Sofia the First: More of the same from Princess culture

Disney is unleashing a new Princess to better capitalize on one of their largest target audiences–preschool-aged girls. Sofia the First, who is set to get her own TV show and movie in 2012, looks just like all the other Disney princesses. She is pale-skinned and blue-eyed, with a tiny waist that is smaller than her head. She has a pale periwinkle gown and a tiara, a modern update on Cinderella’s iconic dress for the ball. In fact, it is interesting how much Sofia is merely an update on Cinderella. While she is a little girl rather than a young woman, both Cinderella and Sofia start out as “commoners” and become royal through marriage. The only difference is that while Cinderella gets whisked out of poverty and slavery by marrying the Prince herself, it is Sofia’s mother who marries into royalty, changing Sofia’s life for good.

Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture , outlines the criticism of Princess culture. I highly encourage everyone to read this book to understand the details of the Princess issue, but I will talk about two main problems today. The first is that the Disney Princess industry promotes consumerism and only exists to sell things to young girls and their parents–$4 million worth of stuff every year. The second is that Princess culture is in the business of selling traditional gender roles.

Sofia’s target audience is girls under seven–precisely the age when many young girls become self-aware about their weight and how they look. To fight against the criticisms of the Princess industry, Disney emphasizes that Sofia may be white and pretty, but what she really teaches is that

“…the inner character of kindness, generosity, loyalty, honesty and grace make you special, not the dress you wear“.

A spokesperson for Disney has said,

“…although Sofia will have plenty of pretty dresses and sparkly shoes, our stories will show Sofia, and our viewers, that what makes a real princess iswhat’s inside, not what’s outside. That the inner character of kindness, generosity, loyalty, honesty and grace make you special, not the dress you wear.”

Disney Consumer Products description of Sofia:

“a little girl with a commoner’s background until her mom marries the King and suddenly she is royalty. With the help of the three familiar fairies in charge of the Royal Training Academy — Flora, Fauna and Merryweather of Disney’s classic “Sleeping Beauty” and, on occasion, classic Disney Princess characters including Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White — Sofia learns that looking like a princess isn’t all that hard but behaving like one must come from the heart.”

The inherent contradictions of selling Princess culture to young girls are apparent even in the messages that Disney marketing executives themselves believe. Disney constantly claims to be telling stories that promote self-esteem, inner beauty, and valuing character, all the while existing for the sole purpose of selling dresses, shoes, plastic tiaras, pencils, backpacks, DVDs, bedspreads, and beautiful, sexualized, white dolls to little girls.

If it’s what inside that really matters, then why must Sofia also have beautiful dresses and a tiara? To sell things. And why do women, from youth through old age, spend billions each year on products that are supposed to make them more beautiful? Because the media tells them that there is always something wrong with their bodies. To marketers, Princess culture is training for later in life. You can tell people all you want that it is what’s inside that counts, but when the images in our media constantly contradict the verbal message, who are we to believe?

Disney, who showed a bit of promise in creating Tiana, an African-American “Princess” in their 2009 film The Princess and the Frog, have never had a Hispanic princess. The Hispanic population of the United States is the largest growing and 2nd largest ethnic group in the country–and according to the 2010 Census, people of Hispanic origin “now account for nearly one-quarter of children under the age of 18″. When I heard Disney was unveiling a new Princess, I though for sure it would finally be a Hispanic Princess. Instead we have beautiful, white Sofia, who wears a pretty dress but also teaches girls to be “kind, generous, loyal, honest, and graceful”.

Not smart. Not powerful. Not cunning. Not brave. Not adventurous. Not opinionated. Sofia, in what we’ve seen so far, is perpetuating archaic gender roles just as much as her teenage predecessor Cinderella. Where is Disney’s REAL Princess, a young woman who will embody our hopes and dreams for women in the future? Let’s make a franchise around a hypothetical Princess of England, a girl who can rule the United Kingdom as Queen someday without being married. Yes, she would be royalty, and they could still sell her ball gown, but her story would be about her going to school to learn global politics and economics, attending meetings of Parliament, working with charities and dealing with real fears about the state of the world she may soon govern. Is this really such a radical notion?

Rather than celebrating her docility, the Princess would be admired for her intelligence, her fierce defense of same-sex marriage, and her talent for field hockey. I don’t think I would object to selling girls a doll with a larger waist, a pair of pants to wear, a mini-bookshelf, a tiny petition, and a field hockey stick. Are our little girls really so narrow-minded by Princess culture that a real girl like this would not sell?

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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