The dangerous world of the princess

Hear the word "princess", and what other words and phrases spring to mind? For me they would include, in no particular order: pretty, gentle, sweet, passive, tiny feet in tiny glass slippers, a vapid (sorry, I mean handsome) prince arriving to save said princess from drudgery, and whisking her away to . . . what? The fairy stories generally end with a wedding, giving only the barest hints of what might follow. But my guess is a "happily ever after" of ball gowns, daintiness and gracious meetings with visiting dignitaries. Ugh!

It's a life so fricking boring that I wouldn't blame any such princess for ditching her prince, taking up smoking (possibly crack), getting a tattoo and becoming . . . I don't know - say, a bounty hunter or a pirate.

Anyway, it turns out that my negative view of princesses is a little out of touch, because, in fact, princesses have never been more popular. As Rosie Millard mentioned in these pages early this year, the Disney Princess range is currently a huge hit among pre-adolescent girls. The brand is now worth $3bn, and its UK growth amounted to 25 per cent last year.

Based around Disney princesses such as Snow White, Cinderella and that exceptionally boring one from Sleeping Beauty, it encourages very young girls to emulate their heroines. Be pretty, be helpful . . . Which is interesting when you consider that there was a time, not so long ago, when many parents tried to steer their kids away from explicitly gendered toys. These groovy folks (well, it was the 1970s) tried to banish Barbie from their daughters' bedrooms. Guns were officially very, very bad, while the dominance of pink and blue briefly beheld a challenger: yellow.

The idea was to let kids develop more naturally, rather than be steered from birth into conservative and reductive gender constructs. But now, go into most toyshops, particularly those aimed at very young and impres sionable kids, and the space might as well have been cleaved in two, with pink exploding on one side, and blue on the other.

"I'm always trying to steer my girls away from all that pink stuff," says a friend of mine, the mother of four girls, "but it's marketed to them so powerfully, and from such a young age, that it's almost impossible. You'd think that we'd be past all those old stereotypes now, but actually, they seem to be stronger than ever. Certainly much stronger than when I was a kid."

When it comes to boys' toys, the focus is still on being macho and aggressive. This is encouraged by most video games which, while having a reputation for being passive, are actually a modern version of all the oldest shoot-'em-up games, in which the player takes on the role of hero, or in creasingly anti-hero, and proceeds to kill as many people as possible. Not active in a sporting sense, but powerfully aggressive all the same.

Then there's the current break-out literary success, The Dangerous Book for Boys, by Conn and Hal Iggulden, a nostalgic throwback to magazines such as the Eagle, which includes details of how to make a catapult from an old shoe tongue. This is being described as an antidote to video-game culture, but its message that boys should be "dangerous", that one of their chief interests should be weaponry and battle (among others explored in the book), isn't so dissimilar.

All of which is fine. There's a lot in The Dangerous Book for Boys that sounds fun, and any book that gives instructions on how to teach your old dog new tricks has got to have some worth. I do wish, though, that it could be joined on the shelves by something (a book, a doll, a game) that encouraged girls to be dangerous, too. Because if any group needs to be encouraged to take risks, it's young women.

Commentators often write about a "war on boys", citing boys' falling academic achievement at school; and while there is an issue to be explored in this, the fact is that men - even young men - still earn more than their female counterparts and get bigger raises. Many of the traits that undermine them in the academic sphere, partic ularly their risk-taking and an underlying sense of entitlement, later serve them very well.

For now, however, the gender stereotyping of toys seems certain to continue. While the idea of non-gendered toys was a good, utopian one, the forces of consumerism demand strictly defined markets for their goods. Toys that aim to appeal to kids regardless of gender don't fit simplistic notions of a "target audience", while those that adhere to the most rigid and boring images (pink, blue, princesses, guns) can take advantage of the marketing shorthand written into those stereotypes. All of which is annoying.

But perhaps there's no need to despair. A few years ago, the high-street chain Claire's Accessories opened Girl Heaven, shops for younger girls which seemed to contain the biggest collection of pink items in human history. It also offered "dream make-overs" to girls in its two- to nine-year-old target audience, and, last year . . . it bit the dust.

Princesses are one thing, bows and arrows another. But thankfully all the marketing might in the world can't convince parents that two-year-old girls need manicures.

Kira Cochrane is the Guardian women's editor