Just a few years ago, superhero Halloween costumes had officially superseded princess costumes as the most popular among children, a feat that had not been achieved by any other category for 11 years. In 2016, studies by CNN, the National Retail Federation, the Women’s Media Center, and BBC America all confirmed that children of all genders preferred to be superheroes in lieu of royalty. This pivotal shift is attributed not only to superhero films dominating the pop culture landscape, but also evolving attitudes towards gender roles. Empowered by a new generation of strong female role models, today’s young girls have cast aside antiquated notions of femininity and now aspire to be the brave heroines of their own stories.
Children wanting to see more female superheroes represented onscreen is a sentiment born from the popularity of superheroes and the redefinition of girlhood. BBC America has made efforts towards increasing the visibility of super-heroines and critically analyzing their impact on their young audience with their #GalaxyOfWomen project. The Women’s Media Center’s research concluded that a greater presence of female superheroes and sci-fi protagonists resonated with young girls by making them feel seen and thereby boosting their confidence. The ripple effects of such significant media representation include girls recognizing their leadership skills and becoming emboldened to pursue fields that have historically barred them, especially STEM.
Even contemporary fictional princesses are characterized by their strength, bravery, and daring escapades. The Frozen franchise has been lauded for its strong female protagonists, an asset that has secured Elsa and Anna’s high ranking among the most popular kids Halloween costumes for years to come. Disney Princesses of recent years include the likes of Moana, the adventurous wayfarer, and Merida, the headstrong archer of the aptly named movie Brave. The explosively action-packed Raya and the Dragon convinced viewers and critics alike that someday “Disney Princess” would become synonymous with “superhero.” Star Wars’ very own Princess Leia has been revered for her cleverness and strong will for decades, and the sequel films saw her ascend to the status of general. Women who grew up with princesses who were merely passive pretty faces now watch with pride as the current generation of girls is raised on generals and warriors instead.
The discourse surrounding princess culture has grown from denouncing it as anti-feminist to finding positive elements within it while remaining critical of its harmful aspects. Wearing princess costumes and receiving princess makeovers are not inherently regressive activities, but teaching young girls that their self-worth is determined by their physical beauty is damaging for their impressionable minds. Instead of reinforcing the heteronormative ideal of one’s happy ending amounting to being rescued by and marrying a prince, princess playtime should teach lessons about empathy and kindness, which are prevalent virtues in stories like Cinderella and Snow White. Furthermore, many girls pretending to be princesses often conduct themselves as wise, powerful leaders who have courageously undertaken the challenge of running an entire kingdom.
While princess culture has been consistently lambasted for reinforcing gender norms, it can also be used to subvert them. Being a princess is not solely for girls, and the social media phenomenon that unequivocally proves this is the Boys Can Be Princesses Too project. As indicated by its name, the Boys Can Be Princesses Too initiative invites boys to join in on the fun of dressing up as their favorite Disney Princesses. Beginning as a viral series of photos depicting boys wearing princess costumes and posing alongside the cosplayer of their choice, the project espouses freely allowing children to express their true selves. Paralleling modern girls’ growing propensity towards less gendered superhero costumes, Boys Can Be Princesses Too emphasizes that there is nothing shameful about being a boy who enjoys feminine things.
Interestingly enough, this seemingly new concept of gender non-conforming Halloween costumes for kids actually harkens back to the holiday's early celebrations in the United States, during which children impersonated different genders while throwing flour in people’s faces. While that peculiar historical fact may conjure some rather bizarre mental images, it also demonstrates that children experimenting with gender expression has always existed and is not the indecent, radical concept that others perceive it to be. Regardless of which category of costume has become more popular than the other, girls can be superheroes and boys can be princesses.