This week we finally had our daughter’s 4th Birthday party. It was two and a half weeks after her actual 4th birthday because we couldn’t book our hall of choice earlier. But this had been on our minds for a while. For months, our daughter has been very specific that she wanted Hulk and Yoda cakes (she loves green). My wife, the baker of the family, did a great job with that.
The party was the same venue and format as her 3rd birthday party (free play, food, play, songs, play, cake, play…), only this time she wanted it to be fancy dress. For her own costume, she had also spent the past few months insisting she was going to dress up as a fairy, but a few days before the party she changed her mind. She wanted to go as Princess Leia.
She dressed up in the costume she got for Christmas from my parents, and as she often does with her Leia LEGO figures, a lightsaber (also from my parents – who probably can’t believe they’re still buying Star Wars toys) was an essential accessory. Green of course.
What was interesting to me were the costume choices of the other children. The only boy who came wore a pirate outfit, and none of the girls did. But there were a great range of outfits that the girls did wear – there was Tinkerbell, Gruffalo, Cinderella, a Knight, Supergirl, a fairy, Snow White, and our very own Princess Leia.
Every year, I fear that the dreaded ‘Age of the Princess Party’ will fall upon us. People speak of the ‘Princess Stage’ as if it were an actual stage of a girl’s development, as if an obsession with all the trappings of Princess culture is as inevitable as puberty.
A sub-party theme of recent years has been Frozen – which technically can’t be classed as a Princess theme because Elsa is a queen. While that film has a lot of positive things going for it, it is immensely ironic that Elsa’s plea for individuality and freedom of choice (‘Let it Go’), has inspired millions of little girls (or their parents) to dress in the same outfit.
Our daughter has a few Frozen fans among her friends, so I was surprised there were no Elsas at our party. There were also no double ups on princesses either. It was nice to see such a diversity of choices.
Speaking of diversity, of the 3 princess dress ups, while all were white characters, the girls dressing up as them were not. Of the little girls who are white, two opted either for a male character (Gruffalo) or a traditionally male dress up (knight). Another one wore a Superman outfit – but was adamant she was Supergirl. Fair enough.
What does this mean? I don’t know. I certainly wish my daughter knew more boys, but that’s probably more to do with the parents I’ve befriended than anything. But I am really happy my daughter is surrounded by such a diverse group of friends. Not only whose parents are from a variety of cultural, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds, but girls who also have such a diversity of interests – and yet they all have a great time together.
Superheroes are for boys. That’s a fact. What’s also true, but less accepted, is that superheroes are for girls too. So it’s great that DC and Warner are acknowledging this with their new project ‘DC Super Hero Girls’.
As the geek dad of a little girl, trying desperately to introduce her to alternatives to Disney Princesses and the like, I know how difficult it is to find appropriate content and merchandise featuring female superheroes, so when I first read about this I was excited. It features teenage versions (hence justifying the ‘girls’ tag) of Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Batgirl (who were in my Top Five Awesome Alternatives to Disney Princesses). The likes of Harley Quinn, Bumble Bee, Poison Ivy, and Katana will also be involved. The target audience is girls age 6-12.
Finally, we have a big media corporation acknowledging what we keep banging on about – that there is an untapped market of girls who love superheroes. Glancing at the artwork, I thought how refreshing to see a group of female characters for girls in dynamic action poses, rather than the passive imagery that usually adorns apparel and accessories in the ‘pink’ aisle.
But taking a closer look at the artwork, I started to have some doubts. I realised that they all look like generic Disney Princess clones, which potentially alludes to the marketing intentions of those involved – going after Disney’s share of the girls merchandise market. If they do this by offering superhero culture as a real alternative to princess culture, that would be great. But if they take these superheroes too far in the direction of Disney’s heroines, it will be little more than a cynical market grab than trying to create a different offering. There are also issues of body image – while superheroes have always been visually hyper-realistic there’s a big difference between males having big abs and girls having waists smaller than their heads.
Then there’s the idea that this is being “designed just for girls”. It’s important to Include boys in anything involving female superheroes, so they understand from an early age that this genre is for girls too. I still read of boys telling girls that they can’t be into superheroes/Star Wars, only boys can. Subdividing the genre to create a girls only space clearly doesn’t promote inclusion.
The involvement of Barbie manufacturer Mattel is another worrying sign. While it’s worth noting they’ve said they’re making “action figures”, not dolls, this is the company that has presented a narrow view of femininity with Barbie for decades. If you want to see the kind of female superhero THEY think little girls want to play with, look no further than their recent Barbie superhero Super Sparkle, a pink and glittery princess who gets super powers from being kissed by a magical butterfly.
You can bet Mattel have noticed that Wonder Woman, as well as being a superhero, is also a princess.
There’s also the mention of LEGO, and “their experience and success engaging girls”. This can only be alluding to their LEGO Friends brand, the popular but divisive line of LEGO for girls, a pink and pastel gender ghetto that exists away from the rest of LEGO’s creative construction toys. A dedicated girls LEGO implicitly defines the rest of to as for boys. I worry the same thing could happen here. And that they’ll make a superhero spa playset.
And finally, they’re not even superheroes! They’re called ‘Super Hero Girls’ not ‘Superhero Girls’. The cynic in me suspects the thinking is that superheroes are for boys, but these ‘super heroes’ are for girls.
Am I being overly pessimistic? Probably. I would love this to be awesome. In a time when female superhero characters such as Black Widow, Gamora, and Big Hero 6’s Go-Go and Honey Lemon are routinely removed from merchandise, a new female superhero range is great. There’s no way they can ignore the female characters when they’re ALL female! So we should get a viable alternative to the pink & pastel shimmer & sparkle female characters of the moment. I hope that the cartoons, books, and comics provides wonderful character led tales of action, adventure, and inspiration with a diverse range of female superheroes (and villains). The lead writer of the project is a woman, Shea Fontana, so we’re not simply getting a male idea of what they think little girls like.
But ultimately, the reason I want my daughter to be exposed to female superheroes is to offer her an alternative to the current mass market merchandise targeted to girls. If DC Super Hero Girls is simply a cynical way to combine aspects of Disney Princesses and Barbie in order to get a piece of the existing ‘girl’ market, then it’s no real alternative at all.
I’d love to know what you think about this ‘DC Super Hero Girls’ line.
When I became a father of a daughter, I quickly became aware I needed to seek out alternatives to Disney Princesses. If you’re raising a girl, there’s no escaping the reign of them over their generation. Frozen’s Anna and Elsa have only strengthened the power that the princess industrial complex wields over their developing cultural lives.
If you’re tired of all the trappings of princess culture cluttering up your little girl’s childhood, or just wish to expose them to alternative female led films, TV, books, and toys – here are my top five Disney Princess alternatives to inspire and empower your little girls.
1. Studio Ghibli
My search for alternatives to Disney Princesses struck a rich seam in Japan. The animated films of Studio Ghibli, and Hayo Miyazaki in particular, should be a part of everyone’s cinematic childhood.
My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Whisper of the Heart are particular favourites of ours and they boast a wonderful range of female characters, any one of whom is a great Disney Princess alternative. Scarcely a day goes by without my daughter requesting to see at least one of them.
Totoro centres on the gentle adventures of two young sisters in fifties Japan and their encounters with kind hearted forest spirits; Kiki is an entrepreneurial 13-year-old witch who leaves home and earns a living by starting the small courier business of the title; Whisper of the Heart also features a teenage girl, who is an aspiring writer seeking inspiration.
I have seen them all more times than I could possibly count, and I still find them moving, inspiring, and utterly delightful. There is plenty official and unofficial merchandise around. We picked up some Totoro soft toys when we passed through Japan a few years back, and bought the 3yo a much loved Kiki dress up for Christmas.
For other movies, also check out Miyazaki’s pre-Studio Ghibli Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind for a wonderful female led eco-adventure, Ponyo for younger kids, and Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke for older ones who can take more intense scenarios. But perhaps save Grave of the Fireflies for another time – it’s possibly one of the saddest films ever made.
2. Wonder Woman
One of the few female superheroes that non-comic fans know about, Wonder Woman remains a pop cultural feminist icon and an awesome Disney Princess alternative.
Conceived in the forties by American psychologist William Moulton Marston, he wanted to “create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman”. Hmm.
Anyway, Wonder Woman is a warrior, and – yes – a PRINCESS, but she refuses to let being a princess define her, and it’s something she successfully rebelled against in her very first appearance.
The character’s continued fame goes back to the fondly remembered seventies TV show starring Lynda Carter. The show tied into the popular feminism of the decade, typified by the likes of Gloria Steinham – who had previously launched Ms. Magazine in 1972, with none other than Wonder Woman on the cover.
‘Retro’ Wonder Woman imagery continues to adorn all manner of merchandise today, and this iconic cartoon look is as visually appealing as any Disney Princess.
There is a LOT of merchandise out there if you hunt for it, but be warned – it’s far easier to get hold of a Wonder Woman t-shirt for a woman than a little girl. In addition to Wonder Woman, also be on the lookout for Batgirl and Supergirl gear. DC licensees are much better than Marvel in creating merchandise with their female heroes.
It’s time to “Woman Up” Marvel.
3. The Wizard of Oz
While Frank L. Baum’s original book has been eclipsed by the colourful 1939 movie, both feature the engaging Dorothy Gale and her adventures in Oz with her three male sidekicks.
While the film is wonderful, Dorothy is certainly more proactive and determined in the book, for instance not relying on her male friends to rescue her from the Wicked Witch but rescuing them instead.
However she is an appealing character in both, with an iconic eye catching look that makes a nice change from glittery pastel dresses – and because the book has been out of copyright for a long time there are lots of affordable merchandise out there, ranging from dress up outfits to apps.
Perhaps start with one of the books adapted for first readers, or of course there’s the wonderful film – the technicolour reveal of merry old land of Oz still remains one of the great moments of Hollywood magic, that will leave your little one on awe.
Film & Video:
4. Katie Morag
Set on the fictional Isle of Struay, off the west coast of Scotland, this series of books (and now a TV series) feature the independently minded little girl Katie Morag.
Wonderfully written and beautifully illustrated by Mairi Hedderwick, the stories see our young red-headed hero in her trademark white jumper, green tartan skirt, and wellies, on her everyday adventures involving her family and fellow islanders.
The spirited Katie is a great role model for little girls – our 3yo daughter has been inspired by this Scottish girl to be more independent herself. The books offer lots of other great female role models too, from her mother who runs the Post Office while also breastfeeding her new baby, to ‘Grannie Island’, Katie’s no-nonsense dungaree wearing, tractor driving grandmother.
I really enjoy both reading these to my daughter and watching the TV show with her.
5. Star Wars
The galaxy far, far away is just as much a place for girls as boys – it just hasn’t been marketed that way since a long time ago. But the female characters offer great alternatives to Disney Princesses.
Top of the list of great female characters (showing my aged bias) is Leia, who is a great Disney Princess alternative. A royal in name only, she is a rebel fighter, political leader, and social activist. She is a central character in the Star Wars universe and there is a ton of merchandise out there – HOWEVER, there currently isn’t much new stuff at all.
Despite Disney buying Star Wars, and churning out all kinds of new Star Wars goodies, don’t go to a Disney Store expecting to find anything much with Leia on it. If that bothers you, please read more here, and complain to them here about that.
For other more recent characters, check out Padme/Amidala from the prequels and TheClone Wars cartoon, Ahsoka Tano also from the Clone Wars, or Sabine & Hera from the new Star Wars Rebels animated TV series.
These are great empowered women for any child to look up to, and a terrific way into Star Wars and the wider area of sci-fi for little girls. Things are looking very promising in terms of female characters from The Force Awakens, but let’s just see how things go with that.
Geek culture is synonymous with the STEM worlds of our children’s future, so if we don’t want to lose vast swathes of the next generation of world builders – because they’re girls who think this is boys stuff – then get them some Star Wars toys. You may even have some in your parents attic. 🙂
Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels:
What do you think about this list of alternatives to Disney Princesses?
What about the princesses themselves? Are they harmful or harmless? I’d love to read about any additions you have to this (short!) list, or why you think Disney Princesses are fine. Please comment below, join the conversation on the Facebook page, or on Twitter @manvspink.
Needing to kill an hour or so, I took a stroll around the Westfield London shopping centre this week. I naturally gravitated towards the toy shops, and I decided to amuse myself by indulging in a spot of gendered toys mystery shopping.
The first shop I went into was The Entertainer. They are a large independent toy retailer, and I have a particular soft spot for them as they began with one shop in my home town neighbour of Amersham, Bucks. But sentimentality aside, I had no idea what they were like as a toy shop these days.
I was pleasantly surprised and really impressed with the way they categorise their toys – eg. ‘Action & Adventure’, ‘Arts & Creative’, ‘Cars, trains, and planes’ etc – not by gender. This seemed like such progressive (and logical) way to sort toys, that doesn’t exclude on the basis of gender – at least in how product is grouped. Bravo Entertainer!
What I didn’t realise (until I tweeted about it) was that this came about because of a campaign by Let Toys Be Toys (we were living outside of UK when this happened). So bravo to them too. 🙂
I didn’t buy anything, but I will definitely be back to shop here, another branch, or online.
I was expecting the worst with the next shop I visited. I have written about the divisive way LEGO creates and markets its product before. The beloved Universal toy of my youth is no more. I have resigned myself to not buying any new LEGO, that in all likelihood my daughter will be playing with our ample hand-me-down supply throughout her childhood. So I went to the LEGO shop all prepared for their gendered marketing tricks.
But then I spotted this.
The female scientists minifigure set, that I had in my own little way campaigned so furiously for, that had finally been released only to be sold out everywhere… It was back! I stopped looking around the store, grabbed the set, and headed straight for the counter.
As I paid, I asked the staff about it. They told me they had only been delivered a small number of sets in the original release, and everyone in the company was surprised how popular it had been. The staff were keen to point out that they now have a much healthier stock of it. So if you’re thinking of buying some LEGO for your child (or you!), then I would strongly suggest that you get this one. I’m intending on saving it until Christmas day. Hopefully I can resist the urge to put it together it until then.
That’s all I can say about the LEGO shop. They could have had an entire wall of pink Friends sets, with a sparkling sign proclaiming ‘LEGO FOR GIRLS’, and I wouldn’t have noticed. That’s how chuffed I was to finally have this awesome set in my hands.
So it had been a really positive experience so far. My final stop was The Disney Store, which I entered with trepidation. I love Star Wars & Marvel (both acquired by Disney) as much as I do not love princess culture (pretty much created by Disney).
Given that Disney & gendered marketing to kids go together like the Empire & the Death Star, I tend to browse Disney’s virtual and actual aisles with frustration. This occasion was no exception.
Starting with Marvel, there was nothing in the store featuring a female character. No Black Widow in the Avengers line, no Gamora or Nebula in the Guardians of the Galaxy stuff, no additional female superheroes, nothing. *sigh
On to Star Wars.
There’s large section of the store devoted to movie merchandise, primarily the original trilogy. The lack of Leia merchandise was an early issue on this blog, so I was keen to see if things had improved at all. At first glance, it hadn’t. There was a prominent display featuring Han Solo, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and a Stormtrooper – but no Princess Leia.
I scanned the large selection of Star Wars stuff here, and eventually found a Leia. In fact I found a couple. They were each part of different play-sets figures. One set was Jabba’s palace, which of course means one thing – Slave Leia.
An eagle eyed fan on Twitter also spotted a Torryn Farr figure. Who is she? The blink and you’ll miss her Rebel Comms officer from The Empire Strikes Back. She may not be the most active character in the trilogy (she sits in a chair and relays orders), but I guess at least she’s a female Star Wars character figure.
That’s not all the Star Wars gear the shop has now though. There’s a big display of merchandise from the brand new TV show Star Wars Rebels. It’s early days for the show, but it has TWO major female characters that are prominently featured in the artwork of the toy display. So I was curious about what the the product would be like.
Product? What product?
That’s right. There was nothing, nothing, featuring either of the female characters of Sabine or Hera. Not an action figure, not a t-shirt, nothing. I asked a member of staff about this. She looked surprised, had a glance at the section, and then kind of shrugged “No, there’s nothing with any of the women”.
So in this flagship Disney Store, in one of the premier shopping centres in Britain, there were just three items including any female characters in the whole of their Marvel & Star Wars sections – nothing in Marvel, and Star Wars had a classic Princess Leia (as part of a set), Slave girl Leia (as part of a set), and an individual figure of a rebel who says “Stand by ion control…Fire!” and nothing else.
Apparently, Sabine & Hera will be included in the second wave of Star Wars Rebels figures being released by licensee Hasbro. Staff also told me “We’re going to get Princess Leia stuff soon. But they keep saying that”. They had no idea about female Marvel characters.
I didn’t buy anything, and I’m not planning on going back. I left the shop more frustrated than ever about the fact that The House Of Mouse now own Marvel & Star Wars. I really hope things change for the better, and they embrace the female – and girl – market for these brands.
I reflected that my previous positive toyshop experiences were both due to the willingness of brands/retailers to engage with feedback, listen to those seeking change, and take a good look at their offering.
In conclusion, in terms of gendered marketing and division of toys: The Entertainer good, The Disney Store sadly not, and the LEGO shop? Well, they had me at female scientist minifigure set and was the only shop I spent money in.
So while this may have been an unscientific survey, in the end it was all about science.
A mini update to my earlier post about the lack of Leia in the Disney Store.
To recap: Disney have owned Star Wars since 2012. But despite carrying a range of other Star Wars merchandise in the Disney Store, it doesnt sell any (hardly any) Princess Leia gear.
I wanted to know why, especially since my young daughter is into Star Wars and her favourite character is Princess Leia. Initial contact with Disney elicited a rather non-committal response, essentially ‘we have no information/plans regarding Princess Leia merchandise’.
Last week, the Disney Store UK informed me they had “escalated (my) query to the relevant departments”. Today, I received the latest response.
Thank you for taking the time to contact us, and for your patience while this was escalated to me.
It is wonderful to hear your youngling is already such a huge Leia fan.
It IS wonderful my… hold on, my what? My ‘youngling’?
Interesting. It seems that the Disney Corporate Communications manual has been updated with Star Wars buzzwords – a youngling is a child undergoing Jedi training.
What’s also interesting is that ‘youngling’ is a gender neutral term. Star Wars is anything but gender neutral in the Disney Store – with it listed prominently in the ‘Boys’ tab, but nowhere to be seen in the ‘Girls’ one. The lack of Princess Leia product appears to be symptomatic of the Disney Store’s embedded gender segregation – Princesses are for girls, sci-fi & superheroes for boys.
At least the Jedi don’t divide their ‘younglings’ along gender lines. Anyway, moving on:
The current assortment of Star Wars product launched at Disney Store earlier this year is just the beginning of what is to come.
Well, that’s promising. So you’re going to sell Leia stuff right?
Disney Store designs products with all members of the family in mind, and we are looking forward to supporting the Star Wars Franchise for many years to come.
Great! Oh, hang on.
We know Disney “designs products with all members of the family in mind”. That doesn’t indicate whether they will design Star Wars products “with all members of the family in mind”.
Also, “we are looking forward to supporting the Star Wars Franchise for many years to come” doesn’t address whether they will add Leia to their Star Wars items on sale. No indication of when – or even if – they’ll get to Leia.
Once again, we thank you for taking the time to contact us, and if you have any further queries please do let us know.
Thank you too, I will.
May the force be with you,
Well, certainly makes a nice change from “Have a wonderful day!” 😉