Raising a Son Within the Princess Culture

Dresden Shumaker, princess culture, princess boysIs girl power bad for boys?

I grew up the daughter of a feminist. Mom was always involved with local association of women chapters and always made sure I knew that girls could do ANYTHING.

I went to an all-girls school for grades 8, 9 and 10. Those were prime years for defining a sense of self. I was surrounded by teachers and staff that were empowering. I never once had a moment in my life where I paused and thought, “I can’t ____ because I am a girl.”

When I found out that I was going to have a son, I was so surprised. A boy? What?

Immediately, I had visions of this super-aggressive and dominant child. Isn’t that what they are? They are The Man. They are the ones oppressing women. And now I was going to have to parent one. No opportunity to continue the “girl power” culture that I loved so much.

But a funny thing happened when I met my son—I started to realize how destructive girl power can be to boys.

Let me be clear—I absolutely know that there is a need to make sure that girls and women know that what is between their legs should not limit them to achieve anything that their heart is guiding them towards.

But here is what I sadly realized: Within modern girl power, there seems to be a message that girls are better than boys. Boys are BAD. Boys are MEAN. Boys are silly, weak, stupid, clueless, rough.

There are also a lot of double standards when it comes to proclaiming, “girls can do anything!” I have seen parents celebrate that their daughters play with trucks or pick out boxers as underpants. Look! See! Nothing holding this girl back!

This sort of celebration does not happen when a boy picks up a doll or Dora undies.

The modern princess culture seems to be that you can wear a pink dress and still climb a tree. You can love to dance and twirl and still play baseball. You can wear a crown and overalls. I think this message is fine. And I agree with it. Kids—you can do it all!

Except the point isn’t “kids, you can do it all,” it is GIRLS can.

I have a son who lives within the princess culture. He has fallen in love with pink skirts. He likes to serve tea. He has been in awe of the transformative effects of makeup. He likes to have dolls drive his firetrucks. He most certainly has a meltdown when he sees that there are Dora pullups for girls but not for boys. (If the pullups didn’t have special absorption locations for front wee wees as opposed to middle wee wees, I would absolutely get him Dora pants.)

W loves music and rhythm, running around the track at school, reading stories to his animals, and being FIRST.

W’s favorite color is pink. W’s favorite sport is twirling. W’s favorite tv show is “Sofia the First” on Disney Jr.

He watches each episode multiple (MULTIPLE) times to the point that he can recite most of the dialogue. A week ago, he snuggled into me and proclaimed, “boys are not nice.” I asked him which boy and he told me ALL boys. All boys are not nice. They are mean.

He was right. In almost every “girl triumphs” story there is a slew of “mean boys.” Or there are boys that have to be told to be kind.

Disney Jr has an “I am a Princess” video that they play before and after the “Sofia” episodes. After the fifth viewing of this video, W let me know that boys cannot be princesses. I told him that he was right—princess is a title for girls and prince is a title for boys. I looped it into a familiar talk we have about how “mom” is usually for a woman parent and “dad” is usually for a man parent.

W proclaimed himself a prince and continued watching his show.

The “I am a Princess” video aired again and he stood up and got close to the TV. He started shaking his head. He told me, “I don’t see a prince! Why can’t they play too?”

I flubbed something incredibly absurd and said they were probably there—they were just getting a snack! Or MAYBE they are filming the princesses twirl and then they will take turns.

The funny thing is that I probably would not have raised an eyebrow at all over the princess video if I had a daughter. Watching my son watch the video is sad. It made me realize that we can do better. Boys are not better than girls and girls are not better than boys.

I am raising a feminist son in the sense that I want to make sure he knows that women and men can be and are equal. I have written before about chivalry—I believe it is a courtesy to extend to all. We don’t hold open the door for a woman just because she is a woman—we hold it open because we can and because it is the kind thing to do. We also hold the door open for men—because we can and because it is the kind thing to do.

I am curious what other parents of sons feel about girl power. Does it still have a place? Is there still a need?

WATCH: I Am a Princess

This was previously published on The Huffington Post.

Read more on Princess Culture on The Good Life.

Image courtesy of the author

About Dresden Shumaker

Dresden Shumaker writes her memoirs online at CreatingMotherhood.com. A former Hollywood insider, Dresden now spends her days working in design and new media for a Philly tech startup. Dresden is a single mom and lives in a multigenerational home in Philadelphia and is invested in causes connected to ending hunger and caregiver support for the Alzheimer's community. She is a blogger and advocate for Feeding America and was recently honored by BlogHer as a Voice of the Year for her post, "Welfare Queen".

You can follow Dresden online here: Blog | Twitter | Google+ | Facebook


  1. This is a great read, but I came up with this same general idea in 1995 at the age of 14. I went so far as to ask my teacher why is it ok that every show on T.V had really dumb males and really smart, hot females. If it was the other way around there would have been protests and lawsuits. Her response was “it’s about time for men to feel bad about themselves for a change.”
    This was from an adult educator to a 14 year old kid. Needless to say, I stopped watching T.V, excpet for sports and a few select cartoons.

  2. I raised a boy and a girl. When my daughter was a year old, I bought and built a doll house which has become a lifelong project that the two of us continue to work on improving. She now has the house at her house and is showcased in her family room. My basement is storage for no less then 7 bins of Barbie dolls and associated items.

    My son and I began model trains when he was old enough to understand how to use the controls. When he got his own house, he took the 8’X4’ layout to his house and STILL plays with it. Along side of my daughters bins are an equal number of bins with his toys which include action hero’s, army soldiers, cars and trucks.

    Both my kids are now in their mid to upper 20’s and I’m sure glad my wife and I didn’t have all these hang ups with identifying if it’s gender appropriate or if we were denying one of them an option of the kind of toys they played with.

    Parents sometimes live vicariously through their kids. I know I did. I loved buying the trains and slot cars, cool trucks with realistic sounding engines. My son and I had a great time buying sports trading cars which also helped him learn stats of players and so on.

    I’ll be honest with you, I would not have been a happy camper had my wife introduce “girl” things to my son. He’s a guy and as he developed, he liked guy things, just as my daughter liked girl things. Her bedroom was pink ( I personally hate the color) and my son’s room was Green Bay Packers Green and Gold (I personally like the colors). It’s just how things developed.

    When my son and daughter were around the age of 10, they were both taught how to use a shot gun. My son took to it like a bird in flight whereas my daughter quickly lost interest.

    “Girl Power?” The fact that it exists, IMO, sucks. My kids were raised to be “individuals” with their own traits, personalities and gifts. I see a lot of people talking about allowing boys to experience girl things and be okay with it but I don’t see a lot of talk (other then defending) bout people being okay with boys liking and doing guy things.

    I now have two small grandsons. I’ve bought three train sets and each birthday, Christmas, I’ve been buying tracks, buildings and landscape materials. Next summer, My oldest grandson and I will start the layout. Like my sons model train, it will also be 8×4. BTW, anyone interested in model training, I’ve got some great deals on ebay.

  3. Kim_F: “Girl power isn’t bad for boys.”

    Depends on which girl power you’re talking about.

    If you’re talking about “girl power” as in empowerment and letting boys see that girls are individuals that’s fine.

    But if you’re talking about “girl power” where the girls are elevated at their expense, where girls are given free reign to bad mouth, abuse, and insult boys calling it “empowerment” that’s where I draw the line.

    Too much of “Girl Power” has fallen into the latter form where boys are portrayed as incompetant, gross, dumb and easy targets to be demeaned and abused in order to elevate the girls. I have experienced it myself watching Wreck-It-Ralph. I switched it off after Ralph, having entered the first-person shooter game and nearly messes things up for a medal, the strong female leader of the group takes it upon herself to hit him and I mean REALLY hit him! MULTIPLE TIMES! HARD!

    Reverse the gender there. If the main character was a female and the military leader a male doing this, there’d be rigtheous ingdination. Since the military leader is female, it’s called “Character Development”.

    I can give you other examples but I’m out of time here. The point is, “Girl Power” is easily used as an excuse in stories and media to beat up on boys.

    I don’t give a damn what justifies it. That kind of “Girl Power” is disgusting and vile, especially for boys.

  4. I like this article, a lot. But I also think it misses the mark, totally and completely Princess culture isn’t bad for boys. Girl power isn’t bad for boys. What’s bad for boys are the exact same things that are bad for girls: It’s that we STILL live in a culture that defines masculinity as that which is normal & what’s best. Girls are allowed to like princess culture or be tom-boys because then they are either ascribing to their proper gender rolls, or they are aspiring to be more than “just a girl.” Boys aren’t allowed the same freedom because our culture devalues feminine things. As such, boys who want to do feminine things are devaluing themselves from their natural, proper state of masculine > feminine.

    • You’re wrong there.

      Girls are allowed to do boy stuff as well as girl stuff because there is no boy stuff, it’s unisex or it’s girl stuff.

      Notice t-shirts? There is women’s, and there is unisex. There is no men’s.

      Specific male stuff hardly ever exists, except in male-only domains (like NHL-level hockey, NFL-level football, etc).

      Remember this: There is the default, and there is femaleness.

      Maleness is only defined in-as-much as it’s “not-femaleness”. Toys, clothing, activities, grooming, and yes, princess stuff.

      It’s NOT because femaleness is devalued, it’s because femaleness has “all areas unlocked” while maleness has “only defauly unisex unlocked”.

      • No. I don’t think I’m wrong, and I think your arguments only throw more weight behind what I said. I think you should look at your own argument more. If femaleness isn’t devalued, then why is male the default?

        If femaleness isn’t devalued, then why is it an insult to call a man “girly” or a “pussy?” Why are the worst insults you can lobby against a boy or man those that are “emasculating?”

        • I’d also add that specific male stuff DOES exist when we’re talking about kids. (As well as for grownups, the marketing is just less clear there.)

          There are “girl toys” and there are “boy toys.” GIrls get t-shirts that talk about how pretty they are. Boys get to choose from a wide variety that talk about how smart they are to how athletic they are…

          When you see a TV or gaming system advertised, it’s not targeted for women. It’s targeted for the “man cave.” There are male things, that they sometimes also happen to be unisex is because, as you said, male is default.

          • Videogames, or consoles are not “male things”, it’s not more masculine to play or like them.

            It’s statistically more likely that boys or men do this, true, but it’s not targeted at men for most games. Games have a goal, or at least game mechanics. The protagonist is very secondary (and in FPS: you won’t even see the protagonist, how about that). In RPGs, you’ll control many protagonists at once.

            If you say gaming is male, might as well say “working outside the home” is male.

            I’ll say it again, maleness is not defined as is, it’s only defined as “not-femaleness”, hence girls and women have more options because they have ALL options (I should know, I’m a female gamer, with zero negative repercussions from it, and I’m a lifetime gamer). They have “female-only” options, and “default” options, while boys and men only have “default” ones, that don’t even cater to them.

            There is no “boy color”, only “not-pink”. Think about this.

          • You can have a dollhouse, which will be seen as a girl-only toy such that a boy would be laughed at for owning one.

            You can have an electric train, which will NOT be seen as a boy-only toy such that a girl would be laughed at for owning one.

            How is the boy better in this? Where’s his privilege? He gets less access and somehow that makes him better?

            How’s a man’s “not allowed to wear skirts” privilege going compared to my female “pants are fine all the time” privilege?

            Go on and tell me how it’s because skirts are obviously lesser, and pants superior.

            Pants were invented as sort of non-stretchy tights (I don’t think we had nylon for them) in middle ages, for horse-riding, because robes don’t do that good. The tights were male-only garments because women couldn’t show off legs, and men used it to show off theirs too (with calf pads even).

            Skirted garments of various kinds were invented for simplicity (doing the legs is way longer) and better looks (more aesthetic too), no doubt. Originally unisex, and still unisex in much of the world. It permits venting of heat.

            Skirted armors were common in most places with armors. Like the Roman empire, the ancient Greeks’ armies, and who knows else. I don’t know what purpose it served but given the army was all-male, it must have been a unisex garment at least.

            Both were historically made for men (also or only). So it can’t really be argued that pants are superior (except for horseback riding).

        • “If femaleness isn’t devalued, then why is it an insult to call a man “girly” or a “pussy?” Why are the worst insults you can lobby against a boy or man those that are “emasculating?””

          The worst insults against women are to degender her too, to say she’s too mannish, butch, etc.

          And in both cases, it’s only likely to not be taken badly when “it fits” (ie a feminine man proud of it, or a masculine woman proud of it).

          This is because straying from one’s role is seen as bad. Though you have to go way farther before you’re considered to stray as a woman. 50 years ago I’d have been considered unfeminine, 100 years ago I’d be considered butch maybe. Because I don’t do all this fancy toiletries and I like mostly practical clothing. I don’t use make-up, and usually wear no bra. That’s acceptably feminine today, but not back then.

          I’m still way too feminine for a guy. I got rather long (non-manicured) nails (the over-finger part is as long as the white part, I don’t let them longer), very long hair (3 feet long) and like to wear skirts half the time, weather permitting.

          Fun huh? I get to have it both ways. I don’t feel forced to put on a mask of feminity, yet I can do girly stuff without being beaten to a pulp. I can also play videogames and know technical computer stuff and geeky stuff without the same scorn a knitting man gets.

      • Have you been to a toy store lately? It is most certainly not aisles of unisex and girl toys.

  5. (English is not my mother tongue as a Finn, but I’m sure will understand)
    It sounds your somewhat pointed out the potential problems you saw with feminist uprising regarding your boy. But I lacked the most important thing: what you have done to rise him up forward a healthy manhood (not in cross with behaving well towards women, as you know) and to give him the healthy self-esteem? If the media is against him, it’s you who should offer the support. Any reason you’re avoiding the subject as a mother?

    As you gave it, you’re just happily producing one more Peter Pan. Why would you do that for your own son?

  6. Thank you for writing this article. Just thank you.

  7. This article is RIGHT on time.
    I was raised in a female-heavy family and all the women were tough, independent women.
    I have two girls and a boy in the middle.
    I feel like I have done a good job promoting “girl power” to my girls but my SON pointed out that in tv shows and advertising the dad or the boys are always the idiots.
    He is definitely a boyish boy. He’s all building, climbing, sharpening things that aren’t sharp—but he’s not gender biased enough to scoff at a good game of ” Barbie’s” with his sisters…
    But when looking for an idol my girls had plenty.
    They like Katniss and Princess Tiana and Sailor Moon
    …and my son…


    …there was surprisingly little positive to choose from…

    Eventually he settled into a preternatural love for Jude Law’s Dr. Watson because he “is mostly a really smart gentleman guy but he will beat someone up to protect his friend, Sherlock”
    -fair enough, kid…

    But I’m surprised that it’s actually my son’s developing self-worth and self-image that worries me and not my girls’ as much.

    • Try Dr Who, the 11 doctors are all men, and the 3 recent ones (Ecclestone, Tenant and Smith) are pretty good role models.

  8. He watches each episode multiple (MULTIPLE) times to the point that he can recite most of the dialogue. A week ago, he snuggled into me and proclaimed, “boys are not nice.” I asked him which boy and he told me ALL boys. All boys are not nice. They are mean.

    He was right. In almost every “girl triumphs” story there is a slew of “mean boys.” Or there are boys that have to be told to be kind.

    wow, how sad to read

  9. I think the problem isn’t girl power so much as exclusionary gender roles for people with a Y chromosome. True, some of the stuff that is geared towards little girls is reacting to the oppression historically faced by women and girls, and it should be more inclusive pf boys. It seems that the child in this article prefers feminine gender roles, and I think it’s tragic that he feels that those roles aren’t available to him because of his sex. If he were my kid I would just tell him, “Sure you can be a princess, you can be whatever you want,” and explain to him that while most princesses were girls, it didn’t mean that a boy couldn’t decide to be a princess too.

  10. Bay Area Guy says:

    Is girl power bad for boys?


  11. Girl power is still needed, but so is boy power. We need positive roll models for both masculine and feminine kids. Little kid’s shouldn’t have to feel like there not good enough because of there sex. For my son (6 years old) I’m very selective of the media I allow in the house and I always try to model good behavior.

  12. Softness, kindness, empathy, compassion.

    Nice traits when embodied by a woman.

    But when a man has those traits, he’s seen as a future-dead-man, because there are bad men out there, and men ought to fend for themselves (this is key – no one wants to protect men), which means standing up to bullies and tyrant and do something about it, or die trying. Compassion is thus a problem.

    Wanting more artistics or coded-feminine clothing is interpreted as a weakness and a sign of the above.


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