…Of Pirates and Princesses

When I entered the massive ‘World of Disney’ store at Downtown Disney in Orlando over spring break, I was amazed at the transformation I noticed in the merchandise. The set-up is the same as always: tons of souvenirs and mixed products in the center of the circular-ish shaped store, with spokes off to the sides including an adult clothing and home merchandise section; a jewelry, watch, and pin trading section; a boys’ clothing and toy section; as well as a girls’ clothing and toy section. But while the pin trading and the adult clothing rooms seemed pretty much the same as when I had been there about a year ago, the boys’ and girls’ sections were radically different.

Whereas there used to be just ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ rooms, there were now ‘Pirate’ and ‘Princess’ rooms, complete with the accompanying music of “Yo-ho Yo-ho a Pirate’s life for me” playing in the background of the boys’ room and a disgustingly upbeat and poppy-sounding “Happy birthday Princess” playing in the girls’– to say nothing of the life-sized animatronic pirate standing in the boys’ room and the 10 mannequins of little girls wearing all of the various princess costumes in the girls’ room. Just entering the huge store can make you a little dizzy, so when I asked an employee, or ‘cast member’ as Disney likes to say, which direction the girls’ section was, I was surprised when she answered, “The Princess section is right over here, hon.”

Yes, the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series has been hugely successful, and Disney’s Princess brand has really taken off in the last five years, but is it really necessary to make EVERYTHING Pirate or Princess themed, with nothing in between? I have no problem with a little girl wanting to wear a Princess dress or a little boy brandishing a plastic sword, but what worries me here is that Disney is creating a fantasy world in which little girls don’t ever wield swords, and little boys don’t ever want to dress up as anything but swashbuckling pirates. What really concerns me is that, as the newly decorated boys’ and girls’ rooms in the ‘World of Disney’ store show, Disney’s new ‘Pirate and Princess’ obsession has created a division between boy merchandise and girl merchandise that is incredibly separate, offering images of what boys and girls should be in all too stark and clear-cut ways. Not only does this paradigm constrain the imaginations of our young boys and girls, but it also influences the gender roles and stereotypes these children may hold in their minds for the rest of their lives.

What I will explore in my next two posts is the various ways that Disney has attempted to create this division in merchandise and services (especially focusing on the ways this influences gender roles and stereotypes), with one post introducing the ‘Pirate’ half of Disney’s new marketing plan, including both the ‘Pirate Princess’ and ‘wench’ concepts, and the next one introducing the ‘Princess’ half, discussing both the Princess-brand merchandise Disney sells as well as services such as the “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique” and “My Disney Girl’s Perfectly Princess Tea Party.”

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