I once babysat a little girl named Nia.* This was in January of 2014. Just a few months earlier, Frozen had been released by Walt Disney pictures. Nia was in deep.
Every night when I put Nia to bed, we would find her mom’s iPhone, plug it in by her bed, and pull up the official Frozen soundtrack, a full 69 minutes and 40 seconds of fairy tale show tunes.
Every night, Nia fell asleep to the same soundtrack–on loop.
I returned to babysit Nia a few times in June 2014. Frozen was still a fixture of the bedtime routine.
Frozen was quite the phenomenon, but it wasn’t the first time Disney dominated the market with a franchise aimed at little girls. In 2000, Disney repackaged nine of its previous female leads into the Disney Princess franchise. In 2012, Disney Princesses alone brought in $1.6 billion in domestic sales and $3 billion globally.
Walk into any toy store and you’ll see the strategy that has worked so well for them: wall to wall pink for the girls, aisles of blue and green for the boys. Girls who want to be Elsa, or Belle, or Cinderella, or Snow White can have princess gear of any kind, from costumes, to toothbrushes, to alarm clocks, to school supplies.
Is this a good thing? People have argued both ways. Some say that playing princess teaches girls to accept a submissive and archaic role and that it contributes to early concerns about body image and self-confidence. Others reply that girls should be able to choose to play princess if they want–it’s a new century! Children are empowered to make their own choices.
Children are certainly empowered to make some choices. But I’d argue that while there are some things we can choose, there are also certain things we can’t. Our early beliefs and assumptions about gender are not a choice.
We form our ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl based on what we learn from other people and from the world around us. We don’t decide for ourselves what those concepts mean to us. We don’t choose.
Moreover, girls are choosing from a pretty limited range of options. Princess products are so dominant that girls can’t avoid them. What’s more, the products all tend to look the same. If girls have a choice, why can’t they choose a Mulan doll that’s dressed in her armor for once, not in the matchmaking outfit she detested in the film? If girls have a choice, why can’t they have a princess who wears pants?
Besides, how much choice can girls have within the tightly controlled and market-researched realm of Disney products? After girls outgrow their princess phase, Disney executives have especially designed a new line for them to “choose” from: Disney Fairies, which features the sassier Tinker Bell and her Pixie Hollow friends. Instead of choosing a product whose design is steeped in one marketing exec’s calculation of girlhood, girls can choose another product designed and targeted in the exact same fashion.
Isn’t this just the illusion of choice?
Thinking back to Nia, I know her love for Frozen was most definitely real. She wasn’t forced by Disney to like a film which does have its good points.
I just hope Nia also learns to look closely at the stories she loves. I think we would all benefit from learning to consider not just the options before us, but the ones we haven’t been offered at all.
*Name has been changed.
Note: a more in-depth reflection on the princess phenomenon can be found in Peggy Orenstein’s oft-cited article, “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?”