The Princess Party Debate
The princess birthday party - with its accompanying tiaras and poufy dresses - has become a mainstay of contemporary girlhood. It's a ritual many families embrace, but a growing number of mothers are resisting the impulse to celebrate birthdays this way, concerned that it clashes with the values they are trying to instill in their girls.
Not so enchanted
Julie Doring of Durham, says her 4-year-old daughter Zoe, wanted a princess party, "but I just hate all that princess stuff," Doring says. "I don't want Zoe to start to prefer dressing up and having tea parties to going outside and being physical," she says.
So Doring enlisted Zoe as a helper when they went shopping for party decorations, pointing out non-princess things she might like. "We ended up with butterfly plates and a giant purple unicorn," she laughs.
Amy Pine of Durham had a similar reaction when her 5-year-old requested a princess party. "I don't like that princesses are often waiting for the prince," she says. "I encourage dressing up, but I try to steer her away from the princess thing." They settled on a rainbow sparkle theme.
Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate my Daughter, believes the princess culture does girls a disservice. She pointed out during a phone interview that it's the limited choices that irk her most.
"The merchandising of Disney princess movies presents consumerism and appearance as hallmarks of what it is to be a girl," she says. "It's so limiting."
Furthermore, Orenstein says, gender segregation is inherent in the princess party. "Preschool parties didn't used to be gender segregated," she says. "Princess parties reinforce the idea that boys and girls shouldn't celebrate together."
Shannon Thornberg, a Durham mother to twin girls Sophie and Jacqueline, finds Orenstein's arguments compelling, but is not completely sold on a princess party's negative impact.
"We did give the girls a princess party for their first birthday party," she says. "It was pink and sparkly and we thought it was cute. But more importantly, the twins coming into our world after seven years of trying, fertility treatments and two miscarriages really did feel like a fairy tale."
As the girls have grown older, Thornburg has worked hard to honor their choices when it comes to imaginary play, and finds the whole debate about princesses a bit perplexing.
"It frustrates me that moms make such a big deal about girl-themed toys while boys are not subject to the same scrutiny," she adds. "If children are making imaginative leaps and bounds playing with princesses, who cares?" she says.
Jennifer Albrecht of New Hope agrees. When her daughter Samantha turned 5, she treated her (and 10 of her friends) to a tea party complete with tiaras, up-dos and an appearance by Belle, the princess from Beauty and the Beast. The party took place in a historic home owned by Cindy Wahler whose company, Grandma's Princess, brings the princess fantasy to life.
"The girls were so excited," Albrecht says. "They got to choose a gown, have their nails and makeup done, and pretend to be princesses. It was a very special day, and my daughter was thrilled.
Stephanie Dickerson, owner of Fairy Tale Dreamer in Raleigh and mother to a 4-year-old daughter, says her company - which sends princesses to birthday parties - also emphasizes and encourages using imagination.
"I think the real attraction for young girls is that they still believe in magic," she says. "They believe that princesses are real."
Dickerson resists the characterization of princesses as inherently passive or superficial. "All the Disney princessesare smart, strong-willed women, and I think they are good role models," she says. "Girls can learn a lot about manners and independence from the princess stories."
Still, Orenstein is not convinced. "It's not that imaginative when girls are all using their imagination the same way," she says. "Playing princess seems innocent because it seems like the way we played when we were kids, but it's a script created by companies that are selling merchandise. And it's leading them someplace that isn't necessarily healthy."
Jill Moffett is a freelance writer, editor and mother in Durham.
Princess Party Alternatives
Tired of the princess theme? Here are three suggestions from Triangle moms for alternative ways to celebrate your little girl's birthday.
Also see our party services directory. to find party entertainers, destinations and supplies.
Before Belle, there was Tinkerbelle. "The fairy girls are smart, can-do types who use their talents to save people, solve problems," says Julie Doring, mother of a 4-year-old girl.
For Lee Moore, mother to an almost-4-year daughter in Durham, the antidote to the princess party is to widen her daughter's options. "Why not have options to be a queen, prince, knight, fairy, unicorn, jester or magician?" she asks. "Why not just have a costume party?"
Butterflies, rainbows or glitter
Indulge your daughter's longing for color and glitz without conforming to the princess template. Choose rainbows, glitter or ballerinas.
Find Triangle-area listings for party services, places and supplies in our Party Planning Directories. Check our special party page for more planning ideas and tips.