marketing, as you said, it just gets creepy and limits the roles that little girl's can see themselves playing in life.
I don't think we should rewrite fairy tales. But I do think there should be more toys and stories for girls that offer a well-rounded mode of play and learning, rather than the current obsession with shopping, spa day, and being a spoiled princess.
Gosh, where's Esmeralda from Hunchback of Notre Dame? Disney UNFAIR to Roma! That aside, what a fine essay!
These aren't really so much princesses as harem concubines.
Speaking of Barbie and Katniss Everdeen - here they are together at last. This made me laugh...