Little Princesses and Media Effects #feminism #Frozen ref @sarahditum

Posted: March 20, 2015 in Elly Tams, Feminism, Identity
Tags: , , ,

The Princess Diaries Premiere

‘The ideas we give children to play with, tell them what we expect them to be.’ – Sarah Ditum

‘If, after over sixty years of a considerable amount of research effort, direct effects of media upon behaviour have not been clearly identified, then we should conclude that they are simply not there to be found.’ –David Gauntlett


Earlier this week, born-again-radical-feminist Sarah Ditum took part in a heated radio debate with party planner Lisa Forbes about princesses. As little girls (and boys) across the globe eagerly await the arrival of  Frozen 2, the question of the role of princesses in the media in shaping real life femininity is a pressing one.

Ditum (unsurprisingly) took the view that princess films produce damaging aspirations for girls to follow, and Forbes who runs princess parties for girls (unsurprisingly) didn’t. Their discussion ended like this:

Sarah Ditum: ‘you as a female human are going to have to look like a cartoon character to belong in this world of imagination that we’re giving to you’

Lisa Forbes: ‘That’s your perception, that’s you putting your opinion onto a little four, five year old, they don’t see it like that’

SD: ‘You dressing a girl in a princess outfit is you putting your opinion on a four five year old. They do not pop out of the womb with an innate liking for sparkles and crowns. That is something that we give them. That is culture we make it and we give it to them and we have to be honest and responsible about the messages that we’re giving them’.


Here, Ditum is reaffirming a popular feminist stance on the social construction of gender, and couples it with a crude media effects model. One is not born a princess, one is forced to want to be one by Disney films and party planners. But as David Gauntlett has explained, those who have concerned themselves seriously over many years with the issue of how far the media does effect people’s attitudes and behaviours have not found any direct cause and effect relationships.  Gauntlett’s article ’10 things wrong with the media effect’s model’ is well worth reading in full. He makes specific mention of how the media is said to affect children, and argues (as does Lisa Forbes briefly in the radio segment) that children are much more nuanced and critical in their consumption of media than ‘media effects’ psychologists give them credit for. He writes:

‘The same kinds of approach are readily observed in media effects studies, the production of which has undoubtedly been dominated by psychologically-oriented researchers, who – whilst, one imagines, having nothing other than benevolent intentions – have carefully exposed the full range of ways in which young media users can be seen as the inept victims of products which, whilst obviously puerile and transparent to adults, can trick children into all kinds of ill-advised behaviour.

This situation is clearly exposed by research which seeks to establish what children can and do understand about and from the mass media. Such projects have shown that children can talk intelligently and indeed cynically about the mass media (Buckingham, 1993, 1996), and that children as young as seven can make thoughtful, critical and ‘media literate’ video productions themselves (Gauntlett, 1997).’

As someone more fond of deconstruction than social construction I think the princess radio debate is worth revisiting in the context of its overflowing onto social media. This twitter exchange involving Ditum and two others is interesting, because it destabilises her position that media princesses have a negative effect on young girls development. In revealing that her own daughter was ‘a princess obsessive’ for a couple of years Ditum (as one tweeter implies) is admitting her role in ‘constructing’ gender as she sees it, via allowing her daughter to take part in the princess ideal. In adding that ‘it wears off if you have other stuff around’ she is suggesting that kids tend to have access to a range of media imagery and are not permanently scarred by early princess exposure.


Another blogger Ms Vanilla Rose, recently pointed out that Ditum’s new statesman byline describes her columns as “Politics for tired people”.  Rose says: ‘Too tired to question her, maybe.’ I’d add that if you look at them at all closely, most feminist claims within the mainstream media at least, lazily lack depth of thought, research and evidence to back them up*.

*Warning: pointing this out can result in spoilt ‘princess’ like tantrums!

  1. Andrew says:

    This is all just more ways to makes women and girls victims of their own lives and circumstances, it is not? Some feminists are so one note on this as to be laughably (and willfully) naive. Read some proper science and TAKE IT IN! People are not empty vessels to be filled even if some feminists are happy to be filled with any crazy theory that supports their predetermined beliefs. Teach people to think critically for themselves (rather than indoctrinating them in any way at all) and you will find that a healthy ability to discriminate (in a good way) is a by-product.

    Or you could just dress your kid up as a princess in the gormless belief that it will then want to be princessy forever.

  2. innegative says:

    Ditum is herself the victim of an oppression: the oppression of all Westerners by a culture of political vacuity conditioned by excessive safety, comfort, over-stimulation and a glut of information and technology.

    She is the victim of a Western tendency to categorize and instrumentalise everything, to see everything in terms of narrative and discourse and to pull out from the chaotic flux of the real, visible, linear systems of power, oppression and ideological certainty.

    She’s obsessed by her own victimisation because its only out of self-victimisation that a Westerner can find a self-assertive meaning. She simulates oppression – gender oppression – to maintain her own position in a production based power-matrix. The New Statesman is the informational ground upon which Ditum is a factory producing the saleable product of feminism and identity.

    She’s the victim of an oppression alright – and she’s one of its dominant agents. She’s just such an incredibly poor reader of the world she lives in that she fails to recognise what her role actually is in that world.

    It’s interesting she chooses too to attack the princess. One expects she’d prefer scientists, barristers, maybe soldiers or prime ministers? Functional, productive roles rather than those possessed of symbolic magic? One wonders whether feminism hasn’t always been about a changing female strategy in a hyper-productive universe: women shifting away from symbolic, seductive, persuasive, seemingly passive, domestic roles and strategies to more active, productive, individualistic strategies. ‘Equality’ as defined by one’s ability to equally produce, be it consumables, discourses or market-affective identities (which is perhaps all that defines and identifies ‘identity’ anways).

  3. innegative says:

    And another thing!

    If Ditum was a reader of nuance and wasn’t so obsessed with re-animating a feminism fit for the 1930s, she’d probably recognise that she ain’t so far away from these kids in her own aesthetic feelings.

    The fanaticism surrounding Elsa isn’t about wanting to be a little princess. Rather, you can find most of the emotional life of consumer feminism there, particularly in Elsa’s Let it Go theme, which I reckon is the clincher for the Elsa cult anyways. You have it all there – the solitary, individuated girl in her palace of ice, a ball of propriety and supressed emotions, ‘the perfect girl’ repressed by a world of imagined expectations and rules, then throwing that aside, letting it go, becoming free and wild and … Welll … What exactly? It’s emotional energy isn’t so different to that energy driving folks like Laurie Penny.

    It’s a damn good song and its underlying mechanics is the appetite for ‘liberation’. A liberation for its own sake, that goes nowhere and instances only the mighty self.

    Ice is a pretty good metaphor for discursive production and its destruction of nuance too. Reason’s domination of the mysteries of symbolic exchange.

    “No right, no wrong, no rules for me – I’m free!”
    Let it Go:

  4. redpesto says:

    I see that Ditum is buying into the ‘Barbie Must Die’ school of feminist analysis:

    – It’s yet another argument over femininity as being Bad for Girls

    – which princesses are we talking about here? Since Ditum’s written glowingly about girls playing with fuck-off massive toy guns, I suspect she’s not going to dismiss Princess Leia…is she? (See also: Fiona from Shrek)

    – it’s a line of amateur-hour child-rearing and dodgy media studies analysis that allows savvy ‘mumpreneurs’ to market ‘Princess Awesome’ dinosaur dresses to credulous and anxious mums and on-message dads

    – today a princess; tomorrow a pirate; next week a killer robot: kids should be encouraged to have vivid imaginations – a point that the endless ‘Princess Panic’ stories repeatedly overlook.

    PS: When it comes to blaming Disney, I think this clip from The Big Bang Theory explains things well (oh, and Mayim Bialik [Amy] actually has a PhD in real life)

  5. thesocietyofenemies says:

    As a child I was obsessed with the comic characters Captain Hurricane and his batman Maggot Malone. To my chagrin, finding out that in real life neither heroic violence nor loyal servility got me anything but mockery, I turned out like neither.

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