Is princess culture good for girls?

Their syrupy voices and sparkly gowns are everywhere, but what are today’s popular characters teaching our daughters?

Once upon a time, I let my little girl watch a Disney princess video. Enchanted Tales: Follow Your Dreams wasn’t my first choice for enriching a 31⁄2-year-old’s mind. It was lying around because I write about kids’ entertainment, and when Hazel saw the comely cartoon images of Aurora from Sleeping Beauty and Jasmine from Aladdin, she insisted on watching it.

“Has anyone ever asked you to do something really difficult, and you weren’t sure you were up to the task?” Princess Aurora asks in the introduction. Intrigued, I stopped and watched Aurora take charge of the kingdom for a day and resort to using magic from a borrowed wand to do the job. When things got crazy, she learned that she’s better off relying on her own resources.

Well, I wasn’t expecting that. Like many parents, I’m instinctively wary of the girlie-girl side of pop culture and try to keep it at bay. In a world where cartoon princesses appear to do little but look pretty and act docile, it can seem like feminism never existed. Older girls start falling for Bratz dolls and Hannah Montana: Sing a song, bare some midriff, get a guy!

Now, my daughter insists on skirts and dresses, declares “That’s boy stuff,” and coos over My Little Pony. This was not part of the plan! I wanted to raise an empowered girl who can wield a hockey stick as well as a purse. I shudder to think what these images are doing for her body image, considering I know grown women who struggle to love their curves and stop beating themselves up for not being perfect.

But since these girlie characters are all around me, I started to notice that looks (even frilly ones) can be deceiving. Here was Aurora believing in herself. There was Strawberry Shortcake teaching her friends about empathy. Check out Tinker Bell building cool stuff. Maybe my pink-attired daughter wasn’t just learning to be passive and pretty. Could kiddie girl culture possibly contain empowering messages?

Princess culture is taking a beating these days. There’s the book Cinderella Ate My Daughter by New York Times writer Peggy Orenstein, which investigates girlie culture and its negative impact on children, and the reality TV show Princess, wherein money guru Gail Vaz-Oxlade whips spoiled 20-somethings into financial shape. And now with the marriage of Kate and William, everyone’s eager to chat about royalty, fashion, privilege and what it means.

At least the princesses in my daughter’s world aren’t all passive beauties. Tiana from The Princess and the Frog works darn hard to achieve her goal of opening a restaurant. Rapunzel from Tangled gets a lot done while trapped in her tower, and her fiery determination eventually gets her out.

Little girls also love Dora, who pretty much everyone agrees is a great role model. This tot tackles obstacle after obstacle on her adventures, relying on her backpack, her friends and her crack ability to read a map. Her figure is far from hourglass and she teaches everyone Spanish. Excelente!

And have you watched a Strawberry Shortcake movie recently (feel free to lie)? She may say “berry” instead of very, but her storylines emphasize the importance of friendship, empathy and compromise. In The Glimmerberry Ball Movie, Strawberry discovers that the hollow tree her friends have taken over for the ball is, in fact, the home of some squirrels. She works out a compromise that respects everyone’s needs. Then she plays a mean guitar at the ball.

Pop culture has also given our girls numerous female superheroes in recent years. Crime-fighter Kim Possible kicks butt, easily overshadowing her male sidekick, Ron Stoppable. The Powerpuff Girls are three kindergartners who also fight crime and turn the ingredients they were made from (sugar, spice and everything nice) on their ear.

How are these storylines impacting my daughter? For all the fine messages from Strawberry and pals, Hazel spent most of the movie waiting for the girls to put on their gowns for the ball. Does she ever chat about working hard for her dreams like the modern Disney princesses? So far, she just wants to dress up like one every Halloween.

Plus, I’m aware that some of these characters have serious flaws — with serious repercussions. Issue number one: the bodies. “These girls are depicted in such restrictive ways in terms of their body types,” says Rebecca Hains, an assistant professor of communications at Salem State University in Massachusetts, who studies girl’s media culture. Barbie still has a chest out to here, and the new Strawberry Shortcake is long and leggy. Studies show that girls and women who look at images of thin females see a direct impact on their own self-esteem and body image.

Hains says the best way to counteract iffy messages is to talk about them. Questioning toys and certain scenes in movies “gives kids more critical tools to bring to their viewing,” she says.

What’s reassuring is that, despite Hazel’s girlie desires, she maintains her brainy and tomboy sides. Her biggest cartoon idol is actually Alicia, Diego’s big sister, the animal scientist who’s a computer whiz. She likes to crawl around growling like Baby Jaguar, Diego’s pet. She’s a big fan of The Land Before Time, and stages rescues using her Fisher-Price people as dinosaurs. She adores hiking and climbing on rocks. My girl may be pretty in pink, but that isn’t drowning out the well-rounded messages — think for yourself, try new things, get your hands dirty sometimes — that she’s getting from the media and the real people around her.

It’s tempting to clear the DVD rack and just avoid the risk that my girl is learning that life is all about being skinny, blond and rich. But I know she’ll get a princess doll for her next birthday from a well-meaning family member, or see a Barbie movie at a friend’s house. I don’t plan on sheltering her from the imperfections of pop culture, just loving and supporting her enough so she grows up thinking of herself as a princess on her own terms.

Diane Peters and her own royal family of four live in Toronto.

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