Could “Frozen” Create Psychological Problems for Girls Later in Life?

Sep 29, 2014 at 4:27 PM ET

When I was 4, my life revolved entirely around The Little Mermaid. I watched the film on a daily basis, usually in my Little Mermaid nightgown, and when I went outside, I would circle the driveway in my Little Mermaid big-wheel bike. I ate my meals on a Little Mermaid plate with a Little Mermaid fork, or from a Little Mermaid bowl with a Little Mermaid spoon. I drank milk from a Little Mermaid cup. I played dress up in a Little Mermaid leotard and a pair of glittery Little Mermaid heels. I was also Ariel for Halloween—three years in a row.

This was in the early ’90s, well within the mermaid frenzy generated by the film’s release. Like me, millions of little girls had dreams of emulating the fire-haired siren, and just like that, the princess industrial complex was born. The Little Mermaid and the fanaticism that followed is what paved the way for the Disney Princess franchise, a multibillion dollar brand that has since cornered the make-believe market.

Just ask a group of little girls what they think of Frozen, and it becomes painfully obvious that Disney has done a bang-up job; princesses do indeed rule their world. The question some academics are asking, though, is whether or not these big-eyed, tiny-waisted royals are the best role models for future young women.

Dr. Rebecca Hains, an expert on children’s media culture and the author of the new book The Princess Problem, doesn’t think so. To summarize her stance: Princess culture encourages unhealthy consumerism and saddles girls with noxious messages about their gender.

It’s territory that has been explored before, most notably in Peggy Orenstein’s 2006 New York Times op-ed and subsequent book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, but in the post-Frozen world—where Anna-Elsa mania has ascended to ludicrous heights—the discussion seems all the more relevant.

Based on Hains’ analysis, the issue isn’t princess play itself, but what Disney has done to it. “Princess play has been around for ages as one of the great forms of imaginative play that girls love to engage in, but it wasn’t always commercialized,” Hains says. “Disney has colonized the fairy tale.”

Until The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, Disney hadn’t released a single princess-centric film since Sleeping Beauty debuted three decades earlier. Little girls went wild for Ariel, and the animation giant realized it had a gold mine on its hands. What followed was a span of 10 years when the company released more princess films than ever before—Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan—each with its own set of princess merchandise. It wasn’t until 2000 that Disney executives decided to launch the Disney Princess franchise, a line of products entirely independent of the films.

Today the rapidly growing brand features tens of thousands of toys, the vast majority of which belong to the dress-up category. “Princess” (as Disney execs call it) is saturated with glitzy dresses, sparkly shoes, plushy purses and dainty tiaras, and according to Hains, that’s the root of the problem. “Girls are learning from princess culture that how you look is very, very important, and that you will be rewarded for looking pretty,” she says.

It’s true that the princesses featured in Disney films have grown more progressive in recent years (see: Frozen and Brave), but some of the more basic issues still remain. “The behavior Disney princesses engage in has improved, and they’ve shifted away from the traditional romance narrative, but Anna and Elsa’s wrists are still smaller than their eyes,” says Hains.

And even if some of the films do carry a positive message, the merchandise rarely retains it. Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, for example, is an intelligent girl who loves to read, but you could never discern that from Disney’s products. “Disney markets Belle makeup kits and her golden gown,” Hains says. “It’s almost an insult to the character because that’s not what she cared about. Where’s the Belle library set?”

Or there’s Mulan, a warrior princess who is advertised not in her armor, but in her hanfu—the traditional Chinese dress she hated wearing in the film. As far as Disney is concerned, it seems nearly every aspect of the princesses’ personalities are secondary to their appearances.

The danger, of course, is that the little girls playing with these products are in a developmentally fragile stage; they look to these princesses as an archetypal ideal and will feel pressured to live up to it. And this, often unintentionally, is reinforced by adults who default to what Hains calls “pretty girl talk” (e.g., when communicating with young girls, they’re commenting on her looks, telling her how beautiful she is instead of asking her about her interests).

“This gets [girls] hooked on getting feedback about their appearance,” Hains says, which is why you tend to see girls’ self-esteem plummet once they hit adolescence and their bodies begin to appear less and less like the idolized princesses of their youth.

There are obviously other major societal forces that contribute to the body-image issue, but Hains believes princess culture is helping to exacerbate it. “I’ve spoken to numerous educators and found that they were beginning to see body-image issues with first graders that used to come up with fourth graders a decade ago, and sixth graders a decade before that,” she says.

There is hope, however, and it starts with the department store shelves. “The toy aisles should be desegregated and arranged by interest,” says Hains. That way, girls and boys will have the autonomy to choose toys based on their individual personalties, rather than feel restricted to products marketers have deemed appropriate for their gender. Other countries such as the U.K. have already begun doing this with much success.

“I don’t think that all toys should be gender-neutral, but the marketing and presentation of them should be so that a toy is seen as a toy and a kid can feel free to play with what they want,” says Hains.

Perhaps an even better solution is getting more women onto the executive boards of toy companies, which have been traditionally dominated by men. Of the 13 people on the Disney Consumer Products executive board, only two are women. But you could have probably guessed that.

(Writer’s note: To be fair, I’m now a fairly well-adjusted 20-something, and I enjoy poetry as much as I like pretty dresses. So despite Ariel’s dastardly influence, I actually turned out OK.)