From “Bliss,” a new princess-focused musical at The 5th Avenue Theatre (running Feb. 4-23), to the national touring production of “Frozen” at The Paramount Theatre (Feb. 7-March 1), performance offerings on Seattle stages in early 2020 have a certain sparkly theme. Add in “Snow White” at Seattle Children’s Theatre (Feb. 6-March 15) and “Cinderella” at Pacific Northwest Ballet (Jan. 31-Feb. 9), and if you happen to be a 5-year-old who’s big into princesses, a stacked arts calendar awaits.
Much of the promotional language around these shows takes on an almost apologetic tone, affirming that “the very best version of yourself is the one that is authentically you, not the one the world expects of you” while promising that these stories “flip that traditional princess narrative on its head and empower the princess at its center.”
This is no surprise in a city like Seattle, where long before major cultural shifts like the #MeToo movement, I remember hearing parents of my elementary-school classmates proudly announcing they didn’t have TVs at home. Princesses, especially the Disney-sanctioned ones, have a bad reputation. But are they really so damaging as to require the PR equivalent of a content warning? And why do we like them so much? As a onetime Disney devotee, I set out to investigate.
The origins of a princess panic
Once upon a time, a little girl fell in love with Disney princesses, imbued her Barbie dolls with rich inner lives, refused to wear anything but dresses and still became a feminist by fifth grade. This is not the typical story you hear about princess culture, but it was mine, and I’ve often wondered why.
When it comes to princesses, there’s no shortage of hand-wringing. Take Peggy Orenstein’s 2011 book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture,” which combines critiques of princess culture with a weightier dissection of the depressing nexus between early-’00s raunch culture and American girlhood.
Orenstein’s stance isn’t simple polemic: She admits that the challenges of growing up female in America are much bigger than princess culture. But her claims of princess culture’s toxicity — as channeled through her daughter — have been taken as gospel everywhere from niche Christian sites to mainstream outlets like USA Today.
I’m older than Orenstein’s daughter, but the world she describes, one populated by Barbies and Bratz dolls, is familiar. By age 5, I liked flipping through Vogue, adored Disney princesses (I was, like many, an Ariel girl) and insisted on wearing dresses, even when cross-country skiing. Aside from insisting on long johns under my dresses, my parents didn’t dissuade me, and by fifth grade, my obsession had run its course. I found new heroines in Princess Leia and Winona Ryder as Jo March in the 1994 version of “Little Women,” discovered the joys of pants-wearing and would frequently ask my parents for the latest issue of the niche, baby-feminist publication New Moon while we waited in the checkout line at our neighborhood PCC, which might be the most Seattle thing I’ve ever admitted to doing.
By Orenstein’s metrics, those early interests should have led into a pink, sparkly cloud of princess culture, where I’d be chewed up and ejected back into the world newly diminished. Instead, I wound up being the kind of kid who would probably have read Orenstein for fun.
It wasn’t just me. While working on this story, I asked other adult women about their experiences with Disney princesses and heard variations on this story. Some of the women I most respect — women who espouse feminist views, have objectively enviable careers as journalists and political consultants and are, for the most part, contentedly unmarried — grew up totally obsessed with princesses. We had no guilt about this. We mostly turned out fine. Was the princess panic wrong, or were we?
It’s hard to say. There’s not much data on princess culture, although one study at Brigham Young University made headlines in 2016 for its finding that young children who engaged with Disney Princess toys and media exhibited increased gender-stereotypical behavior one year later. Another study found young adult women who self-identified as princesses “reported less desire to work, expected more traditional divisions of household labor, and placed greater value on superficial qualities, such as appearance.”
Without more data, I wondered if some of the negative outcomes presented in works like “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” — poor body image, societal messages that girls need to be perfect to be valued, stunted ambitions — might be attributed not to princesses, but to the culture that produced them. If children and adults display gender-stereotyped behavior, maybe it’s because we live in a gender-stereotyped world — a much bigger problem than Cinderella.
“You can’t avoid it”
Princesses are “a popular subject” in Jen Jones’ house in Redmond. Her 7-year-old daughter, Aida, loves Disney princesses of “all kinds, all shapes,” but also “Star Wars” and Legos. “The princess thing … is, more than anything, a catalyst,” said Jones, meaning that for Aida, it’s led to new interests, like musical theater. “It launches her into the next thing.”
Gender studies were a component of Jones’ education at Washington State University, and while she said that one of the criticisms she’d heard of princess culture was that it would stunt little girls’ ambitions and make them want to grow up to be princesses, “I don’t know that I’ve ever heard something like that come out of my daughter’s mouth.”
Mercer Island resident Ashley Besecker, whose two daughters, Grace and Gianna, are 5 and 3, was similarly besieged by princess culture. “I have not brought the Disney Princess culture into the house,” she said. “It has just suddenly appeared,” starting when Besecker was pregnant with Gianna and in need of something to entertain Grace while they sat through Besecker’s treatments for a pregnancy-related medical condition.
Grace would “just naturally gravitate toward the little princesses” like “Sofia the First,” a Disney Junior show about a little girl whose blended family is half-royal. Besecker said the princess content her daughters connect with tends to include strong women characters who reflect a more contemporary perspective, in the same way that story lines from 1950s Disney movies “reflect a 1950s culture.”
A dietitian who understands eating disorders, she’s seen the impact media depictions can have on body image, but said it was possible to balance out some of the more retrograde messages princess media might send. “You can’t avoid it. It’s everywhere,” she said.
There are also more immediate concerns when it comes to content. Jones places limits around violence, and Besecker is careful with material that isn’t age-appropriate. Both said the unpredictable nature of YouTube Kids was more of an issue than princess content, and emphasized the idea that children don’t passively let this stuff wash over them, but actively engage with it in a way that can be imaginative and benign. Disney is what got Jones’ daughter Aida into the early work of Will Smith. After seeing the actor in the live-action version of “Aladdin,” she started seeking out other appearances from Smith, from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to “Men in Black.”
Enter the self-actualized princess
In an interview ahead of its first preview at The 5th Ave on Feb. 4, “Bliss” director Sheryl Kaller described her new musical as a fractured fairy tale whose princess heroines “are completely and utterly self-actualized” and have grown up insulated from sexist limitations. It’s a feminist-informed conceit that aligns with major recent changes to princess media as a whole.
The Disney Princess lineup has shifted significantly over the past decade, with characters like “Brave” protagonist Merida, who rejects the limitations that come with being a princess, and the plot of “Frozen,” which essentially boils down to two sisters’ drawn-out efforts to understand each other, with a Mister Rogers-esque moral about empathy and managing strong emotions. Even the Disney Princess line’s overwhelming whiteness has changed somewhat, with characters like Tiana from “The Princess and the Frog” and the titular Moana.
Given these nominally progressive developments and the profitability of the Disney Princess merchandise and media line — which earned $3 billion in global retail sales in 2011 — if there’s a charge to be leveled here, it may be what the writer Andi Zeisler calls marketplace feminism. In other words, Disney is selling a veneer of feminist empowerment because it’s profitable. But that’s a subtler criticism than the ones originally leveled by Orenstein, and one that applies less to the local productions, given the world of difference between a billion-dollar global industry predicated on toy sales based on princess stories, and local stages, where merchandising opportunities are less important than the performances themselves.
I’m even going to one: I’m taking my cousin’s 5-year-old son to PNB’s “Cinderella,” which I hope is nothing more or less than a gateway to future obsessions and delights, whatever they may be.