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Little girls or little women? The Disney princess effect

In today's highly sexualized environment – where 5-year-olds wear padded bras – some see the toddlers-and-tiaras Disney princess craze leading to the pre-teen pursuit of "hot" looks. Do little girls become little women too soon?

By / Correspondent / September 24, 2011

This cover story project appears in the October 3 issue of The Christian Science Monitor magazine. It examines how increasing sexualization of young girls in the media causes some parents to re-examine the the toddlers-and-tiaras Disney princess craze and whether little girls become little women too soon.

Melanie Stetson Freeman staff photo

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A few years ago, Mary Finucane started noticing changes in the way her 3-year-old daughter played. The toddler had stopped running and jumping, and insisted on wearing only dresses. She sat on the front step quietly – waiting, she said, for her prince. She seemed less imaginative, less spunky, less interested in the world.

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Ms. Finucane believes the shift began when Caoimhe (pronounced Keeva) discovered the Disney Princesses, that omnipresent, pastel packaged franchise of slender-waisted fairy-tale heroines. When Finucane mentioned her suspicions to other parents, they mostly shrugged.

"Everyone seemed to think it was inevitable," Finucane says. "You know, it was Disney Princesses from [ages] 2 to 5, then Hannah Montana, then 'High School Musical.' I thought it was so strange that these were the new trajectories of female childhood."

She decided to research the princess phenomenon, and what she found worried her. She came to believe that the $4 billion Disney Princess empire was the first step down a path to scarier challenges, from self-objectification to cyberbullying to unhealthy body images. Finucane, who has a background in play therapy, started a blog – "Disney Princess Recovery: Bringing Sexy Back for a Full Refund" – to chronicle her efforts to break the grip of Cinderella, Belle, Ariel, et al. on her household.

Within months she had thousands of followers.

"It was validating, in a sense, that a lot of parents were experiencing it," she says. "It was this big force entering our lives so early, with such strength. It concerned me for what was down the road."

Finucane's theory about Disney Princesses is by no means universal. Many parents and commentators defend Happily Ever After against what some critics call a rising "feminist attack," and credit the comely ladies with teaching values such as kindness, reading, love of animals, and perseverance.

If there's any doubt of the controversy surrounding the subject, journalist Peggy Orenstein mined a whole book ("Cinderella Ate My Daughter") out of the firestorm she sparked in 2006 with a New York Times essay ("What's Wrong With Cinderella?").

Disney, for its part, repeated to the Monitor its standard statement on the topic: "For 75 years, millions of little girls and their parents around the world have adored and embraced the diverse characters and rich stories featuring our Disney princesses.... [L]ittle girls experience the fantasy and imagination provided by these stories as a normal part of their childhood development."

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