I live in a slightly out-of-the-culture neighborhood of Brooklyn, where mothers of baby girls shun pink and boys wear their hair fairly long, and sometimes I feel surrounded by princess-haters, who think that the Disney Princesses are trying to put all of our kids into a narrow box. I have lost count of the number of friends who have said they will never sanction Disney princesses in their home. They usually lose that battle anyway.
I can't speak authoritatively about girls trying on extreme gender roles, because I am no child-development expert. But my beat here at Parents and American Baby includes toys, and I know when a little girl reaches 2 or 3 she usually wants a princess doll, or a costume dress, or a plastic pony with a long pink tail. I don't know why, but I can tell you the want is real and seems primal.
My daughter, Grace, went on a loopy-doopy princess bender from ages 2 through 4. She dressed as Cinderella as she learned to climb the monkey bars and wore her Belle dress through the supermarket. It hurt no one, and I would argue particularly did not hurt her. She outgrew wearing costumes before elementary school, as I knew she would, but retained some lessons from "the ladies." She knew that Ariel should have talked to her Dada before making that crazy deal to get human legs, and that Jasmine needed some street smarts. She understood Cinderella's weary patience and Belle's determination to block out haters. The new movie Frozen (which we've seen twice!) particularly has great themes, as Sheryl Sandberg points out.
Last fall we visited Belle in Fantasyland and Grace, now 11, studied her from a distance, judging her acting ability. ("She gets the voice right...") I can't get my tween to put on a dress, let alone a frilly one. She eyes Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, which honestly makes me more nervous than her watching of Snow White ever did.
The eloquent "Reaching My Autistic Son Through Disney" piece that ran in the New York Times resonates with me in that it points out how Disney stories are tales as old as time. The characters are acting out ancient dilemmas: How do you learn to trust your instinct? When should you do what you want to do, and when should you do what is expected of you? How do you find your place in the world? Not to overstate things too much, but trying to block kids from learning the princesses stories is to shut off a huge wealth of literature, history, and culture. And I can't help but notice that no one fusses at my son about Tarzan's body or the fact that Mowgli is so dang skinny.
I am not saying you need to welcome the ladies into your home so much as I'm saying: Calm down about them. They're characters, and if you pay more attention to their character development instead of their shape, they have a lot to teach.