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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

why do little girls like princess stuff so much?


There’s been lots of handwringing — most of it entirely justified — over the bad messages little girls get from the princess crap they all seem to love so much. Pinkness! Glitter! Chiffon! Ugh! But why do little girls embrace that? There hasn’t been much discussion about this conundrum, as far as I can see.

Let’s posit a few things. One, little girls (like little boys) are not stupid. Two, little girls (like little boys) have active imaginations. Three, little girls (like little boys) are paying closer attention than we might think they are, and are heeding the lessons we grownups are passing down to them.

And what are those lessons? Well, a few big ones can be gleaned from kids’ movies. Kids’ movies are almost always good for huge box office, meaning that lots of kids are going to see them, even when the characters they’re about can be seen on TV every day. The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water just opened to megamillions in North America; it hasn’t opened in the U.K. yet because (most likely) it needed to stay out of the way of the current No. 1 at the U.K. box office, Big Hero 6, which only just opened last week, and the other big kiddie flick that opened on Friday, Shaun the Sheep Movie, No. 3 at this past weekend’s box office (and also based on a TV show).

So, all the millions of kids who went to see these three movies over this past weekend, what did they learn? A major lesson is this: Who gets to be the hero of their own stories? A boy sponge. A boy sheep. And a boy human. No matter how cool girls might be — and there are some cool girls in Big Hero 6, at least — they have to stand aside and let the boys be the center of attention. Girls can help boys be heroes, but girls don’t get to be heroes themselves.

And if we look at the all-time top G-rated movies, we see that what kids have learned from the movies aimed at them over the past 25 years or so is this: Heroes can be lions, toys, fish, monsters, cars, and robots… as long as they’re boy lions, toys, fish, monsters, cars, and robots. Heroes can be rats, bugs, elephants, dogs, and birds… as long as they’re boy rats, bugs, elephants, dogs, and birds. Heroes can even be human boys once in a while! Who are the girls who get their own stories about their own lives? Beauty (of and the Beast fame) and Pocahontas.

What about the all-time top PG-rated films? If you want to be a hero, you can be a boy Jedi knight, a boy ogre, a boy supervillain, or a boy wizard. Oh, you’re a girl? You can be a Disney princess. Or Alice in Wonderland… who is an unofficial Disney princess, anyway.

Sure, girls can — and plenty girls do — appropriate the boy heroes for themselves, imagine themselves as Jedi knights or wizards in their own adventures. But they shouldn’t have to. Boys don’t have to do that. Boys go to the movies and they see people who look or sound like them having adventures and doing exciting things and maybe even saving the day (or the world!). Girls go to the movies and they either see people who look or sound like them helping boys… or once in a rare while, they see a girl or a woman at the center of her own story with people — sometimes boys! — supporting and helping her in her adventure.

And it just so happens that all of those girls and women are princesses. All. Of. Them.

This is what movies tell little girls: If you want to be the hero of your own story, the star of your own life, you have to be a princess. Only princesses get that option.

(And thanks so much to Jupiter Ascending for reinforcing the Hollywood contention that the only women worth telling stories about are princesses. And it’s not even a kiddie flick!)

Is it any wonder that little girls embrace the princess? We’ve told them that the only way they can be fierce and powerful and in charge is if they’re a princess!

Little girls are not stupid. They’ve heard what we grownups are saying. And they are telling us in reply: “I am powerful. I am in charge. I am the hero of my own life. So I guess that makes me a princess.”

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