Battling the Princess: Motherhood and Girly-Girl Culture - Women's Foundation California
Shailushi and Peggy at the Momentum Awards 2011.

By Shailushi Ritchie, Development and Communications Officer

Once upon a time, not that long ago, I was a little girl.  I have great memories of my childhood—riding my bike, getting scuffed and dirty playing soccer, and climbing trees, much to the chagrin of my mother, who inevitably had to clean sap out of my clothes.  I never liked dolls, hated frilly clothes, and generally resented being made to “dress up” for events just because I was a girl. I had a strong distaste for anything frilly, girly, or—heavens forbid!—princessy.

Now I am a mom to a little girl, who much to my chagrin, adores all the things I wrinkled my nose at as a child.  She loves dresses, especially frilly ones.  She has the complete collection of Disney’s princess dolls, which she regularly plays with. And she loves to pretend she is a princess, complete with fancy party dress and fake tiara.  Sometimes even fairy wings are involved.

I always figured that if I should have a baby girl, I’d be able to steer her away from the trappings of traditional girlhood just by keeping those things out of my home.   So when the “Girly Girl” syndrome hit home at age 3, my first reaction was panic.  What happened?  We didn’t own any dolls; we hadn’t yet watched any of the Disney movies; and, until then, she hadn’t shown the least bit of interest in wearing frilly, fluffy clothes.  I was totally shell-shocked at the seemingly instantaneous transformation of my daughter into a little girl.  I thought I could “protect” my daughter from those influences, but it turns out the picture was a lot more complex than I imagined.

I wasn’t the only one wrestling with this issue.  Peggy Orenstein, keynote speaker at the Foundation’s recent Momentum Awards, had experienced a similar “WTF?!” moment when her daughter went through the princess phase a few years earlier.  In her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girly-Girl Culture, she explores all things princess and girly, including the marketing changes behind the Disney Princesses, the doll wars between Barbie, Bratz, and how “tween” superstars like Miley Cyrus are walking a thin line between invoking desire and never feeling it themselves.  Most troubling to me was data about the sexualization of increasingly younger girls.  For example, a recent study found that almost 30% of clothes for young girls (not adolescents) was sexualizing, that is, it revealed or emphasized a body part, had characteristics associated with sexiness, and/or carried sexually suggestive writing.[1]

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom.  I also learned  how kids between the ages of 3 and 6 understand gender.  Turns out that body parts don’t mean a lot to a child that young.  For them, it’s how you act or how you dress that determines whether you are a boy or a girl.  This information reassured me that my daughter was going through a process of trying to claim her own identity as a girl; I needn’t feel like I’d failed her (or myself) somehow.  It was just a natural part of her development.

Ultimately, reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter forced me to step back and look at my daughter as a whole person, not just focus on the things that were causing me concern.  Yes, she loves frilly dresses, but she isn’t dainty. During a recent trip to the park, she proceeded to build sand castles and run through the grass in her favorite “princess” dress.  She tells me that Cinderella is her favorite princess, but then points to a picture of Durga and says that’s her (Cinderella?).  And, unlike me, she’s completely and totally fearless—the faster and higher she can go, the happier she is.  What then, do I really have to worry about?  She may be in a princess phase right now, but she’s certainly not a damsel in distress, nor prone to passively accept her fate.

My searching forced me to admit that what I was really concerned about wasn’t that she liked Cinderella and her royal companions.  It’s that somehow, consuming the myth and the media of princess culture would change her, and exert a subtle but powerful influence to be less like herself and more like the images of one-dimensional femininity.  But restricting her from her princess play was my own attempt to change her—to exert my own influence on her personality so she would be more in line with the person I thought she should become.  But, that’s not what I want for her either.  I want my child to grow up with a strong sense of who she is, a clear connection to her identity, and a resolve to listen to her internal voice no matter what or who—be it Belle, Barbie, or even Mom—tries to make her into something she’s not.  After all, isn’t that what we all want for our children?


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