Princess Culture and Early Childhood Education: The Research; Over-representation and Erasure

Posted on April 9, 2017. Filed under: Anti Oppressive Ed, eci814, First Nations, Masters, Race |

In my last post, I highlighted some of the problems with having a Disney infused culture.


“Princess Birthday” photo credit: Cat via Flickr

There are many racialized/gendered messages being sent to children, and “the racial innuendos and insults typically are beyond the level of conscious awareness (van Wormer & Juby, 2015, p. 591). Many young children, especially pre-school to grade one
age, are captivated by Disney characters. They have the movies, the costumes, the dolls, and the Disney themed birthday parties.

Many of us grew up with Disney movies/characters didn’t we? What’s the problem? Is it really a big deal?  Well, the problem lies when there is an over-representation of Disney
knowledge and an almost erasure of Indigenous knowledge/ways of knowing.  I am the perfect example. Did you know that I made it all the way through elementary school, high school, and my undergraduate University degree before finding out about the real


Photo Credit: The Media Project

horrors of Canadian history in my grad classes? I wouldn’t have been able to tell you about residential schools, Treaties, the TRC, Indigenous languages, or any real information about Indigenous peoples other than they used to make tipis, they used
arrowheads, and they helped the ‘Pilgrims’ when they came to North America. I didn’t ever learn how Treaty 4 affects me, and how I benefit from the Cree and Saulteaux peoples being removed from their land. Parul Sehgal (2016) of the New York Times “describes how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out” (par. 3). Indigenous stories were not something I was taught or even had access to, really.  BUT… if you had asked me about a specific Disney movie, I could probably sing 15 Disney songs word for word. We even watched Disney movies in school for classroom parties or during the lunch hour.  Clearly one type of knowledge was over-represented in my life, and one was erased.

I did, however, have some opinions on “Native people.” One of them was that they were so lucky because they got their University for free, and that just didn’t quite seem fair to me. (Read more about other Treaty misconceptions and facts here.) I want to be clear that the issue was not that I watched Disney movies when I was growing up, it was that I was so surrounded by my White culture (including Disney) that I didn’t ever need to challenge the status quo or question my Whiteness. The media I was attracted to erased certain populations of people, and presented others in a less than positive light. Fryberg & Stephens (2010) suggest that “American Indians are so underrepresented in various contexts (e.g., media, school) that they experience an extreme form of colorblindness; they are invisible,” (p.115).

Disney is easy to pick on, but the fact of the matter is that all mainstream media dictates one message and ignores another.

“Media images can serve a deliberate purpose in maintaining the dominance of our existing societal gender, race, and class hierarchies. The motivation for movie production, for example, may be to incite patriotism, ethnic pride, and/or the assimilation of minority groups into mainstream culture. The most common motivation… is to reproduce whatever images dominate within the ‘whole white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ to which films in the global market must appeal” (van Wormer & Juby, 2015, p. 582).

These ideologies affect and inform our students, and it then becomes our job as educators to disrupt these ways of thinking and offer other stories. “A critical reading of Whiteness means that White ignorance must be problematized, not in order to expose Whites as simply racist, but to increase knowledge about their full participation” (Leonardo, 2009, p. 231). It wasn’t until I understood my place in Canadian history as a White settler woman that I was able to comprehend the depth of that identity and my role going forward.

“School appears to [be] a key site for racialised (and national) subjectification” (Phoenix, 2009, p. 18).  In many cases, students are coming to school and not escaping the


Photo Credit: Patrick Feller via Flickr

hegemony of culture, but their classroom experiences demonstrate “the ways in which they… recognise western representations that [construct] them as inferior” (Phoenix, 2009, p. 18). Even the youngest of students can tell when they are “othered.” Children do see race and gender, and their little identities are already quite developed when they arrive at school. If they are familiar with the princess/superhero stories of Disney and the like, how does that influence their classroom and school interactions?

What can I (we) do as early childhood educators to disrupt the dominant story being told? What experiences can we share as a classroom that can challenge the hidden curriculum the students are learning through the princess/superhero culture? How can we help such young minds grow in critical awareness of their favourite princess/superhero stories? What alternative stories can be shared to counteract the dominant racialized/gendered messages the children are receiving?

My next princess culture post


Ball, J. (2009). Supporting Young Indigenous Children’s Language Development in Canada: A Review of Research on Needs and Promising Practices. The Canadian Modern Language Review. 66(1), 19-47

Fryberg, S. & Stephens, N. (2010). When the World is Colorblind, American Indians are Invisible: A Diversity Science Approach. Psychological Inquiry. 21(2), 115-119

Leonardo, Z. (2009). Reading whiteness: anti-racist pedagogy against white racial knowledge. In B. Ayers, T. Quinn, & D. Stovall, (Eds.), Handbook of social justice in education. (pp. 231-248). New York: Rutledge.

Phoenix, A. (2009). De-colonising practices: Negotiating narratives from racialised and gendered experiences of education. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 12(1), 2-22.

Sehgal, P. (2016, Feb. 2).  Fighting ‘Erasure’. The New York Times. Retrieved from:

van Wormer, K. & Juby, C. (2015). Cultural representations in Walt Disney films: Implications for social work education. Journal of Social Work. 16(5), 578-594

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