Barbie and Disney Princesses Every Which Way: Balancing Family Values with Individual Choices

By Elaine Barrington

It used to be so much easier…


Sometimes I miss the days when my values and my daughter’s were one and the same. For the first few years of Isabelle’s life I believed I could, and actually did, shield her from Barbie’s plastic smile and Cinderella’s batting eye lashes.

Any signs of the Disney princess posse magically disappeared with a mom’s deft sleight of hand. I was on a mission to deflect and distract, determined to make sure my daughter did not fall prey to these sirens. I had the “Barbie and princess drawer,” a final resting place away from Isabelle’s watchful eye and curious nature where all gifts and goody bags bearing their likeness remained until they could be re-gifted or otherwise disposed of.

Then Isabelle turned three years old, and like Snow White’s poison apple, she tasted the forbidden fruit and has entered a deep slumber from which someday, fingers crossed, she will awake. It started with a birthday trip to the toy store with my mother-in-law. To my surprise, she came home with a Barbie. Naively, it had never occurred to me that something like this could happen. My mother-in-law has her own agenda, we all do. Hers includes a traditional notion of how girls should be raised — playing with Barbie and princesses of course! It has been a slippery slope ever since.

Let me clarify why this is a problem for me. It’s about two issues really:

  • One is the over-commercialization of our society where everything is branded and marketed. I don’t like the idea of corporate America infiltrating my daughter’s beautifully original brain and pruning down her neural pathways based on their bottom line.
  • The other is my desire for my daughter’s female role models to have more role and less model to them. My values are clearly biased toward the infinite possibilities of what Isabelle could become. Her strong, athletic body and bright, creative mind surely have more to offer the world than what Barbie and Disney represent. And when Isabelle looks in the mirror, her reflection does not match most Barbies and Disney princesses.

I could devote many paragraphs to the debate about why I believe Barbie and Disney princesses are harmful to our young girls, but rather than an academic discussion, I am most concerned with what this actually means for me and Isabelle.

Confounding matters is how I’ve raised Isabelle, who is four years old now, to think independently and figure out her tendencies based on her own ideas. She is consistently offered a lot of choices, and I encourage her to think through decisions and not go with the obvious or what others are telling her. Of course, she isn’t raised in a vacuum. Her head is filled with our family’s ideals and values, and our community and society as a whole play their important part as well. Still, Isabelle has become exactly who I wanted her to be. She is a clever and thoughtful child who, in most situations, is able to clearly identify her likes and dislikes and assert her preferences to those around her.

The Barbie and Disney princess struggle is almost a daily occurrence now. When it was time for a new toothbrush, Isabelle said she wanted one with sparkles. So we went to the store and couldn’t find any kid-sized sparkle toothbrushes. Her eye was immediately drawn to the electric Cinderella toothbrush. “That’s the one I want!” she declared confidently. I declined, reminding her she already had an electric toothbrush that she rarely used. “Plus,” I added, “you don’t need to have a princess toothbrush.” So we agreed on a set of brightly colored toothbrushes and moved on.  Score one for Mom!

The next week, a dentist came to Isabelle’s preschool and gave a talk on oral hygiene. Each child got a take-away bag filled with floss, a mask, gloves, and a toothbrush. All the boys got a blue toothbrush with a Cars character. And I’m sure you can guess what all the girls got — a pink toothbrush with Ariel. Score one for Disney!

The following week, Isabelle had her routine dental check-up. Her dentist is a friend and knows to avoid the Disney characters with our family, so after the cleaning she showed Isabelle an array of colorful toothbrushes to choose from. Alas, Isabelle’s princess sixth sense kicked in.  She picked one of those colorful toothbrushes then turned and pointed to a cabinet behind her head and said, “But I want one of those.” How she knew there were Disney princess toothbrushes in there is beyond me. We came home with Belle.

For those of you keeping score in the toothbrush arena, Disney trumped Mom two to one in a matter of weeks. So, what’s the moral of this fable? I suppose one lesson is that I am not a super mom who can and will take on the Disney giant and win, but I already knew that about myself.

I choose to believe the real lesson is the one I re-learn every day: The art of Attachment Parenting is a delicate dance where sharing your values and letting your child be free to be who they are sometimes trample on each other’s toes.

I’m not going to control what the random dentist at school passes out to my child, but I can say no when we’re at the store. And when my daughter sits through a cleaning at the dentist holding her little self together and doing what’s asked of her, I have no intention of quashing her request for a Disney princess toothbrush and the joy that it brings her in that moment, because in that moment, her joy is mine as well.

16 thoughts on “Barbie and Disney Princesses Every Which Way: Balancing Family Values with Individual Choices”

  1. I really appreciate this article. I struggle with this same thing with my three year old daughter and the fight against “commercializing” her. A lot of my friends and family don’t understand why I wouldn’t want her to have Barbies, etc and joke that I’m crazy! It is frustrating how it seems that everywhere you turn in our society something is being tossed in her face whether it’s a random advertisement in the grocery store or a gift from someone. So, I do appreciate hearing that other parents are frustrated with this too!

  2. Thank you for sharing your struggles with the Disney enterprise. I, too, was not a fan of Disney princesses but they found their way into my daughter’s life at age three. She’s now six and has, for the most part, grown tired of them. Sure, she still has the Princess toothbrush but the dolls she had – she chose to donate them to charity this year.

  3. It’s interesting how different moms handle the princess/barbie situation. My little one glommed on to the princess thing sooner, just shy of her 2nd birthday since her beloved Grandpa broke out the ol’ VHS Disney tapes that I grew up with and adored. As an adult, I completely agree that the values represented in Disney and elsewhere are most often not the right ones for our children. But I’ll have to disagree that covering their eyes from it is what is most important in this “battle.” I doubt that it rips away their ability to think independently as well. I think that as long as we constantly share with our children the correct values and teach by modeling (trust me, us mommies are far stronger role models than those barbies), I honestly don’t view it as harmful to allow our little girls to love the princesses, etc. I think a huge part of what they’re seeing are the sparkles and colors at this age.
    It definitely makes sense to avoid caving in to their every whim at the store, but that goes for *anything,* not just princesses.
    As they grow, we can teach them about the flaws of the princess world. They’ll get it.

  4. Thank you so much for this. I’m just now reading it because I wasn’t getting my e-mails and am now perusing the archives. My biggest issue is when people in society tell my daughter (who is now three) that she shouldn’t like things like dinosaurs, cars, and construction equipment and that INSTEAD she should like Barbies and princesses. That irritates me, because it confuses my daughter and makes her wonder if she is “wrong” for liking “boy things”. Urg. At any rate, it helps to know I’m not alone in this struggle.

  5. This was a great article. My daughter isn’t even 2 yet and we fight this constantly with my in-laws. They started buying her Disney apparel and paraphernalia before she was even born. Every gift giving holiday they produce yet another Disney DVD (even though our daughter does not even watch tv yet alone movies) I dread when my daughter discovers these things for herself. It is frustrating that the commercialization has become so extreme that we can’t let our kids do their own thing. My daughter re-named her Ernie doll Elmo and I thought great she has named the doll herself I have no problem with that she doesn’t need to know the “right” names for these dolls. My MIL has been helping out while I’ve been down with pneumonia and has made it her mission to teach my daughter the appropriate names for all of the commercialized dolls and stories in the house. I want to scream.

  6. I have to take issue with your article. While I agree that Disney Princesses and the media’s portrayal of the “ideal woman” is skewed, to say the least, I can’t get on board with the kind of us-vs-them tactics you discuss in your article. I too tried to shield my daughter from too Disney, Barbies, and all manner of women-as-objects imagery, but it was a losing battle, and one that, short of cloistering her in an ashram somewhere, was bound to fail. You say that “…I’ve raised Isabelle, who is four years old now, to think independently and figure out her tendencies based on her own ideas. [She] is able to clearly identify her likes and dislikes and assert her preferences to those around her,” yet in the same breath, you say that you refuse to let her have the toothbrush she wanted (with the princess on it), reinforcing *your* preferences, not her independent tendencies or preferences, proudly declaring “Isabelle has become exactly who I wanted her to be.” Well which is it? Is she really “exactly who you want her to be” or does she have the freedom to choose her preferences?

    Don’t get me wrong, I empathize with the situation; and I don’t think that allowing your child to express her preferences means you should buy into the corporate hype and fill your home with princess dolls. But in cases where she is given a choice of a free toothbrush and she asks for one of the princess variety, wouldn’t there have been a teachable moment in allowing her to take the toothbrush, then start a *gasp* discussion about the things that give you pause? There are age-appropriate ways to do this which don’t require complex philosophical rants OR the iron-clad denial of items which will become even more ubiquitous–and tempting, when forbidden–as she gets older and sees all the children around her with those items. Rather than deny their existence, why not plant the seeds of critical thinking? Why not pick your battles, and let your child TRULY express her preferences in relatively innocuous situations (like choosing a free toothbrush) as means of opening the door to a broader discussion that might just be more valuable than outright denial?

    I appreciate your concern, but I think you missed the mark on this one.

  7. OK, pardon my last post. I don’t know how I missed the last part where you said “we came home with Belle.” I do still believe that outright denial vs. teachable moments is at the core of this kind of discussion (and wished I had seen more of it in this article), but my point certainly lost its steam by my oversight.

  8. We have had the same struggle but I think we have reached a good place with it. The first thing I did was to mention that we don’t buy that stuff with characters on it because those are for people who don’t really know what they like, so they rely on some company to tell them what to like. That really resonated for my very independent and opinionated daughters who don’t want ANYONE to tell them what they like 🙂

    Of course, though, the characters have found their way in and the girls like to play with barbies and dress up like princesses. But they also like to dress up as Laura and Mary Ingalls and play soccer and build with blocks and dig in the mud.

    Biggest thing, I think, is that they have never watched the movies or TV shows with those characters, so they are really just toys like any other toys that have no more or less power over them. Their princess games never involve being rescued by a handsome prince or getting married; usually it is just about the fun of dressing up and then bossing people around (they actually have been fighting over who gets to be the servant!).

  9. I spent many years feeling guilty over my daughters’ enjoyment of Disney movies. They annoyed me on so many levels; historical inaccuracy, over-dramatization, sterotyping, and lack of loving parental presence! 🙂 Now that my lovely daughters are 17 and 19, they are re-playing all their childhood favorites with their friends every summer. My 17 year old even planned out an amzing fully costumed Mad Hatter Tea Party for her birthday this year. The girls and their group of friends each identify with a Disney princess and on birthdays they give silly little trinkets with each ones princess on it.
    Commercialized ? Yes.
    Supporting Disney with our $$$? Yes.
    Well-loved, balanced, sweet girls? Yes.
    With attachment, it is possible.

  10. I naturally do not gravitate towards lots of jewelry, make-up, & nail polish, etc.
    Plus I agree with the author’s view on Barbie & Disney.
    However, God gave me a beautiful daughter that is “estrogen-full”!

    I have learned to “not sweat the small stuff” & let her enjoy. Disney toothbrushes would certainly qualify under “small stuff”. She enjoys sharing Barbie & Disney with friends.
    I do give her the gift of an occasional comment pointing out how “real girls & women” are not shaped like Barbie, and encourage learning, realistic views but also enjoy creativity & art like Disney. Communication is key. I wouldn’t want her to grow up resenting me for not letting her enjoy these toys with her friends.

    Another lesson for me came from my oldest son: I raised him with no toy guns. He is now a police officer. Go figure.
    So you may make your child want it more!

    Reminder: “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”
    Save it for something important & Big/meaningful!


  11. I am with you on balance. If my daughter insists on the free Disney character toothbrush from the dentist or what have you, then I do not object. I do take exception, however, to my mother in law doing the same thing yours apparently does, which is to insert her own ideas (which she knows darn well I object to) in such a way that I cannot reasonably do a thing about it. I’m sorry, but it is NOT OK for grandparents to use a gift giving opportunity to promote their own agenda (as you put it in your post). No. Not OK. (Are you sensing this is a major battleground for me? 🙂 )

    Thanks for sharing your ideas and experiences!

  12. I really appreciate what your goal is here. However, try not to get caught up in a Pygmalion project of trying to make your daughter what YOU want her to be either. It would appear that your daughter is following her natural urges and preferences that are innate to her temperament. To encourage the strengths of her temperament is really what you are after. When she follows her temperament she will become what she has been designed to be. It’s already built in. Her preferences will lead you to what those strengths are. For instance: She may love the “glitter” because she may be of a temperament that is very spontaneous and exciting, or she may love it because she appreciates the color and sparkle of the objects as an art form. You will need to find out which temperament she is to know what the strengths of the temperament are. (An excellent source is the book “I May Frustrate You, But I’m a Keeper!” It has the tools and information you will need.) The suggestion to plant the seeds of critical thinking is excellent. Learn with her “why” she prefers certain things; and then build on the the choice if it is a strength and discuss the options and reasoning behind the choice if she is “following the crowd/culture” only. She’s going to continue to have the same preferences no matter what you do because that is how she is made. When you “mechanically” deny them, you will cause a disconnect. However, if you encourage the strength of the preference and encourage the same preference in a healthy direction you will really score in attachment (because she will know that you understand her, rather than oppose her natural choices) and in helping her to develop a life of fulfillment. You, in turn, will be a happier parent because you will appreciate her natural choices even more when you understand the strengths they possess.

  13. I was raised by a mother who bought me trucks instead of barbies and didn’t want me to see Cinderella and Snow White. I understand why one would want to reject Cinderella and Snow White. I myself do not want my own daughter to be taught stereotypical gender roles by a commercial powerhouse like Disney or Mattel.

    My mother in spite of her feminism, trying to focus on raising me to reject the these characters, allowed my father to abuse us and told me my father did these things because he loved me. Additionally, she often told me that there was no such thing as true love that there were many people who could make you happy. The result was my not believing that any man could possibly have value to me as a life long mate.

    As an adult, after having met my husband who is truly the perfect man for me and irreplaceable, I can see how stories like Cinderella and Snow White became popular. My husband did sweep in and figuratively save me from a lifetime of abuse. Not on a white horse but through loving me and treating me the way every human being deserves he showed me what love looks like and learning that has allowed me to pass it on to my daughter. I would like my daughter to believe that there is the possibility that there is a wonderful person out there who will make her unbelievably happy and safe. The difference is I’d like her to see the real life example of my husband and myself rather than a fictional cartoon princess.

  14. I loved this! I, too, dislike the Disneyfication of our childrens’ worlds. Not that I have a problem with princesses per se (although I could if I thought about it too hard!), I just don’t like the subtexts and uniformity.
    For a spunkier, Disney-free princess book, try “Don’t kiss the frog!” ed. Fiona Waters – great stories about princesses with spunk who still have functional relationships (as compared to “Princess Smartypants” by Babette Cole).
    A little bit dated but still good is “Growing a girl” by Barbara Mackoff. If anyone has any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

  15. I have a 4 year old and I think we’re on the back side of the Princesses. Granted, we didn’t have much Princess-themed “stuff” in our house, but they were always around (mainly as imaginary friends). She has only ever watched Cinderella, but she will pretend to be all of them- meaning if she is wearing yellow, her name is Belle and she goes about her imaginary play. Sometimes the Princesses hang out in Ponyville with the My Little Ponies. But she never plays following the strict storyline of the movies or any of the books we’ve read, it’s all out of her imagination.

    That being said… those blasted Princesses have actually done something helpful. My amazing 4 year old is the best flosser EVER due to the Princess Flossers she got at the dentist office. The plain “boring” ones that DH and I have? not as much fun apparently. But, it’s getting her to floss- and she LIKES to floss.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *