Don't be too quick to knock sugar-pink, prince-free, Disney-style princessification

It’s not true empowerment, but if this is the only imaginative space that is on offer to young girls, perhaps we should let them play. Soon enough, they'll grow up into a world where female self-realisation is still a fairy tale.

Thirty-two years ago today, Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer. I was six at the time, and dead set on becoming a princess myself (following a brief but highly successful career as a trapeze artist). The knowledge that Charles would no longer be available distressed me. How dare that Diana woman foil my plans! My dad, ever practical, reminded me that Andrew and Edward weren’t yet taken. Phew! I crossed my fingers that at least one of them would wait until I came of age (damn you, Fergie and Sophie!).

I don’t come from an aristocratic background. I wasn’t educated privately and my plans for a circus career were unlikely to see me mixing in the upper echelons of society. And yet I thought I was in with a chance. I thought that, deep down, Andrew/Edward would see that I was real princess material because my heart was pure and true (I also tried experimenting with a pea under the mattress, but gave up; if the only peas you can get hold of are processed marrowfats, it’s not a fair test).

I’m not so sure whether six-year-old girls today hold out similar hopes for Harry, or (more creepily) have started eyeing up Baby George. While the profile of the Royal Family may be lower than in the 1980s, the princess aspirations of little girls don’t appear to have lessened. Indeed, if anything, the sugary pink “princessification” of girlhood feels more extreme than ever. As a feminist parent, I wonder how worried I should be.

When I appeared in my school nativity play, I was dressed as a horse (not a donkey – Barry Hodges got to be the donkey, not that I’m bitter, obviously). Back then there were girls playing plenty of different roles, all dressed in different costumes. By contrast, since my eldest son started primary school I’ve been to several dressing-up events and every single one -- every one -- has involved most of the girls wearing Disney Princess costumes. For the nativity play you wear one to be an angel; for World Book Day you wear one to be Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, whoever. My son’s class had a “knights and castles” day; one girl came as a knight, all the others as Disney damsels. The boys’ costumes change from event to event; my son’s been a sheep, a train driver, Sir Charlie Stinky-Socks. Girls, meanwhile, wear the same thing every time. Whatever the time or place, providing you’re a girl you’ll be a pretty princess.

While there’s been a brief burst of resistance to Disney princessification, in the form of protests against Brave heroine Merida’s makeover, by and large we parents are accepting of these gender divisions (guess it saves money on costumes, at least if you have girls). Boys’ birthday parties can be pirate-, alien- or football-themed; girls’ parties are, at best, merely pink, and at worst involve some form of terrifying glittery “princess pamper” sessions. The fashion for pseudo-scientific guides to childrearing, separating infants along strict gender lines, makes us more likely to grit our teeth and go with the flow. Princess Prep, “an alternative summer camp” set in London, claims to be channelling “girls" natural princess obsession into experiences that are fun, educational and inspirational”. I find the very idea that a princess obsession can be natural quite baffling but then again, if Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps, I guess anything’s possible.

Founded by royalty-obsessed American Jerramy Fine, Princess Prep appeals to the US market via a heavy mix of gender-based and national stereotyping. Little girls - rich little girls, since a seven-day “experience” costs $3,995 – learn to walk with books on their heads, drink afternoon tea and how to sip soup correctly. They do not learn how to cope when, one day after you’ve given birth, the nation decides you’re fat, but perhaps that comes in a follow-up course (“a true princess behaves like a princess no matter what the circumstances”, so presumably you don’t just ring up OK! HQ and call them “fucking proles”).

I’m tempted to despise Princess Prep, with its pink website scattered with self-help guide messages (“a true princess is simply the best version of yourself you can imagine”) and its guidance on, essentially, how to become a rich person who deludes themselves that their existence is a social good in itself (“you do not become a princess simply by donning a fancy gown and a tiara” - but it helps). All the same, there is a little part of me that thinks “sod it. Go for it, little princesses”. For at least here you have a princess experience that, in falling over itself in an attempt to appear empowering, gets further and further away from princes, marriage and dependency. Curiously, the whole thing gives me a little hope.

The Disney-fied commercialisation of the princess figure creates something which, due to the pressure to at least appear PC, is at least an improvement on the real-life princess experience. Sure, the Princess Prep values of “princesshood” (“philanthropy and selflessness, kindness and compassion, hard work and self-belief, generosity and gratitude, leadership and diplomacy etc.”) all sound a bit “Tony Blair”. And everyone on the website is wealthy and white (apart from Princess Fiona in Shrek). But looking at things more broadly, I wonder whether we should be quite so sneery about the pink world little girls find themselves thrust into. It’s not real, but perhaps it’s for us to help the little girls in pretty dresses make the narratives work more in their favour. 

These days we know what really happens to girls who marry princes. We know how things turned out for Diana, and we can see more clearly what’s happening to Kate. Sure, I reckon I might be willing to put up with that degree of press intrusion for the absurd level of financial security she enjoys. But I also imagine most of us would rather just be rich without the whole princess bit. Last week’s photograph of William and Kate presenting their new baby to a sea of cameras struck me as quite horrifying. I don’t want to be a princess any more. If I had a daughter, I wouldn’t want that for her.

But as for sugar-pink, prince-free, Disney-style princessification? Well, it’s not true empowerment, no. All the same, perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so quick to knock it, if this is the only imaginative space that is on offer. As girls grow older, they’ll find a world in which female self-realisation is still a fairy tale, and they’ll need huge amounts of imagination to change this, and change the minds of others. Perhaps, for now, we should let them play.  

Princess Margaret's tiara, which was auctioned in New York in 2006. Photo: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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How gendered are this year’s most popular Christmas present toys?

Meet the groups fighting back against the gendering of children’s toys over the festive season.

You’re a young girl. You go into WH Smith’s to pick out a colouring book for Christmas. You could buy the Girls’ World Doodling and Colouring Book, a "gorgeous gift for any girl". In this, the pictures range "from flowers, fans, feathers, to birds, buttons and butterflies". Or Colouring for Girls: Pretty Pictures to Colour and Complete, where you can colour in "beautiful birds, seashells, cupcakes, pretty patterns and lots more". The counterpart Boys’ Colouring Book has a range beyond buttons and feathers: "Planes, trains and automobiles – plus the odd alien spacecraft".

In the run-up to Christmas, this kind of gendered marketing is rife, particularly finding its way into the predominantly pink colour scheme of girls’ toys.

Take Amazon’s page "2016 Toys for Girls": a pink icecream trolly set, a pink light-up tablet, pink building blocks, pink and purple friendship bracelets and so on.

There are several groups taking action against the "pinkification" of children’s toys. One of these is Let Toys Be Toys, a group that targets large supermarkets with the aim of reducing the gendered marketing used on children’s goods.

The Let Toys Be Toys blog focuses on specific examples of targeted gendering within shops, catalgoues and online. A particularly revealing example of how prevalent this has become in recent years is in two pictures published from the Argos catalogue, one from the Seventies, and one from nowadays. The eye-wateringly pink page from now makes the 1970s page look dour by comparison. The lack of change over four decades of what kind of products are marketed at girls is equally striking:

Despite the efforts of campaign groups such as Let Toys Be Toys, the prevalence of gendering within the highest-rated children's gifts for 2016 is staggering.

Look no further than the Ultimate Christmas Gifts Guide from Toys R Us. One of the most immediately obvious examples is the way in which the pink/blue colour schemes are used to market identical products. This is repeated again and again:

This identical drawing board is uniquely packaged to the binary colour codes that are so common within children's toys stores.

The same applies with this keyboard, where the young girl and boy are pictured almost identically, save for the coordination of their clothes to the colour of their toys.

The message is a hugely limiting one: one that allows little movement away from the binary of pink/blue. The effects of this are longstanding. A recent poll from YouGov shows that "only a third of parents approve of boys playing with Barbies". The data goes on to explain that "while most parents approve of girls playing with toys marketed to boys, a minority of adults approve of the opposite".

Images like this were the inspiration behind Let Toys Be Toys, back in 2012. The campaign began on Mumsnet, the forum for parents, on a section called "AIBU", which stands for "Am I Being Unreasonable?". One parent posted the question: "Am I being unreasonable to think that the gendered way that children’s toys are marketed has got completely out of hand?" The heated discussion that followed led to a sub-section with the founding memebers of Let Toys Be Toys.

This aside, Let Toys Be Toys has made signifcant progess since it began. It targets large stores, focusing on gendered signage both in store and online. In their four years, they have campaigned for signs like "girls' toys" and "boys' toys" to be removed from retailers such as Boots, Debenhams, Morrisons, Toys R Us and TK Maxx. It is the go-to hashtag on Twitter for examples of the often shocking gendering of children’s toys.

"This is ostensibly about toys, but what we’re really talking about is gender stereotypes that shape our children’s worlds in an apparently very unassuming way," says Jess Day, a Let Toys Be Toys campaigner. "It seems very innocent, but actually what we’re doing is giving children very clear instructions about how to be a man and how to be a woman."

These clear instructions work beyond colour coordination: where girls are sold the image of the pink "girly girl", for instance. This is evident in children’s fancy dress costumes. Early Learning Centre’s (ELC) children’s fancy dress range imposes very rigid gender roles. To give examples from the current christmas range:


Credit: ELC

Again, the predominant colour sceme is pink. The roles offered are mainly fairies and princessess: generally make-believe.

“I found it really interesting that there were almost no ads showing girls doing anything," comments Day. "Physically they were very passive. The only physical activity we saw girls doing was dancing. They weren't really moving around much."


Image: ELC

By contrast, young boys are offered the possibility of pretending to be a firefighter, a policeman or a doctor, among other practical, professional roles.

This year's Toys R Us Christmas advert follows on from this, with girls mainly dressed as princesses, and boys dressed as knights and kings. Much like the pink/blue colour scheme that we see all over children's shops, these fancy dress costumes create an unnatural binary. They send out a message that restricts any kind of subversion of these two supposedly polar opposites.

What's more, the subtext is one that is deeply rooted in expectations, building up a picture where careers such as that of a policeman and fireman come more naturally to boys, who have been socialised into these roles from childhood through fancy dress costumes of this type. Instead, girls are later forced to learn that most of us aren't going to become princessess, and none of us fairies – and so the slow process begins to unlearn these expectations.

There are certainly groups who try to counteract this. Manufacturers such as the toy brand IamElemental aims to break down the gendered distinctions between boys' toys and girls' toys, by creating female action figures.

“We always say that we are not anti-doll or anti-princess, but that if you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story," says Julie Kershaw, a member of the organisation. "As the mom of two boys, I always say that it’s just as important to put a strong healthy female action figure in a boy’s hand as it is a girl’s”.

Like the campaigners behind Let Toys Be Toys, IamElemental sees children’s toys as the starting point.

“We want kids – both girls and boys  – to internalise these messages early and often,” says Kershaw. “While there are certainly biological differences between girls and boys, gender-specific toys are not a biologically dictated truth. Toys are not “for girls” or “for boys”  – toys are for play; for exploration and creative expression.”

This attitude is ingrained in a child’s early years. Only through reconfiguring the gender sterotypes of the toys we buy for our children can we begin to break down their expectations of how to behave in age. We challenge you this Christmas to avoid these highly gendered products. Below are our three favourite Christmas presents for children this year, for girls AND boys, as approved by Let Toys Be Toys:

Mini Table Tennis (£7.99)


From: The Little Toy Box

Djeco Intro to Origami - Animals (£3.99)

From: Rachel's Toy Shop

Seedling Make Your Own Dino Softie! - Dino(sew)or Kit (£5)


From: Gifts For Little Ones