What would girls play with if there were no princesses? // Alyssa Benedict

Imagine a world where the story of Cinderella doesn’t  exist; a world where there are no toy store aisles adorned with pink and filled with princess dress up clothes and the latest Disney princess paraphernalia. Imagine a birthday party without tiaras and endless comments about “how pretty she looks.” If we didn’t have these things, what would our girls choose to play with? More importantly, what would we choose to bring into our homes?  What images and objects would we offer to the girls in our lives?

Girls’ apparent obsession with princesses is largely a reflection of the choices that the adults around them are making. In American culture, parents and other adults are facing a “princess problem.” The “princess problem” is the process by which girls are continually exposed to antiquated princess or princess-like images, objects and messages that overemphasize physical beauty and the importance of having a man and fail to offer a broader sense of what girls and women can be. These images, objects and messages are transmitted through movies, books, toys and the media and perpetuate traditional images of girlhood. Their newer, more “modern” counterparts often represent old messages in disguise or miss opportunities to celebrate new, exciting, diverse and expansive images of girls and women.

Continuing to expose girls to princess images and paraphernalia introduces the proverbial glass ceiling into their lives at an extremely impressionable time in their development. Carrying assumptions that these images are harmless and part of being a girl, many don’t realize that they actually interrupt girls’ creative process and efforts to construct a healthy, inclusive sense of self. This interruption happens insidiously, and is often unseen. For example, every time we offer girls princess objects and activities and hand our boys something different (e.g., action figures) we are sending a silent message that these are the things they ought to like. 

The reality is, girls get the message that princesses are important - something to be liked - from the minute they are born. We adorn them in pink and flood them with princess books and movies. These messages come continually throughout their early development and from multiple sources such as parents, family, peers, and the media. I marvel at the powerlessness with which parents and others speak about their daughter’s “choices.”  I hear them say, “She’s a girly girl” or “My daughter has always liked the girly stuff. She just gravitates to it.” Girls are not born liking princess images and paraphernalia. Their environment shapes their options.  Research in psychology - including social psychology and cultural psychology - has shown very clearly that the environment exerts a tremendous influence on human behavior. If our girls grew up in a culture where princesses did not exist, they would find something else to do. Perhaps even better, they would create images and objects all on their own and free from the confines of their socialization.

We create our children’s environment and, whether we realize it or not, we are socializing them to like and dislike various things every single day. We send subtle messages through our purchases, our expressions, and the words we use.  The research is out (and has been for a long time) - we tend to do different, often stereotypical, things with our daughters and sons based on our own conditioning. The good news is, we have to the power to reflect on our choices and chart a new, more intentional course. I see parents doing this with their food choices all the time as they abandon old ways of eating and intentionally take the time to adopt a healthy diet for themselves and their families based on new information and understandings. Parents also update their technology regularly to keep pace with the demands of a complex world. We have a right - if not a responsibility - to update centuries-old images and definitions of girlhood.

It’s time to put the stereotypes aside and open up a larger world for and with our girls. It’s time to abandon assumptions that our daughters’ affection for princess images, objects and activities is instinctual or inevitable. It’s also time to abandon the assumption that princess toys and playthings allows girls to be creative and expressive. There are literally hundreds of other options for girls to express their creativity without resorting to outmoded princess paraphernalia. When we give girls and boys creative materials (e.g., play silks, cardboard boxes) they become creators.

In a world where girls and women continue to struggle for justice and equality, it is our job to create environments where our girls can realize their potential and learn skills that will help them to share their diverse gifts and talents with their families and communities. The stakes are high. A report of the American Psychological Association (2010) notes, “There is no question that girls…grow up in a cultural milieu saturated with sexualizing messages.” These and other research reports have found that the proliferation of sexualized and limiting images of girls and women in advertising, merchandizing, and media is harmful to girls’ self-image and healthy development (2010).  We have the power to expose girls to new ideas about what makes them valuable and who they can be. Our daughters are our future - they’re going to be navigating a deeply complex world. They need new, diverse images that will inspire them to create their own paths …images that will inspire leadership, creativity, advocacy, invention and a sense of deep value.

Everything we do today provides a lesson for tomorrow. Anthropologists have described how important play is for children - how the activities children engage in as part of play prepare them for adulthood. What are we preparing our girls for? We have the right to choose new images and objects that do a better job of supporting girls’ healthy development. We can chart our own course as adults versus letting the norms of a highly confusing culture dictate our choices. 

And so I revisit my original question: What would girls play with if there were no princesses? Take the time to find out.  Create princess-free zones for and with girls and let them astound you. Relish in their ingenuity as they create their own toys and activities, free from confining images that limit their options and ideas. Don’t fall prey to the princess-industrial-complex, a huge profit-seeking machine that is making billions at the expense of our daughters. Think deeply about the choices you are making and why, and dare to chart a new path. You just might inspire a girl to do the same.

Pictures from:

APA Report citation:
American Psychological Association,Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2010).
Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Retrieved from

Written by Alyssa Benedict

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