Book Review: The Princess Problem by Rebecca C. Hains

Princess ProblemFor Halloween this past weekend, my daughters (ages: 4 years old and 9 months) dressed up as Elsa and Anna, the princess sisters from “Frozen.” Grace, my 4-year-old, has watched the Disney blockbuster enough times that she has the screenplay nearly memorized. She was delighted to trick-or-treat as Elsa, with her younger sister tagging along in an Anna-themed romper.

My girls’ Halloween costumes coincided with my reading the book “The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years” by Rebecca C. Hains. Published in 2014, this book has two purposes: (1) to reveal the billion-dollar (mm-hmm, billion-dollar) business behind princess marketing, and (2) to encourage families to think about how this business can influence girls.

I found “The Princess Problem” to be a thought-provoking read, and a fun one, too. For example, Hains begins the book by telling the story of how she worked as a “princess performer” for field research. She dressed up as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and other storybook characters to add real-life color to girls’ princess-themed birthday parties and then observed their reactions to her persona.

Princess performer: What a cool moonlighting gig!

Meanwhile, Hains’ professional background as a media studies college professor grounds “The Princess Problem” in an informed yet reflective tone about pop culture, marketing and childhood development.

I appreciated Hains’ observation early in the book that “there’s nothing inherently wrong with princesses, pink and purple, sparkles, or frills…But there is something wrong when that’s the main type of girlhood marketed to girls” (page 5). This note allows Hains to take an objective approach to “The Princess Problem” and focus on the actual problem: not princesses themselves, but consumerism surrounding the princesses’ media brands.

And along with that consumerism, concerns such as an unrealistic beauty ideal and a narrative that emphasizes to girls that a Prince Charming will save the day for them, thus downplaying their own abilities.

Some facts from the book: “While Disney Princess films have earned more than $2.6 billion at the box office worldwide, the Disney Princess brand boasts more than $4 billion in global retail sales” (page 68). (Wow!) Hains continues, “In the United States, Disney Princess is actually the number-one licensed toy brand among all girls, and it’s also the number-one toy brand for dolls and role play among two- to five-year-old girls.”

As a mom, I can offer anecdotal support of these data. Not only did Grace transform into Princess Elsa for Halloween, but she also celebrated her fourth birthday with a Princess Sofia party. “Sofia the First,” of course—surely you’ve seen this Disney Channel show, friends? 🙂 The Disney Princess brand truly is everywhere, and I didn’t realize this and what it might mean for my daughters until I read “The Princess Problem.”

Helpfully, Hains discusses the implications of this ubiquitous princess marketing. One is that unrealistic, unhealthy beauty ideal. (The Disney Princesses are predominantly white, and universally thin.) And a possible solution: participation in sports. “Sports participation is widely recognized as a terrific way for girls to develop healthy body images and self-esteem—and therefore a great antidote to the problem of our culture’s beauty ideal” (page 152).

Another implication of princess marketing is the obvious underlying motive: consumerism. Consequently, Hains writes about setting parameters for princess buys (page 97). I have to give myself a pat on the back here: Although I special-ordered “Pin the Pendant on Sofia” for Grace’s party, I resisted the urge to buy the corresponding Sofia the First piñata kit.

I appreciated the background that Hains provides regarding princesses and storytelling. For example, she writes, “The media have usually cast girls in one of two narrative clichés: princesses in peril or token females…For this reason, Disney’s ‘Frozen’ is refreshing. It’s a tale of two sisters who are princesses, both of whom are fleshed-out characters, and who ultimately do not need a man to rescue them” (page 161). Passages like these help readers grasp the historical context of the many princesses we’ve come to know over the years, including the recent (and wildly popular) “Frozen” ones.

“Frozen” debuted in 2013, and Hains discusses it throughout her book, mostly in a positive light. Elsa and Anna rely on each other rather than a man to rescue them, as Hains points out. This plot point challenges “the Cinderella complex” (page 161) of older princess narratives, a complex that Hains calls “psychologically unhealthy and limiting.” She adds that “in the long term, it can be economically detrimental to women.”

Hains also points to “the sexualization of young girls” (page 114) in some of the older princess narratives, including a few that don’t seem that old at all. For example, “several Disney princess films—‘The Little Mermaid’ [1989], ‘Aladdin’ [1992], and ‘Pocahontas’ [1995]—feature buxom, curvaceous, scantily clad heroines alongside fully clothed men.” What messages, Hains wonders, do these opposing representations of girls and boys, women and men convey to the children who watch these marketed-to-families films?

A side note about marketing: Have you noticed that in the past few years, Disney has made an effort to include boys in their traditionally girl-focused films? Hains’ passage here was an “aha!” moment for me: “Disney has had to market its most recent films—‘Tangled,’ ‘Brave,’ and ‘Frozen’—in ways that downplay their ‘princessy’ natures. No more girls’ names like ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in Disney’s movie titles. In the Princess brand era, such names cut out too much of the boy audience at the box office” (page 81). Clever marketing, right?

Hains ultimately cares that parents and their children articulate their families’ values, and then positively interact with pop culture, including princess culture, with these values in mind. To this end, she includes family-centered discussion topics in “The Princess Problem.” The end goal: To understand that all media are creations of other people (and, often, their marketing departments), and that each child has the power to create his or her own life story.

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Like what you just read? Then check out Melissa Leddy’s e-books, available on Amazon.com. Writing at its most heartfelt.

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