What princesses taught me growing up in the 90s

Hi everyone!  I’m a long time reader of Feministing and I finally got the guts to write a little post.  I’ve been getting over the flu lately so sitting in bed, I had the perfect opportunity to write down a few thoughts I’ve had about the debate about “princess culture” and the impact they can have on young girls.

For a few months now, I’ve been working with elementary school kids as part of an after school program and I’ve noticed a few things about the newest generation of little girls.  One is that it’s not rare to find one or two in each class that has “Bieber fever” and the other thing is that they still love their princesses. Lately there’s been a lot of talk about “princess culture” and the impact it may have on young girls in both a positive and negative way.  I for one, grew up wanting to be a Mermaid like Ariel and going to school with Belle on my backpack, so I didn’t think too much of the issue because I turned out being quite independent.  However, something at school happened that made me start thinking about the issue more.  It was physical activity time, and I had the kids playing a game called Kickball-Basketball (which by the way, is an awesome game!  It’s all the best parts of kick-ball and basketball!).  In no more than a few minutes into the game, a group of girls came up to me saying they didn’t want to play anymore.  I tried encouraging them to give it another try, but two of the girls just said “But girls aren’t good at sports, we can’t play. can we just sit down?”  This made me very disappointed.  I simply told them “Look, I don’t think you can’t, I think you don’t want to because if you did, you’d prove the people wrong who told you to think that way”.  ONE girl agreed with me and joined the game.  The rest just stood there.  This isn’t the first time something like this happened at school, but it was definitely the most memorable because the girls themselves were telling me that they couldn’t do something “because they were girls”!

So that’s when I started thinking, why are there so many little girls thinking this way?  When I was their age it was all about “Girl Power” and proving old stereotypes wrong.  What happened?  That’s when I started thinking about “princess culture”.  Sure Disney princesses were around when I was a kid, but it wasn’t the same as it is now.  Back then, it was mostly about the actual movies and the stories behind each princess.  Now there’s a whole franchise of the princess brand and it’s mostly about selling sparkly notebooks.  In this way, the princesses lose their depth because they have simply become decoration.  So, are little girls learning that their ambitions should be to stand there and look pretty?

Whether we like it or not,  the media is a very powerful tool in shaping our attitudes towards ourselves and others, so I realized that growing up, it also wasn’t just about Disney princesses but all the really cool princesses that were a part of the pop culture of the 90s. Of course, there was Xena: Warrior Princess, who, just looking at her title you could tell, the warrior came before the princess. Also, though as a kid, her sexuality was a little confusing to me (wait, she likes a guy one minute, but she’s making out with Gabrielle now? what?) but it did end up teaching me an important lesson growing up, that LGBT’s are people too!  Another princess I grew up watching on TV was Buffy.  Sure, she’s technically not a princess, but she started out as a cheerleader, which in the high-school universe equals princess.  So she was cute and a little preppy, but that didn’t stop her from kicking vampire butt and saving Sunnydale on a regular basis.

Then there’s Princess Zelda from the Zelda games I grew up with.  Sure she was pretty and she wore pink, but she was wise and used magic to disguise herself from the bad guys and help the hero with his adventures.  There’s a reason why it’s called the Legend of Zelda and not the Legend of Link.  Lastly, there’s Princess Angelina Contesa Louisa Francesca Banana-Fanna Bo Besca the Third… or Dot for short.  Dot was the Warner Sister, one third of the insane puppy children from Animaniacs.   To me, Dot is just what a normal little girl is really like.  She’s super cute and innocent on the outside, but full of energy and mischief.  It’s like, yeah, your mom’s gonna dress you in those precious velvet dresses with the lace collars and mary janes, but that’s not gonna stop you from going outside to join your brothers making fart noises with their armpits and going “boingy, boingy, boingy!”

So what did I learn from these “Princesses” growing up?  These princesses were smart, tough, and silly, but they maintained a sense of femininity.  So in a way, they’ve got all these traits that are normally reserved as masculine, but they say screw that, I don’t need to act like a man to be tough!  Anyone can be tough! This taught me to be proud of being a girl because nothing could stop me from doing what I wanted.  I could aspire to be as bad-ass, as intelligent, and as wacky as I wanted to be, and still rock a girly dress while doing it.   That’s a lesson I carry with me even now as a 24 year old and I hope that we remember to pass on that message to today’s little girls.

What do you think? What decade did you grow up in and what did you learn from the “princesses” of that time?

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  1. Posted March 8, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    I also grew up with Disney Princesses, and a lot of other princesses. Anybody remember The Princess and the Goblin? Anyway, I would venture to say that the princesses I grew up with didn’t exactly affect my childhood. They affected my teens and early adulthood (yes, I know at 23 I’m still an ‘early adult’, but I’m talking earlier than that).

    Belle and Ariel were my all time favorite princesses growing up. And while they are smart and funny, their stories show something that a child would equate to normalcy. Take Belle for example. She’s smart, funny, and beautiful. However, she gets tied up with the Beast in what is an extremely abusive situation. She’s isolated from her family, yelled at, called names, etc. But at the end of the story the Beast turns into a prince because Belle is nice enough.

    With Ariel, while her prince (Eric) is an extremely nice man, her father is moderately abusive. Yes, it’s normal to want to keep your children safe. However, it’s not normal to demolish your childrens’ possesions simply because you don’t like them. But at the end of the story her father comes around because he sees that she really does love him.

    Point in both of these stories is that if the women are nice enough then the men will turn from being total jerks to being a prince. I internalized this theme more deeply than I even could have suspected and a chain of abusive boyfriends took me through nearly 5 years before I ended up with my husband who is amazing.

  2. Posted March 8, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    I grew up in the mid to late 80′s, but mostly in the 90′s, and I recognize now that in those days, I didn’t really devote much thought to media representations of women. I think I was more aware of how opposed and uncomfortable I was with media representations of men.

    In my childhood, there was GI Joe and He-Man, though the latter does almost have a homoerotic aspect in hindsight. My favorite shows were those with mixed-sex casts. Nickelodeon was my program of choice, and I stayed glued to it, that is when I wasn’t out running around in the woods. But I will say that I never really developed a particular desire to emulate any male hero. I was far more attracted to female characters, who, even at a young age, I suppose I fancied to some extent.

  3. Posted March 8, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Sort of like with Rachel, I don’t think the past is so rosy. In the early incarnations of Legend of Zelda (for the NES and SNES), if I recall correctly, she is pretty much just a princess to be saved. The same is generally true for Princess Toadstool in the most popular early Super Mario Brothers games (SMB 2 and SMRPG are less popular but are exceptions — she is actually a playable character!)

    How are things now for princesses? Well, I don’t really play Zelda and Mario games anymore, and I am a few years behind the curve when it comes to playing newer games. Just looking at my PS1/2 games (keeping in mind that PS1 isn’t really that recent, but it is moreso than the NES and SNES), the only two games with “princesses” as such are

    (*) Threads of Fate (PS1), where the playable character “ex-princess” (Mint) and non-playable character princess (Maya) are both assertive and important to advancing the plot (the former is a sociopath and the other is still quite proper).

    (*) Disgaea 2 (PS2), where the player character princess (Rozalin) is generally assertive and even a bit arrogant but is still a sympathetic character.

    All three of them are interesting characters with their own quirks and issues that don’t center around them being delicate creatures, and yet they are all likable. Nevertheless, there are still new games that have less impressive roles for women (including for princesses in particular), but I think the overall trend is that gender considerations for women are showing gradual improvements. It is just a matter of lending old and new content the same scrutiny and digging around in enough places for the good stuff — especially nowadays, you tend to have better results if you break away from the mainstream. It’s not that many (if any) games will be “perfect,” but neither is life even when the desired policies are in place, and barring particularly grating violations, you can still have fun.

  4. Posted March 8, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    I grew up in the 80′s where, while there wasn’t the same obsession with “princesses”, female characters left a lot to be desired. Smurfette was helpless & not very bright (not to mention having an extremely misogynist & somewhat racist origin cartoon. The wizard created her to destroy the Smurfs a la Pandora – cuz women are evil, y’know. Plus when she’s evil she has black hair, but once she’s good – instant blonde.) Strawberry Shortcake had a cute design, but was dull and overly obsessed with being nice & cheerful all the time – ditto for Rainbow Brite & the Care Bears, there seemed to be a big obsession with characters aimed at girls in that era being overly saccharine and happy. I loved Red & Mokey from “Fraggle Rock” – one was a tough minded athlete & the other was an artist who had a quiet strength for the things she cared about. There weren’t really female characters like that on any other shows at the time.
    A lot of women my age have fond memories of the “Jem & The Holograms” show, but I never really watched it. My Dad had introduced me to “Yellow Submarine” & “Pink Floyd The Wall” by age 10, so in comparison “Jem” looked like a corny sanitized version of what rock & roll was supposed to be about, at least in my kid mind. Maybe if I saw it now I’d find it good for young girls, I don’t know.
    By the time Lisa Simpson hit TV screens, I wished she were real so I could ask her what took so long.
    Regarding Princess Angelina Contessa Louisa Francesca Banana-Fanna Fo Fesca the Third, a.k.a Dot Warner, though the character had her funny moments, I can’t second her as role-model material due to her incessant narcissism. There’s a line between confidence & narcissism, & she bulldozed it! I realize that having some flaws can make a character more interesting, but I’ve had some negative experiences with people in real life who had this trait, so it’s a bit hard for me to laugh along. But I love some of the other female characters “Animaniacs” served up– Slappy Squirrel, a wisecracking retired cartoon star, Rita, a tough street cat with a sensitive side (voiced by Bernadette Peters, with original songs), and even Hello Nurse, who the boys were always ogling, was developed to be an intelligent and competent character as the show went on.

  5. Posted March 9, 2011 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    I grew up in the 1980s, so there weren’t really any princesses to idolize (or I wasn’t paying much attention). I liked Strawberry Shortcake, but I tended to pay more attention to the blueberry character, I think; I forgot his name. (Actually, I thought he was a girl for some reason and even gave him a girl’s name — “Louella”. Then again, I had a Holly Hobby doll that I named “Luke”. Ha! Which means I was either crazy or, in my single digit years, I threw cis-gender naming out the window.) I also liked Apple Dumpling.

    I have vague memories of watching Fraggle Rock as a girl, but didn’t pay a ton of attention to the characters. Watching it as an adult, yeah, I totally notice Red and Mokley are very strong female characters. Red has lots of enthusiasm and vigour (and athleticism); Mokley’s definitely more the “quietly confident” sort. If I had a young daughter, I’d let her watch it for sure.

    Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid were when I hit my tens. I never saw B&TB, but I did see The Little Mermaid and thought Ariel’s dad was a bit of an ass. Ariel herself…meh. I could take her or leave her.

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