Rebecca C. Hains '98, a professor of media studies at Salem State University, recently released her second book, The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years.
It isn't necessarily princesses that Hains has a problem with. Instead, it's the aggressive marketing machine that exists behind the scenes, pushing not only excessive consumerism on young girls, but also harmful stereotypes related to beauty standards, gender and race. The majority of princesses permeating the media are thin and appearance-oriented, weak and male-dependent, and more often than not, white.
Much of Hains's focus has been centered on the ubiquitous Disney Princess franchise, a line of 11 Disney film-related characters that were assembled more than a decade ago to adorn everything from toys, games and food products to costumes, clothing and home décor. Seven of the current Disney Princesses are white. Just one, Brave's Merida, does not have a love interest in her film.
In researching for The Princess Problem, Hains delved into dozens of studies written by psychologists, educators, media literacy experts and girl-empowerment advocates, and gained a unique, first-person perspective of the princess phenomenon by spending several months of weekends dressing as princess performer for children's birthday parties. Most telling, though, were her interviews with more than fifty parents about their perspectives on the princess culture.
"From my interviews with parents, I learned that they are frustrated because the Disney Princess brand is inescapable," Hains said. "And once the brand makes its way into their homes, new problems emerge around body image and the lack of racial representation."
As a remedy, Hains devised a system of "Pop Culture Coaching," which encourages parents to identify their family values, build healthy, varied media diets for their children, watch and discuss television shows and movies with their children whenever possible, and teach their children about media creation.
With a bachelor's in communication from Emmanuel and a master's in mass communication from Boston University, Hains began studying girl culture when she entered Temple University for a Ph.D. in Mass Media and Communication in 2002. While there, she took notice of the massive popularity of the Powerpuff Girls, an animated series about three girls with superpowers. Her resulting 2007 doctoral dissertation, Negotiating girl power: Girlhood on screen and in everyday life, became the basis for her first book, Growing Up With Girl Power.
As a professor and a frequent blogger, Hains notes that reaction from both students and parents on issues of mass media and marketing has been divisive.
"I've had students tell me that I've ruined their childhoods after exposing them to Disney's marketing problems, and parents tell me that I'm overreacting, that kids are just being kids," she said. "But that's all part of the bigger problem. Why aren't students being exposed to these issues before college? Why aren't parents more media savvy?"
Hains emphasizes that The Princess Problem is not meant to be critical, but to encourage critical thinking among parents and children.
"I'm not attacking parenting styles or their choices; parents have their children's best interests at heart and they, working parents especially, have to choose their battles," she said. "The book says, 'If your kids love princesses, here are some talking points.'"
The Princess Problem is currently featured on the "New Releases" table at Barnes & Noble bookstores across the United States. For more information on Hains's work, visit http://rebeccahains.com.