Mom & Pop Culture: The Princess Paradox

It should be noted that in my household, we’re perfectly at ease with our son (almost five) enjoying things that might be considered “girly.” He sports long hair, painted nails, and enjoys playing dress up.

I find his playing outside the stereotypical gender box to be perfectly normal and healthy for his age, and of course (confession time), the feminist in me loves that he’s already bucking the status quo with little reserve at such a young age.

But then a pang of hypocrisy hits, and I’m still not sure how to deal with it. This hypocrisy is dressed in tulle and satin, has perfectly coiffed hair, and is sometimes accompanied by a pair of glass slippers. You see, I have found myself in the midst of what I like to call the Princess Paradox.

Personally, I’ve never been a princess girl. Growing up, I found myself looking upon princesses in a more and more critical light. When I was pregnant, I knew that I didn’t want the sexist, overly marketed world of Disney princesses to infiltrate my life and send a myriad of poor messages to my potential daughter. (See my last post for more on what I dislike about princesses.)

It’s hard to overlook all of the negative aspects that pop up along the princess path, and I knew that I would be very particular regarding exposure and access to princesses if I had a girl. Never in a million years did it cross my mind that I would be trying to navigate the same murky waters, only with my son.

It’s a strange line to balance. I want my son to feel comfortable playing outside stereotypical gender boxes, but at the same time, if I had a girl, I would be putting my foot down on all the princess stuff. So, why am I more lenient with my son donning a princess dress and watching Cinderella?

My son clutching his prized copy of Cinderella

My son, clutching his prized copy of Cinderella.

Perhaps it’s because it’s not his reality… that because he’s not a girl he won’t succumb to the pressure of what these movies subversively sell? (i.e., overt femininity, helplessness, submissiveness, marriage = happily ever after, etc…).

Yet, what does that teach him about girls in general? Despite his affinity for spinning skirts and princesses, I know I can work harder to find better examples than Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. (Although, to be fair and accurate, the only Disney princess movie he’s actually watched so far has been Cinderella).

We’ve read other princess books that are much less about pushing harmful stereotypes and more about painting the girl as the hero, and he does like those. But there is still this other worldly pull that he succumbs to with Cinderella. I wonder (hope) that this will be a short lived phase, and really…will watching Cinderella once or twice or ten times really be that damaging?

Maybe my not-so-subtle commentary as we watch Cinderella will settle in. (It’s not my fault that my inner snark comes out when watching these sorts of movies.) Maybe he’ll watch these movies and get it. Maybe he’ll realize that actual girls are smarter, cooler, stronger, and better than all of that. Maybe he’ll truly understand that these are just silly movies with shaky messages.

Or…maybe he’ll continue to pepper me with questions about Cinderella and lament how he wasn’t able to visit her in his castle that one time we went to Disney World because she was “busy” (I rue the day he realizes my little parenting white lie…).

Either way, I need to come to terms with this whole Princess Paradox—finding a way to allow my son the enjoyment of visiting this fairy tale world without getting fully sucked inside.

Previously: Princess Week!, The Grocery Game

by Avital Norman Nathman
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Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer and fulltime feminist killjoy. Find her tweeting @TheMamafesto

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13 Comments Have Been Posted

The only problem with this

The only problem with this flow of logic is the statement of, "Perhaps it's because it's not his reality... that because he's not a girl he won't succumb to the pressure of what these movies subversively sell? (i.e., overt femininity, helplessness, submissiveness, marriage = happily ever after, etc...)." Just because he is male does not automatically count him out on the roles these movies push. He could meet the woman/man of his dreams and she/he ultimately becomes the "chivalrous" (if not chauvinistic) counterpart. This concern should be the same for females as it is for males.

I agree...

...and do worry about those things as well. It does, however, tend to slip my mind because their actual onscreen roles are so limited in the actual movies, which is ironic since the man/marriage is the ultimate goal in most of them!

I admire your consciousness

I admire your consciousness and hope to be as attentive as you if I decide parent one day. A quick thought: Just because the movie's protagonist is a girl does not mean it does not qualify as your son's "reality." It is important to note that the depiction of gender roles, etc in Disney fairytales are not limited to females. There is a lot to be said about the portrayal of men as stoic rescuer (I'm sure there are other characteristics here but it's been a while since I've seen a princess story) and how that may inform a boy's identity development. Also, just because the males in the movie have less screen time and a less complicated inner life does not mean he is not learning from their behavior. I can't count the movies I saw as a teenager in which women were supporting characters and from which I learned many ideas about my gender that to this day I am struggling to deconstruct.

Just because princess movies are allegedly targeting girls does not mean they aren't "subversively selling" boy viewers the same ideas.

Thanks for the thought-provoking account!


You're totally right on with your analysis, and I completely spaces on discussing this aspect of Disney movies (yet it is still on my mind when he watches them, for sure). For the limited amount of screen time the guys have in most Disney movies, you're totally right about the stale, stereotypical messages they send.

I would first like to state

I would first like to state that I do not make any claims to know about children or raising them. But I think that it might be interesting to try to guide him towards male role models that defy stereotype as opposed to focussing on female characters that are in an essense an anti-princess. I can't think of a single example off of the top of my head, but there HAS to be a male character who is not hyper-masculine nor turned into a feminine less-than-male laughing stock.

I know just as many men as

I know just as many men as women who think that marriage is the cure all for everything. I was very much dating a Princess-type man who was all of those things we normally attribute to girly girls. It goes both ways. Awareness and open communication and questions are key. You're on your way. =)

It's both of my kids

My kids are currently obsessed with the Disney Princesses and Fairies. My daughter LOVES Cinderella right now, and it makes me gag. I was also never into that much. But she sees it, loves it, asks for it, and she also loves other characters (Jessie from Toy Story, Tiana, Rex...) and makes up her own. Just as my son adores Buzz, Maximus, and Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk (whom I think is nothing more than a thief).

I also have to admit being much more comfortable with my son's Tinker Bell blanket than my daughter's Disney Princesses blanket (No, I can't blame the grandparents. I bought them with the kids.). And partially because of that realization, I have succumbed to my daughter's love of the fluffy, gauzy, girly stuff. I also point out that Cinderella worked really hard, made her own luck, and was strong enough to take the mean girls to task. It's stretching, but whatever.

If I keep her away from it, she'll see it in other contexts and I won't get to guide her as much. They will both grow up with a mom who doesn't wear make-up or color her hair (or blow-dry it), who throws around a ball and bakes cookies, who grumbles when she has to wear heels (otherwise known as pumps)...and I think that will have more of an impact than Disney in the long run.

Exactly, exactly. I have 2

Exactly, exactly. I have 2 girls (and just starting to experience a son, he's almost 2) and they have a lot of Disney Princess stuff and all the movies and we go to Disney World blah blah blah. And I said to myself before I had kids I would NEVER let this happen. Such is life. I complement you on your rationale (as it is also my own) that if we try to keep them from it e.g. "banning princesses" it just makes it all the more attractive. Then, rather than talking AT them, in a defensive position, having to justify because it sets them so far apart from their peers, I'm able to explain to flesh it out WITH them (while we are watching the movies or playing the dress-up or whatever). I found it was more effective to just let the questions come naturally through exposing them to it in a supervised way and being available. I mean, they know me pretty well and they ask a lot of questions anyway.
The very good news is that I am starting to see (and hear) fruit from the seeds of healthy cynicism, critical consumption and general girlpower that I've been sowing over the past decade. The things they are saying and doing show me they have indeed been listening and absorbing what I've said. And lastly, what you mentioned about us being their primary role model, that's not to be minimized. Being real, regular women who aren't obsessed with our faces or figures, don't dress like princesses every day (or any day really), who speak our minds, work hard, are honest about our own struggles and the lessons we've learned becoming women- this is the layer that gives them room to question popular culture, a wall they can break gender stereotypes against.

I so agree! I had a

I so agree! I had a conversation with my Mom the other day about how I developed my ideas about gender roles. We didn't have TV, but we watched movies. I went to a Conservative Christian school which had extremely rigid gender rules (e.g. an overnight where the boys camped and the girls stayed inside and did a cross-stitch project. Really.) At the same time, my Mom spent her days working on our farm, lugging buckets, chasing ducks and shoveling horse manure, while my Dad made telephone sales calls. My Mom also ran a makeup business, and I saw her all glammed up on a regular basis. She ran races, she knitted, cooked and chopped wood. There was absolutely no discussion at home about what girls were supposed to do or what boys were supposed to do. We dressed my little brother in dresses and makeup. My sister beat us both at everything. The school and church influence rolled off my back, the home message won out and i always knew I could do or be whatever I wanted. Go Mom!

I have to admit. I was a

I have to admit. I was a princess girl. I told people I wanted to be a princess when I grew up, watched Cinderella until my poor vhs tape bit the dust, loved tulle and dressy goopy girly things... I was also kind of a tomboy, played in the woods with the boys with no shoes on and built teepees. I don't remember my mother sitting through Cinderella and rolling her eyes and inserting commentary designed to make me stop loving my favorite movie. I do remember her leading by example, being an incredibly hard worker, a leader, and an adamant feminist. Whatevs, let your kid watch Disney movies, just keep being your badass feminist self and your kids will follow your example.


Disney has become an aggressive marketing machine since we were little. When it created the Princess Brand and started grouping them for the first time around 1998 or 1999, it started selling the Princess concept HARD. When movies like Beauty and the Beast came out, it was about selling the film and the magic of the film. Now, it's about a lifestyle. Princess for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They're making Princess Perfume now, for heaven's sake. And lip gloss. If parents stand back and hope kids draw the right conclusions, Disney will step in and shove them to the conclusions that are best for marketing things like perfume and lip gloss. Check out "Disney Princesses: The Gateway Drug" at Peggy Orenstein's blog!

Preschoolers are seen as consumers now, so that snarky commentary is Mom's way of modeling critical thinking. Of course, a four-year-old is really too young to be able to recognize that something is an ad designed to manipulate, but if they're going to market to our four-year-olds, we have got to do something!

Other "Cinderella" stories...

I wonder if he'd be interested in all the Cinderella stories around the world. Even China has one, I think. Peggy writes about this in CAMD and I defer to her expertise, but I will say that Disney's greatest treason is cutting out the Mom in the story. Because the Cinderella from the French "original"? She had to do a lot of this stuff herself. And maybe a fairy godmother is more interesting to Disney, but I'm totally fascinated by the tree Cinderella plants at her mother's grave that grants her wishes and brings magical (and very mean, I might add) birds to help with things like getting an outfit together. Really, though, Cinderella has to get her own darn self out of her awful life, and has to make the whole plan herself. The ball and the prince become the most expedient means to that end, instead of the goal.

Though she does seem to

Though she does seem to endure more than other princesses, it's arguable that she only escapes her circumstances because of her appearance. He got to dance with her one time and not even really get to know her at all.. Hell, he didn't even know her name-- he needed her damn shoe. I know many have already pointed out how problematic these movies are, but I still wanted to call bull shit.

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