12/30/2011 02:44 pm ET Updated Feb 29, 2012

Disney Princess Recovery Programs: Not Just For Kids

One morning early this year, I was in my kitchen with my three daughters, at least two of whom were simultaneously singing while the third was talking. So I was surprised when they suddenly stopped making any sounds at all. The TV was on, and Peggy Orenstein was being interviewed about her book, "Cinderella Ate My Daughter." My girls stared at me suspiciously.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Did you pay her to write this book, Mom?" one of them asked.

"Does she pay you to talk about it?" said another.

Neither was the case, but either could have been.

Ms. Orenstein's book chronicled her daughter's descent into what I think is a seductive, subversive, frilly pink princess hell. What starts off as sweet, cute and innocent in a three-year old ends up as narcissistic and shallow in an adult. And, as Orenstein points out, the confluence of technology and mass marketing has enabled a qualitatively different type of effect: a distillation of the princess stereotype to the exclusion of almost all else. (Yes, I know, we have three female supreme court justices ... they make for great toddler dress-up.)

Now, as the year ends, we have in response, Jennifer Hartstein's new book, "Princess Recovery", an excellent how-to guide to empowering girls and freeing them from the oppressive messages being sent by a society obsessed with appearances and determined to sexualize girls at every turn. Hartstein clearly outlines the messages being sent to girls and boys by our princess saturated culture, namely:
  • That girls and boys are fundamentally different
  • That girls should be pretty
  • That more stuff makes you a better person
  • That girls will get rescued and don't have to take care of themselves
  • That being hot is very, very important

The thing is, "princesses" -- the toys, clothes, movies, games -- are just the fuchsia-tinted tip of the iceberg. Look at the Annenberg School's recent media study or the movie "Miss Representation." Even though the movement for women's equality has yielded much success, media representations of women have remained essentially as rigid and narrowly defined as they were in 1946. Women, especially young women, are marginalized and depicted first and foremost as sexual objects. Often, the protaganist's main weakness requires rescue. Girls are sexualized earlier and earlier and the deleterious effects are clear.

There are very few -- if any -- real, viable alternative role models for girls growing up in a $4 billion dollar a year, 26,000 princess product world (and that's just Disney). Parents, adults are literally buying it, in movies, books, games, clothes hook, line and sinker.

Take a look at this media kit target market description from the Disney Princess magazine for 3-8 year old girls who "dream about being little princesses."

  • "She loves princesses, fairy tales and uses her imagination a lot! She enjoys doing activities with her parents.
  • She is connected, through cable television (72 percent), the Internet (60 percent) and her mobile phone (62 percent).
  • She shops with her parents at the mall (92 percent) and helps them choose which brands to buy (76 percent)
  • She sees the brands she wants to buy through Disney's Princess magazine (62 percent).
  • She loves reading Disney's Princess and does the activities with her mommy (72 percent). They even love joining promos from advertisers (90 percent)!
  • She (or mommy) will surely buy the next issue of Disney's Princess magazine (96 percent)"

And now, Disney has a new princess, Sofia the First. Like the rest of the princesses she features a curvy bod (no internal organs here) and apparently real-life problems that toddler girls can understand. According to Nancy Kanter, SVP Original Programming and General Manager of Disney Junior Worldwide, Sofia the First will be a "peer-to-peer princess." Millions of people are going to put their daughters in front of TVs, computers and Ipads so she can take advantage of Disney's new educational program. Then, they're going to buy the clothes, toys, books and other products for an even younger set of girls. What red-blooded American girlhood is complete without at least one sparkly tiara?

Forget girls, parents are the people who need a Princess Recovery Program. Disney knows that little girls aren't buying their products alone. Moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, well-meangin friends -- these are the market for these products. How many times have you heard the words "Look at that little princess"? How often is a little girl deluged by the oppressive pink toy, game or dress of the day because "everyone knows" that girls are born dreaming, as Disney says, "about being little princesses"? It doesn't take much extrapolation, particularly in the age of celebutants, Khardashians and America's Next Top Model(s) to understand that adult women are just these little girls all grown up ... and they'd like to stay princesses.

As for moms, last week, I wrote that we should strongly consider finding bonding experiences with daughers that aren't based in beauty rituals like spa treatments, shopping trips, manicure parties and toddler pedicures. These activities seem like fun, but they may have long-term effects that aren't so desirable -- many of which Hartstein describes to great effect in her book.

No one really tells girls the story of what happens once the princess grows up. But, girls figure that out on their own. Lots of girls, as they move from girlhood to adulthood, feel the need to move from one stereotype to another. And then what? They start rejecting the "innocent" pink princesses of their childhood in favor of self-objectified "sexy," "bad girl" models that represents "adult" female sexuality in mainstream mass culture. Then we get to slut-shame them.

Canadian photographer Dina Goldstein also spurred by her three-year old daughter's fixation on princesses during a time when her own mother was ill, created her powerful and fascinating series Fallen Princesses.These photos, featuring, for example, a harried, exhausted Snow White drowning in babies and household chaos, a boozy Cinderella sitting, dejected, in a honky tonk bar and a machine-gun toting Jasmine standing in an exploding, desert battlefield, tell the story of what happens after the prince rescues the princess. Goldstein's images are photographic narratives that subvert of the myth of happiness and force viewers to reconsider the "ever after."

PHOTOS: Fallen Princesses

Disney Princesses

Which is where adults come in again. It's why Hartstein's "Princess Recovery" program is just as relevant, if not more so, for women who are experiencing much of what she describes in her book. Take a look, for example, at our culture's endless quest for youth and beauty, particularly in women.

In the 2006 book, "Beauty Junkies," New York Times writer Alex Kuczynski wrote not only about her personal addiction to plastic surgery, but about the culture in which a $15 billion dollar a year cosmetic surgery industry was exploding. Last week's Muff March in London, raising awareness of the growing popularity of "the Barbie" vaginal cosmetic surgery, highlights how far that trend has gone in recent years.

Is it just a coincidence that during roughly the same decade that the Princess market exploded, the nation saw a fivefold increase in (unnecessary) cosmetic procedures?

Most parents want to find ways for their children, both boys and girls, to be strong, self-sufficient, confident, kind and empathetic people. Yet, their investment in what they think of as "harmless" toys, movies, clothes and games is subverting their very efforts. We persist in supporting a culture that undermines these very goals and pretend that one thing has nothing to do with the other. Throughout the course of my daughters' young lives, I, like many other like-minded "overly serious" parents, was repeatedly told "Lighten up!" "It's just a toy," "What's the harm?" and made to feel like a humorless, stick in the mud for my efforts. Good thing I like mud.

Harstein's book is an exceptionally useful tool for helping parents navigate these issues - both on behalf of their daughters and themselves.

A previous version of this post incorrectly spelled the name of photographer Dina Goldstein.