Why Disney Princesses and Ballerina Dora Are Not Invited to Our Play Dates

An open letter to parents of girls, and the people who buy them things:

Since I can't escape my midwestern upbringing, I'll open with an apology: I'm sorry I hate Disney Princesses and fancy-pants Dora so much. I feel really bad about that, almost guilty, I really do.  I think they're fun and sweet and I love magic and make-believe as much as the next mom. I do.  I like ballet. So I'm sorry if what I'm about to say hurts your feelings, or makes you feel like a bad parent, or gives the impression that I think I'm a better one than you are. Because most definitely I am not.  I'm not writing this to be judgy. But I am sick and tired of having to justify and apologize for my refusal to allow these things into our home, and I think it's time we have a more frank and honest conversation about them if we're ever going to move past this debate. And I think it's time for us to work together and stand up against the marketing machine that makes all of us - parents, daughters and sons - complicit in the princessification of femininity.

So why am I writing this now? It's 2011. Most modern moms I talk to seem to be of the general sentiment that the feminist movement has come, and gone, and is now an offiicially historic marker in the rear-view mirror of childrearing. Our girls, we tell ourselves, can now Be Whatever They Want To Be. They can be anything!  Or, better yet, they can be everything! Doctor, dramatist, darling. Educator, explorer, entrepreneur. Baker, builder, beauty queen. Pirate, plumber, prostitute, parent, princess. The list is infinite. Let them dream. Give them wings (preferably fairy). They are free to become whatever they want!

Whatever they want. Ok.  What do they want, then? And how did they come to want it?  My own four-year-old daughter wants, I learned today, Ballerina Dora merchandise.  Having recently decided (after an in-house "field trip" at her school provided a week of ballet introduction) that she's going to be a ballet teacher when she grows up, she's been talking a lot about ballerinas and doing a lot of adorable twirling and leaping around here lately.  It's super cute. And I haven't discouraged it.  But she's not signed up for dance class (yet) and she doesn't own ballet slippers (although she does have a very sparkly pair of shoes her grandma bought her that make a convenient substitute).  And now she wants Dora, beloved Dora!, to dance into our lives and be a ballerina with her.

Dora used to be The Explorer. She wore a cutely uncoordinated t-shirt-and-shorts outfit and had a boyish bob suitable for climbing trees and searching for clues. She was curious, intelligent, eager. She shouted at us in Spanish (and look what we learned! Ay├║dame! Help me! Abre! Open!). Then, in a pointless and unfathomable episode, she became...a princess.  Her hair grew longer.   She got much skinnier. She was begowned and bejeweled and sparkled for all to adore.  She took up ballet. And little girls, most tragically my own, fell even more in love with her.  Sweet, sensible, eager Dora has transformed from caterpillar to butterfly. Butterfly! She is beautiful, she is free, she can fly.

So...what's wrong with that? Beauty. Freedom. Flight. Sounds like everything we say we want to instill in our daughters: Confidence. Opportunity. Capability.  What's wrong with that?  What's so wrong with wanting to be a princess?

Everything.  It's a trap.

The "confidence" that comes with security in her "beauty" is an illusion. Aspiring to be beautiful - or, as is probably more accurately the case for our own young girls - being confident in their beauty (because we constantly tell them how beautiful they are, don't we?) - is the first step to being a princess, or a butterfly.  And the confidence is pretty wonderful, isn't it? Who's the fairest of them all? "I am!" our girls declare, and we can't stop smiling.  But deep down, I think we know that over-fostering this prepubescent confidence could backfire: when they enter locker rooms, without us, and stand in a long line of girls before the mirror, the entire universe of girliness will team up against us, just looking for reasons to undermine that confidence, and they could come out of it, angry, thinking, "You lied to me! I am not beautiful!"

And I'm willing to skip over the more tired and superficial aspects of the issue of beauty-as-everything, which I think we all pretty much have moved beyond - the part about how the beautiful princess needs rescuing by the handsome prince and how living happily ever after means never aging, or doing much of anything.  I think the moms I know are pretty much universally over this crap. They don't want to see the damsels in distress - they want Princess Fiona to come out, kicking ass and embracing her ogrish heart of hearts.  They prefer DreamWorks to classic Disney. It's more modern. Cooler. Realistic.  They tell their daughters that they don't have to give up their voices like Ariel did, that they don't have to just be a maid like Snow White or Cinderella. We tell them that whether or not their prince will come someday, they can still be happy. We tell them beauty comes from the inside, and that includes the brain. But we stop short of telling them not to be beautiful in the conventional sense. We stop short at not buying the hooped skirt, the long gloves, the tiara. The beauty is an illusion, we admit, but it's a fun illusion. A magical illusion. And who are we to deny our girls magic?  What kind of mother doesn't want her daughter to have fun? 

So...the beauty is not really beauty, and doesn't translate to confidence, but we go along with it anyway. Who am I to blow against the wind? Our society has superficial values, but we just have to make the most of it, and put the emphasis on making sure our daughters make the right choices. That they make the right decisions to be strong, empowered girls.

But can we even do that?  This is perhaps the most dangerous part, because I think many parents really fall for this brilliant marketing campaign: the idea that strong, confident girls have the freedom to choose what they want to be. But the brute fact is that this "freedom" is at best illusory and at worst a total scam: the "choice" to want to be a princess or not is not one of many viable options.  It's the default option: princess, rainbow, butterfly, unicorn. Go to Target, the exclusive vendor for the new Ballet Dora series. Walk down the "girl" aisle. And let me know what kind of "choices" you find.  Count how many items in the "girl" section could just as easily be moved to a gender-neutral area. Practically none. They make pink "girl Legos" now. Even books are gendered! 

The flip side of this, of course, is how we train our boys to fear and abhor femininity, but that's a topic worthy of its own discussion. I also have a 6-year-old son. And the "boy" aisle is just as bad - if not worse.  Every toy is a fighting toy. We have two major rules in the toy department at our house: no  Barbie/Disney Princess (and preferably no Disney at all, if we can help it) and no weapons as toys. And the no weapons rule was so much harder to enforce that I had to soften my stance on it when I realized no weapons meant no Legos. But I digress. Where were we...yes. Beauty. Freedom. And Flight.

So the beauty is illusory. The freedom is illusory. And the flight...the spreading of wings and being whatever she wants to be!...is a cruel, insensitive trap.  Why are we trying to dupe our girls into believing in a myth of gender equity and equal opportunity when we know damned well that women do not receive equal pay for equal work in this country? Women do not have equal opportunities to succeed in business or economics. Women do, when it comes down to it, still carry the burden of most domestic work and child-rearing, whether they "choose" to or not. And the glass ceiling, through which we now occasionally get the momentary, misleading and voyeuristic opportunity to peek up a woman's skirt, is still as solid as Disney on Ice.  So tell me: why are we telling our girls they can fly (if they really want to! if they just believe in magic!) instead of giving them the tools they're really going to need to build the wings? When Daedalus taught his son, Icarus, to fly, he gave him a very clear warning:  Fly too close to the sun, he said, and you'll come crashing down.  And here we are, crooning "you are my sunshine, my only sunshine" as our girls strap on the most adorable wings money can buy - made in China of the cheapest possible materials. Whose fault will it be when they come crashing down? Icarus was to blame for not heeding his father's advice. Our girls can rightfully blame us for convincing them they were immortal.  

Many of you are probably thinking I'm exaggerating, that our smart girls know the difference between fantasy and reality and can be princesses today and stock brokers tomorrow without blaming us - or Barbie, or Ballet Princess Dora or whatever. And you're right: all of our girls will grow up and make the adjustments they need to deal with social disparities and body-image issues, and gender roles, etc. They don't have a choice in dealing with all that. But I think it's high time, as parents, that we get honest about the role we really play in all this. Are we really deluding ourselves into setting up our daughters to fail? Are we really so easily manipulated by advertising that we can trick ourselves into doing this?  And how do we stop?

Look at what they continue to give us!  Look at what they've done to Dora!  She comes with a comb now.  She's almost unrecognizably dolled up. And her beauty, if we're going to call it that, has come at a very high cost: she traded in her curiosity for a tiara and some glitter. The most interesting thing about her - that she's The Explorer - has been "upgraded" to princess/ballerina. Not an even exchange, if you ask me. 

One of my sisters asked me why it bothers me so much that Dora "wants to be a ballerina" and I said it should bug all of us, that Dora suddenly would rather be a ballerina than a scientist. What message does this send? Girls can be anything...until they reach a certain age. Then cut out the smarty stuff and buy some eye shadow. But when you put it to the test, Dora isn't "choosing" to be a ballerina. She just comes in the box that way now, already wearing the tutu. We are the ones choosing to give our girls this new "choice."  Ballerina or princess? You pick!

Disney and Nickelodeon and Mattel and all the others continue to present us with these "choices" because we continue to buy it.  And they'll keep producing it as long as we keep paying for it. We are, in actual fact, the guilty party here: we are forcing them to keep producing this drivel through a mindless and self-justifying consumerism.  They're just toys. It's fun. I make up for it by buying tool belts and "boy" Legos. My daughter will grow up strong and confident and beautiful. She can be whatever she wants to be.

Parenting is hard work. Trying to raise kids who have values beyond materialism is a daunting task in a consumer culture.  But as far as I can tell, we have the ultimate authority here because we hold the purse-strings. We can control the market by taking a stronger collective stance on what kind of products we're willing to buy for our children. We need to stand together as parents and (1) speak up to say we don't WANT this kind of merchandise and (2) put our money where our mouths are by not buying it.  I think we can do it. If we do it together. Are you in?  

You can start here, by signing this petition and sharing it with your friends: Tell Toy Companies Our Girls Need More Choices than "Princess". Talk to your kids. Talk to your friends. Take action - with your dollars and your voice.

Dora Ballerina, by Fisher Price/Mattel. Available exclusively at Target!
Don't forget Ariel, who gave up her voice for her man...



20 comments:

  1. I would never have recognized Dora Ballerina. She doesn't even look like Dora the Explorer to me.

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  2. This is something called "Princess Programming" (boys are under a similar kinda conditioning called "Warrior Programming".) in order to create girls into women who will follow the sick system a particular way.

    Freeman (http://thefreemanperspective.com/ and http://freemantv.com/) talks a lot about this, as does Vigilant Citizen (whose blogs about the mind control within the entertainment industry are absolutely mind-altering - http://www.vigilantcitizen.com/). Stewart Swerdlow has also mentioned this, as he talks much about mind-control programming within black ops and government programs (like Monarch and MK-Ultra programming). If I ever have children, none of this garbage is gonna be present, as it's only there to create more control over the mainstream populace (as are pretty much most things that are promoted - they cannot be trusted).

    "Disneyland and Disney World have both been reported as being used in what [Fritz] Springmeier calls 'Princess Programming' to create high-level sex slaves." - Freeman

    This is lengthy, but CERTAINLY a fascinating and information-packed read: http://freemantv.whynotnews.eu/tag/princesswarrior-programming/

    Thanks so much for this blog! I'm hoping it'll open somebody's eyes up to the programming that's been going on for years, and hopefully, it'll send them down that neverending proverbial rabbit hole.

    I send you tons of Peace, Unity, Love, and Light, and I hope you're having a wonderful day.

    <3

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  3. Thanks Heather, great post!

    You may remember when Tangereen was a toddler and Chuck started buying Barbie dolls for her. I was so against it! But then I got over it because she loved it, and he loved it, and it was fun.

    My daughter is now a scientist. I think that we must have done a good job of giving her plenty of other options, books, music, and ideas to balance out the princess thing. It's really up to parents to provide other options and create balance for their girls so they don't get too obsessed with pink ballerinas.

    I signed your petition because I agree that the toy companies need to be told that they should be providing other choices too!

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  4. Thanks for the great links, Holly - there is a whole world of literature on this topic that I'm just beginning to try to tackle!

    And Christine, I totally agree - it's about moderation, balance and parents being involved. I learned the hard way with my son what happened when taboos (for weapons) turned them into the only delicious forbidden fruit and am much more flexible with Leela, which makes it easier to talk about what I don't like about some of her toys. Tangereen is a great example of Barbie-gone-right :)

    But it's not about totally banning these things - it's about insisting on other, more reasonable and realistic options, and not setting our standards impossibly high for our girls.

    Thanks to everyone who signs the petition! If we get enough signatures, our voice can really make an impact!

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  5. Don't do it with petitions. Do it with money.

    Toy sellers want to make money. They sell princesses because people buy princesses. If you bought chess sets or telescopes or tents or construction toys for your daughters, they would sell you that.

    I have no connection with these businesses, but interesting toys exist and you can buy them:

    http://www.constructiontoys.com/

    http://space.about.com/od/telescopesandoptics/tp/kidstelescopes.htm

    http://www.chesshouse.com/animal_chess_set_s/188.htm

    http://www.walmart.com/ip/5-x-4-Kids-Dome-Tent-Blue-Camouflage/13262106

    http://www.searchbee.org/kids-beekeeping-suits

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  6. interesting points. while i am completely on board with the princess/ballerina thing, it made me so sad to see that child-rearing was categorized as a burden. It's one of the greatest privileges we are gifted with. That's another whole article on media influence. :)

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  7. I am the mother of 5 children: 3 girls, 2 boys. My oldest daughter is now 20 and had very little interest in Disney or anything princess as a young child. My 7 and 3 year old daughters spend hours playing 'dress-ups', usually in princess costumes. We have knight, astronaut, fireman, policeman & barber costumes, too. My girls (and their girl cousins) USUALLY gravitate to the 'girly' dress-ups and the boys USUALLY gravitate to the 'boyish' costumes. When my girls were very young I swore I'd never allow them to be introduced to these girly things -- that's not my personality and I didn't want it to be theirs. Then they spoke. I firmly believe, after trying hard to avoid this gender differentiation in toys, that gender preferences are innate. With very little exposure to commercial influence, my girls eyes glowed when they saw anything princess/fairy. Producers sell so many pink things, because, quite frankly, little girls prefer them. I am a financial analyst, I love science and share that interest with all of my kids daily. My girls dig in the dirt like their lives depend on it, and they usually do it in fairy wings and plastic high heels. Then they discuss the types of minerals that might be in the rocks they stored in their pink buckets and examine bugs with butterfly shaped magnifying glasses. I believe in encouraging their natural curiosity and fostering a love of nature, math and science, while allowing them to be themselves -- and they are girls. My experience working in corporate America is that the most confident, successful women are secure in their intelligence AND their femininity. Gender equality is not the same as gender neutrality. My point: I advocate CHOICE and allowing children to choose what naturally interests them. The princessification of all toys marketed to girls limits their choices. Also, I try to select non-Disney playthings so my girls can make-believe their own stories instead of recreating the Disney 'damsel in distress' nonsense.

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  8. Thanks for the comments! Great point about CHOICE.

    @Ang and Mike - thank you for drawing my attention to that. I didn't mean to imply that childrearing is a burden (ie something difficult and unpleasant that I don't want) in and of itself but it does sound like that!

    I was just trying to make the point that women still tend to be responsible for all of the everyday work that comes along with the joys of parenthood, whether they like it or not. I personally love being a mother, but I don't love how much more laundry I have now. And there are millions of families of all types in which the workload is distributed evenly, or in which the traditional gender roles are reversed, etc. I was just making a generalization that the mainstream/media portrait of motherhood still has us cooking, cleaning, raising the kids...how often do we hear stay at home moms saying "this is my full time job?" This just reinforces our idea that childrearing is real work, and too much work is a burden. And this trickles down to our kids: How many broom/vacuum toys do we see in the boy aisle?

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  9. Justamom,

    I admire that your children play in the dirt while wearing fairy wings and plastic heals. I think it's fantastic that you have seemed to have struck a balance between playing in a natural environment while encouraging their natural gender tendancies.

    However, I have to speak up on your point about advocating your childrens choices. The point of the original blog post/open letter to parents is that, in my opinion, the choices that children are making are heavily influenced by the unavoidable commercialism that our children are faced with. The Princification of Femininity and the Warriorification (if you will) of Masculinity is so heavily promoted on our children (think sleep in princess sheets, eat SpongeBob fruit snacks, wear Bratz backpack to school), that the choices ultimately lie with the parents to NOT BUY these products.

    Parents want to make their children happy. And the children can't help themselves by succumbing to the strong and pervasive advertising by companies such as Disney, Nick Jr, Time-Warner, etc. Of course they want that toy, or to see that movie, and then go to that fast food restaurant for the toy (think PG-13 movies such as Spiderman, X-men, Transformers). As a result, parents BUY the stuff. And keep buying...and buying....

    What children really want is the parents' TIME. Not stuff. As parents, it's hard to fight the tide and say no. One of the ways to fight is to sign the petition for a more commercial free childhood.

    For further reading:

    "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" by Peggy Orenstein

    www.newdream.org

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  10. just relax and raise your kids the way you want..... some people might actually like it.... as popular of an excuse as it is.. we make our decisions not the media.. I am all for everything from princess costumes to football helmets... Sheesh

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  11. The one thing this blogger forgot to mention, is she, and the rest of us live in America! the Land of the Free and the Brave. We live in a country that you can choose to raise your children the way you believe that will be the best for your child! My problem with this writing is not the view that this mom is taking, its the approach that now there needs to be a petion to get others to stop buying stuff or allowing their child to play with disney or dora! We really do live in a world where people are daily trying to convience someone why there way of living is better than someone elses. When is enough, enough! I have 3 daughters, and how i choose to raise them, is up to me! At the end of my life, when all is said and done, only me and my husband will stand before God and answer for how I've raised my children! Teachers, pastors, nor Cinderella will be there, just me! And I will be held accountable for the choices I've made! So while I hold value to her point, I disagree that the world needs to change because you dont want your daughter to play with a toy! As a parent are we really that shallow minded as parents that we are not able to teach our child the difference between make believe, pretend and reality? There have been toys that I do not allow my children to play with, that there friends have been allowed to, but i tell my children, what works for one family may not work for another! And just because we have reasons why we dont choose to play with them, doesnt mean that someone else holds those same reasons or convictions. And we will not judge them or talk negative about them because they choose to allow those things!!
    If anything needs to change, its parents being held more responsible! Quit trying to force others to take a stand against something that you feel is wrong!

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  12. Hello, Dora has been a ballerina in one episode. It's new and exciting right now. She's also been a musician, singer, princess, etc. It's about pretending! She still explores. I believe in monitoring what your kids watch, but restricting them from liking gender specific things? Seems extreme to me. My girls LOVE Strawberry Shortcake. I think it's sweet. They like Dora. Cool. No problem. Spongebob? Heck no! He has bad language and mocks authority. Keep your kids from watching offensive stuff instead of pretend stuff!

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  13. I think that some people are so scorned from thier own issues that they search for reasons or things to blame them on. They want to raise thier kid in this perfect way that is really kind of sad, and at some point when the child realizes just how restricted they are because thier parent thought way too much into every single thing they did or played with it will back fire on them -might even cause some rebellious behavior. A petition for this, really? How about using this as a opportunity to invent some unisex toys (not 'cheap' ones of course) of your own instead of complaining; toys that you think are appropiate and see if kids around the world 'choose' them. Kids do gravitate towards certain toys (I have seen many boys play with baby dolls and toy vacuums), and holding back a figurine of Dora as a ballerina from your kid who really might have an interest in ballet (might even just be a temporary interest) is just really kind of sad...

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  14. to the Anonymous posters:

    I'm new to blogging and might be a little naive about the comment protocol, but some of these comments from anonymous readers make unfair assumptions and/or misunderstand my main point. I made clear above that I didn't write this to attack other parents or make it sound like I know the One True Way to be a perfect parent. But it seems like there's confusion, so let me clarify a couple things:

    1) My problem is not with Dora, or ballet, or princesses in and of themselves. My daughter plays with all this stuff and I do not restrict her from "gender specific things" as one commenter seems to think (as if that is even possible). I made this clear in the post. So please don't accuse me of "depriving" or "restricting" her of things to which she actually has plenty of access. There are many, many ways, for instance, to nurture my daughter's interest in ballet without running out to buy her the $30 Dora doll she saw on tv just because she said "I want that!"

    2) My problem is not with fantasy games, fairy tales, or other fictions. Nor is my problem with "a toy" or one single item/character in the girl-toy aisle. My problem is with the patterns of representation of offensive and outdated gendered identities in advertising and the illusory "choices" we are presented with as consumers. If there had never been regular Dora, I might have loved Dora ballerina. But the new doll presents a much-altered and more conventional version of Dora-as-princess that just buys into all the stereotypes reinforced by Disney, Barbie, etc. And these stereotypes have consequences on our children's sense of identify and self-esteem. There is lots of research on this - it's not our first time talking about it.

    3) On taking action: I'm well aware that a petition is unlikely to make much of a difference with corporations, who only listen to the cha-ching of dollar signs. But signing a petition is like making a personal pledge to be active about an issue, and every person who signs brings unites us in this cause. Maybe the petition isn't the best way to act - I'm open to other ideas, new or existing. This is an issue which has been at the forefront of parenting discussions for over 50 years. If enough parents and consumers start talking about it, and taking action (of whatever kind they want), we can - and will - make a difference.

    One reader thinks we shouldn't try to convince people of anything (unless that thing is "leave parents alone to decide for themselves"), but we don't live in a vacuum. Here in the public sphere, we're negotiating in discourse. And discourse is about the free and open exchange of ideas. I like sharing mine and I look forward to hearing yours, whether you agree with me or not.

    Thanks!
    Heather

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  15. The easiest way to avoid most of the issue is simply to take real control of the television. As far as I'm concerned, we do very little in the way of video that is largely meant to sell merchandise. We don't have cable--we do TV via Netflix, online, DVD, or download--and we don't do very much of it.
    My 4 year-old daughter has not seen ANY of the Disney Princess movies. Or very much else princess-y, except that she has seen Shrek, a few months ago. Nonetheless, she has been totally into princesses for at least a year, so it's not just a media-generated thing. Cartoon-wise, she's into SuperWhy and Max and Ruby and Caillou, while her 2 1/2 year-old brother has recently discovered Thomas the Tank Engine (one exception to the merchandising thing I do make, as the play value of flea market Thomas trains is high. I do NOT buy them new--but I buy few new toys, anyway.). They both love LeapFrog stuff and Word World.
    I think Justamom has the right of things. When we had a girl baby, we made sure she had "boy" toys to play with, as well as "girl" ones. Well, the trucks and whatnot languished unplayed with till her brother was old enough. Now, they do as my brother and I did as kids--they're about as likely to play Hot Wheels together as they are to play house together. And my daughter is totally likely to be outside riding her bike in princess dress-ups and felt crown.

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  16. I just "happened upon" this blog throught he Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood site. Funny...I have never liked the whole "princess" thing. My 6 year old daughter does not like it either (nor does she play with dolls). I do see how kids are bombarded with commercialism and inappropriate ideals though, through TV and elsewhere.

    We strictly limit the tv our children watch (oddly, they don't miss it.) We don't encourage buying into the Disneyland complex either. I love the idea of waging an awareness campaign to educate folks about this movement!

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  17. Heather,
    I have just started to read and find your postings and think you are wonderful. Thank you for speaking to the many things I think but can't articulate. I am reading "Cinderella Ate My Daughter" right now and you would LOVE it! I also loved your rant about our friend Scottie and his "do not reply" email!

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  18. Disney Princesses are always helpless and dependent upon some guy to rescue them. THAT is the worst message we can send to our children.

    Little girls need to know they are capable and are not just a part of a pair. Little boys need to know not damsel is in distress.

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  19. OK everyone, call your own bluff.

    GET RID OF YOUR TELEVISIONS!!! Go to the library, stay out of the movie theaters. UNPLUG from all this drivel. I mean really, if we quit buying the crap, won't they be forced to reformulate?

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  20. Hi. I grew up watching Disney princess movies and although these negative points are all valid (Ariel giving up her voice etc.) the princesses actually had a lot of positive influences on me. Ariel made me curious about understanding places I'd never been to. Belle made me not embarrassed to be a book worm. Cinderella taught me to be generous and think of others (even if they are just little animals) and to turn the other cheek. Mulan taught me perseverance and showed me we can uncover hidden talents if we're not afraid to go against convention. Pocahontas taught me to reach out to those who were different instead of spurning them as savages. My point is, I wasn't just dressing up like them and twirling around wishing I were a princess. I listened, I paid attention. And though they may represent an impossible standard of beauty, I'm glad Disney gave them these personality traits (anachronistically feminist though they may be) because beauty is only skin deep and they all really are beautiful on the inside.

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