Encouraging princess culture—however innocently—contributes to the sexualization of girls. Men can be part of the solution to the ‘princess problem.’
This may surprise the readers of the Good Men Project Magazine, but we’re part of a problem: the princess problem.
More and more experts recognize that “princess culture” does great harm to girls. I don’t know how many GMPM readers also read Redbook, but it’s worth checking out this story: “Little Girls Gone Wild: Why Daughters Are Acting Too Sexy, Too Soon.” In it, Peggy Orenstein (the author of the new and important Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture), makes the case that a lot of the prematurely sexy behavior and dress we’ve all noticed is actually rooted in something we think is very innocent: the world of princesses.
You may balk—what’s sexy about a little girl in a pink princess costume? But sexy, as it turns out, is not the same thing as sexualized. Sexualization is not just imposing sexuality on children before they’re ready and viewing girls as sexual objects, but also valuing a girl for her appearance over her other attributes. “Princesses are just a phase,” Orenstein writes, but they mark a girl’s “first foray into the mainstream culture. … And what was the first thing that culture told her about being a girl? Not that she was competent, strong, creative, or smart, but that every little girl wants—or should want—to be the Fairest of Them All.”
This may be true, but how is it our problem as men? Many—maybe even most of you who are reading this—don’t have daughters. A lot of you aren’t dads at all. Whether you think little girls dressed up as Snow White are cute or not, what does the problem Orenstein describes have to do with you?
Well, for starters almost every man has—or will have—a little girl in his life. If not a daughter then a niece, a little cousin, your buddy’s kid, your son’s friend from playgroup. And if you care about the well-being of these girls, this issue of princess culture and sexualization matters to you. The bad news is, you may be part of the problem; the good news is, you can be part of the solution.
Thankfully, most men aren’t sexually attracted to prepubescent girls. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a very strong response when we see a 6-year-old dressed up as cute as can be. For men, complimenting older girls and women for their looks is often sexually charged and likely to get you in trouble. But as fathers, uncles, and others notice, little girls of princess age rarely have the same caution and suspicion about older men as their older sisters. Often transparent in their eagerness for attention and validation, they light up at praise. And no compliment is easier to give than “You’re so pretty.”
Five-year-olds in princess costumes are cute. But the problem is that the compliments we give as fathers, uncles, and coaches have an impact on the self-esteem of little girls. As they grow up, they realize quickly (certainly by age 8 or 9) that Cinderella costumes won’t cut it anymore. If they want to sustain the same level of attention that they had when they were adorable first-graders, they’re going to need to employ a different strategy: sexiness. And that sexiness gets our attention all over again.
Wait a minute, you’re thinking. I don’t leer at 10-year-olds in miniskirts. I don’t tell my niece that she’s hot. I wish girls would wait longer to be sexy! How am I part of this problem?
As Orenstein and others point out, little girls take their cues about what is desirable by looking at how boys and men respond to older girls and women. The father who lavishes adoration on “Daddy’s little princess” but ogles high-school cheerleaders is sending his daughter a clear message. The message is that the princess phase won’t last much longer, and if you want to grasp and hold adult male attention, you need to be sexy.
This sexiness has very little to do with sex, and everything to do with the craving for validation and attention. While all children want affirmation, princess culture teaches little girls to get that approval through their looks. Little girls learn quickly what “works” to elicit adoration from mom and dad, as well as from teachers, uncles, aunts, and other adults. Soon—much too soon—they notice that older girls and women get validation for a particular kind of dress, a particular kind of behavior. They watch their fathers’ eyes, they follow their uncles’ gaze. They listen to what these men they love say when they see “hot” young women on television or on the street. And they learn how to be from what they hear and see.
This doesn’t mean that good dads shouldn’t let their daughters dress up as princesses. It doesn’t mean that good dads, good big brothers, and good uncles should never, ever tell a little girl that she looks “cute” or “beautiful.” It does mean that those good grown men need to make sure that they’re also giving her plenty of compliments that focus on her other qualities, like her intelligence, her kindness, or her athleticism. But something else matters just as much: how we look at and talk about other girls and women.
Too many men do everything they can to protect adored daughters, nieces, and little sisters—while making little attempt to disguise their longing for other young women who aren’t all that much older than the child they cherish. Girls who are raised to see compliments as currency quickly learn that if they want to keep their praise flowing in, they’ll need to do more to “earn” it. And too often, they learn exactly how to earn it from by listening to the words and following the eyes of the men they love and trust most.
More From Our Special Marriage Section:
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As Gabi Coatsworth’s son’s bipolar disorder gave way to full-blown manic episodes, she watched her husband slip deeper into drink and detachment: Reading Between the Silences
For all the stories written by and for women on this issue—and there are few—men are more likely to be absent from the public dialogue about intentional childlessness. Why aren’t men’s stories also being heard? Two Is Enough
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If you’re married and using Internet porn regularly, your sex life—the one with your wife—is probably a lot less satisfying than it could be: How Porn Can Ruin Your Sex Life—and Your Marriage
Men are more promiscuous than women, but that doesn’t mean we should buy the cultural fallacy that men are programmed to cheat; the vast majority of men are happily, naturally monogamous: Are Men Natural-Born Cheaters?
Tom Matlack talks to married men to find out when they knew their wife was “the one”: She’s the One
Monogamy sounds like “monotony,” but it doesn’t have to be monotonous. Hugo Schwyzer explores how we can have the security—and the novelty—we desire in our relationships: Red-Hot Monogamy
—Photo by Siti Saad/Flickr