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  • The Princess of Power:Socializing Our Daughters Through TV, Toys, and Tradition
  • Peggy A. Bulger (bio)

Television programmers and toy manufacturers play a significant role in the socialization of American children. One particular "toy marketing package" that has interested me in this regard is She-Ra, The Princess of Power, created by Mattel, Inc. in 1984. As a folklorist, I was particularly interested in how She-Ra has been marketed through the exploitation of our folklore, thereby satisfying our need for cultural continuity in a time of changing sexual expectations. At the same time, by applying a feminist perspective to the anthropological theory of "cultural materialism," I wanted to study She-Ra as the latest in a series of role models that have evolved, devolved, and re-emerged with changing economic conditions. The Princess of Power is both a doll and an animated cartoon character that embodies our traditional concepts of feminine perfection, while reflecting the productive and reproductive priorities of the 1980s. While carrying out my study, I discovered that children do not totally buy into the latest cultural concept provided by adult marketers. Despite the best-laid consciousness-raising intentions of parents, who may purchase these dolls in hopes of providing a strong female role model, young girls will create their own version of the perfect heroine through their fantasy play. I made this discovery during an experimental observation of my own daughters at play, which revealed to me the tenacity of traditional attitudes and behaviors that are passed on to our children through complex and interdependent channels. Here we can see that folklore is a long-standing channel of cultural messages that have been exploited, but not supplanted, by newer cultural arbiters—the ubiquitous television set and the multi-million dollar toy industry. These three elements in the child's universe combine to create an image of the perfect heroine.

Sex role socialization begins at birth and our folklore plays a key part in the evolution of the sexual status quo. Such childhood staples as fairy tales and fables have been supplemented by mass media and Mattel, Inc. to provide role models and socialization messages to our children. Commercial toys, books, videos, and comics are generated by adults and reflect adult conceptions of acceptable behavior and social mores. Toys, [End Page 178] therefore, are miniaturized representations of reality firmly grounded in our traditions and cultural heritage.

Cultural Materialism

Our desire to socialize our children into conventional personalities seems to be a constant. However, our adult notions of conventionality and propriety change with the ebb and flow of political and economic forces. Stereotypic attributes for women are retired or resurrected to complement cultural expectations, and this is especially evident in the toys we present to our children. The current cultural climate shaping American images of the female gender is one of a strong, independent, professional working woman.

Much has been written about the "Superwoman Syndrome" that plagues today's working mother. Not only does the Superwoman have to bring home the bacon, she has to flake it into a delicately seasoned spinach salad in a gourmet "lite" meal, while simultaneously teaching her six-month-old to read from flashcards. The Supermom must conquer the evil business world, battle the never-ending chores of homemaking, raise "above average" children, and fulfill masculine expectations of beauty. Rather than liberating women from domestic bondage, the Superwoman Syndrome merely adds additional weight to the already overburdened working mother. Like She-Ra, she must save her world each day in a doomed, guilt-producing attempt to be "the most powerful woman in the universe."

This new, emerging concept of the superwoman reflects the economic realities that have evolved over the last decade. The two-income family has become the norm rather than the exception. In 1950, only 22% of married couples were dual wage-earners. By 1979, 51% of all husband-wife families were both working, and this figure has steadily climbed each year. Today, the majority of married women with children under the age of one are in the work force. In addition, there has been a steady rise in the number of single working mothers (Hughly & Gelman 4647).

Maxine Margolis, in...


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pp. 178-192
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