Don’t Blame Barbie – It’s Disney’s Fault

Like many modern-day moms, I wanted to shield my daughter from Barbie – you know, that lovely teenage-ish doll with Pretty Woman legs, Scarlett O’Hara’s waistline and Dolly Parton’s boobs?

I thought that if I banned that 11.9-inch doll, along with her designer duds, metrosexual boyfriend, convertible car and lavish dream house, I would help my daughter grow up with a more realistic body image and set of expectations for life, wealth and happiness.

What I didn’t realize was that the enemy isn’t Barbie; it’s Disney.

True, researchers have found that Barbie does negatively impact girls’ body image,and a study by the American Psychological Association determined that “early exposure to dolls epitomizing an unrealistically thin body ideal may damage girls’ body image, which would contribute to an increased risk of disordered eating and weight cycling.”

However, Barbie isn’t all bad.

In a 2009 Psychology Today article, psychiatrist Susan Albers noted that “in some ways, [Barbie] may have actually helped women to start practicing other roles, besides being a mother, earlier in their life. Barbie could do anything—travel, work, or play. Girls were not trapped into one role as a mother, as was the case when they played with baby dolls.”

I believe the damage from Disney Princesses runs much deeper.

princess dollsIn a recent study, researcher Lauren Gissell determined that “Disney Princess films are, in fact, harmful to women well after they have experienced a childhood immersed in the movies…Women far beyond childhood still cling to finding a prince, having self-esteem problems, wanting a glamorous life and feeling that they are only worthy when their bodies are given attention.

“It could be a reason why women have identity issues since they have plastic surgery, go to tanning beds, wear an immense amount of makeup, constantly go on diets, date younger men, dress provocatively, date guys only with money and have trouble settling with their idea of a prince,” Gissell continues. “Instead of looking at Disney Princesses as role models, women must learn to become comfortable with who they are without comparing themselves to cartoon characters that do not exist or depict what a real woman should be like.”

In her 2006 article “What’s Wrong With Cinderella,” New York Times columnist Peggy Orenstein noted that Disney films promote a quest for “perfection,” which leads to unrealistic expectations, and therefore feelings of failure.

Women like me, from the pre-VCR, pre-10,000-TV-channels age, didn’t grow up with the ubiquitous images of Cinderella, Snow White and Aurora/Sleeping Beauty. Sure, we had fairy tale books and occasionally saw Disney films in the theaters or on TV.  And although the first Disney “princess” film (Snow White) debuted in 1937, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that Disney officially took over little girls’ psyches.

That’s when Andy Mooney, head of the Walt Disney Company’s Consumer Products division, envisioned the Disney Princess franchise, which is now  (according to Forbes) valued at some $3 billion worldwide.

princess carWalk through any Wal-Mart, Target, Toys ‘R’ Us or Disney Store, and you’ll see the effects of Mooney’s mission. Shelves upon shelves of pink-themed Disney Princess merchandise call out to kids, including dolls, dress-up clothes, books, DVDs, bicycles, roller skates and even helmets.

This mass marketing appeals to my daughter’s generation, and the impact is obvious.

When Pea was three, I attended the Halloween party at her Montessori school, and saw no less than seven princesses in her small classroom. The fact that these young ladies were of African-American, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian and Eastern-European descent was testament to the power of the princess.

So, what’s wrong with wanting to emulate a princess?

The Disney Princess stories seem harmless enough, and many of them are sanitized versions of more gruesome Brothers Grimm tales. However, I think the messaging is detrimenetal to young girls’ self-esteem:

–       If you’re in a jam, wait for a handsome prince to rescue you

–       If you’re a girl, you probably can’t solve problems on your own

–       If you marry a handsome prince, your life will be complete

–       Don’t rely on your family or girlfriends; you need a man in your life

And, the values are off center:

–       If you are beautiful, you need to downplay your looks until it’s time to lure that handsome prince

–       If your parents are strict, it’s okay to sneak out and attend the ball anyway (let me just note, most high-school girls who sneak out at night aren’t hooking up with princes)

But even more disturbing are the messages about family:

–       If your mother dies, be wary of anyone your dad might marry

–       Your stepmother and your step-sisters will most certainly be vengeful and jealous

And what about their girlfiends? Honestly, if I was in a bind, I would call a good friend. Even if they can’t help, they can provide support, encouragement or, when needed, a good shoulder to cry on or a reason to have a few too many cosmos.

So, I would suggest we tell our daughters, or the young women in our lives, to stop waiting for handsome princes to rescue them. Instead, let’s give permission to follow these ideas proposed on WikiHow (and I quote…):

–       Create your own joy and source of fulfillment

–       Quit waiting, start participating

–       Enjoy your friendships

–       Look after your own resources and needs before all else

–       Map out what you really want out of a relationship

–       Remember that Prince Charming comes…after everything else

– Linda Williams Rorem, Permission Slips, 10 Feb. 2014
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  1. Great post. I remember my mom would only buy me “Skipper” dolls (Barbie’s younger, flat-chested sister?) for the same reason! Others have also pointed out how frequently the mother dies in many Disney stories, not just the princess ones. I guess it’s to confront a common fear, but it seems excessive! The emphasis on Prince Charming and “someday my prince will come!” from a young age is definitely detrimental to real-life relationships.

  2. I’ve read a lot about the media’s influence on young women but, I never considered the whole Disney and step-sister point – but it’s so true! We have such a negative connotation of the step sister in US culture even though many people end up seeing their step-siblings as blood siblings. At least in my mind, there is definitely that first-glance impression between step-sister and “evil” and, I would imagine that influence really did come from Disney!

  3. carolyn broughton says:

    So true. It’s good for ‘big girls’ to be reminded of this message too.


  1. […] Our post on Monday suggested that Barbie gets a bad rap, and Disney Princesses are much more harmful to girls’ self esteem. (If you missed the post, click here). […]

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