‘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!