The Hell with Princesses! Let’s Talk About the Gender Politics of Little Girls in Unicorn and Mermaid Costumes

unicorns vs mermaids

Every October, there’s a spate of articles breaking down the feminist and political ramifications of Disney Princess Halloween costumes: We shouldn’t let our daughters dress as Elsa. We should let our daughters dress as Elsa. We should encourage our sons to also dress as Elsa. Everything’s fair game as long as we don’t culturally appropriate Moana.

And the overall takeaway for real moms is…complicated. On the one hand, I pride myself on creative, homemade costumes that speak to imagination and innocence rather than the so-called Princess Industrial Complex. And I certainly don’t want to sexualize my 3-year-old or solidify gender stereotypes or offend anybody of Pacific Island descent. On the other hand, my daughter really, really wants to be Elsa, dammit.

But this year, I’m struck by another thought, one that gets at the inherently messed up nature of Halloween costume shaming. To all you parents who are so turned off by Disney princesses: Why are we OK with unicorns and mermaids?!

A little back story: At some point in 2016, the unicorn galloped its way from the fringes of nerdy, fantasy novel ephemera into the cultural mainstream. We were a nation at a crossroads, and the only joy we could muster derived from a mythical, rainbow-colored horse-thing who now adorned cakes, pool floats and Frappuccinos. Next came the mermaids, which to be fair, have been a weird, sexy fetish since well before the age of Instagram. (See: J.M. Barrie, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, Splash.) The difference now, was that we thought we could actually be them. We booked mermaid photoshoots. We signed up for mermaid swim classes. We unironically followed the influencer whose Instagram bio read "Mermaid living on land."

It was only natural, of course, that these infantilizing fads would trickle down to the elementary school set, and soon I started noticing a curious inconsistency: The same folks who shunned princess garb were buying their girls sequined mermaid tails and unicorn onesies. Now it’s true, I suppose, that unicorns and mermaids don’t have the same fraught history of waiting for Prince Charming or equating virtue with beauty. (And let’s not even start on the monarchy thing; to my knowledge, unicorns don’t—can’t?—ascend a throne.) But they are sparkly, saccharine and supremely gendered, yet another signal that girls should be pleasing, inoffensive and attractive. And while the message in Frozen or Moana is one of empowerment and self-sufficiency (OK, yes I know Elsa’s sex-pot dress is problematic), the message for these fantasy beings is…nothing? Historically, they’re a cipher for mystery, chastity (unicorns) and sensuality (mermaids). In short, the old virgin-whore paradigm is out to play.

These costumes are also expensive. Whereas the standard Belle costume (with wand!) runs you $22.99 on Amazon, upscale stores like Pottery Barn Kids and Hannah Andersson are selling unicorn and mermaid getups for $52 and $90, respectively. And that’s not to mention the non-Halloween uni-maid (let’s make that a thing!) stuff you’re expected to have: gold headband horns for playtime, crocheted mermaid blankets for nap time, anything with sequins you can swish back and forth to make different colors. Is this just another example of the pink tax in action?

Clearly, I’m in no position to judge parents who shell out the $60 for an iridescent crop top and fish tail set. After all, I too have been in the position of having a child beg me for something extravagant and marginally terrible. (And I cave…I always cave.) What bugs me though, is the moral superiority I sense from a few of these moms and dads: “No, we don’t let her have tiaras. Just costumes with positive girl power messaging.”

This isn’t to say I’m on board with princesses. I, too, would prefer my daughter to dress as Dracula or Eloise or Rosie the Riveter. I’m just sayin’: “Judge not lest ye be judged, unicorn-mermaid people.”

jillian quint

Editor-in-Chief, Avid Reader, Wallpaper Enthusiast

Jillian Quint is the Editor-in-Chief of PureWow, where she oversees the editorial staff and all the fabulous content you read every day. Jillian began her career as a book editor...