By PEGGY ORENSTEIN
I finally came unhinged in the dentist’s office — one of those ritzy pediatric practices tricked out with comic books, DVDs and arcade games — where I’d taken my 3-year-old daughter for her first exam. Until then, I’d held my tongue. I’d smiled politely every time the supermarket-checkout clerk greeted her with “Hi, Princess”; ignored the waitress at our local breakfast joint who called the funny-face pancakes she ordered her “princess meal”; made no comment when the lady at Longs Drugs said, “I bet I know your favorite color” and handed her a pink balloon rather than letting her choose for herself. Maybe it was the dentist’s Betty Boop inflection that got to me, but when she pointed to the exam chair and said, “Would you like to sit in my special princess throne so I can sparkle your teeth?” I lost it.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I snapped. “Do you have a princess drill, too?”
She stared at me as if I were an evil stepmother.
“Come on!” I continued, my voice rising. “It’s 2006, not 1950. This is Berkeley, Calif. Does every little girl really have to be a princess?”
My daughter, who was reaching for a Cinderella sticker, looked back and forth between us. “Why are you so mad, Mama?” she asked. “What’s wrong with princesses?”
Diana may be dead and Masako disgraced, but here in America, we are in the midst of a royal moment. To call princesses a “trend” among girls is like calling Harry Potter a book. Sales at Disney Consumer Products, which started the craze six years ago by packaging nine of its female characters under one royal rubric, have shot up to $3 billion, globally, this year, from $300 million in 2001. There are now more than 25,000 Disney Princess items. “Princess,” as some Disney execs call it, is not only the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created; they say it is on its way to becoming the largest girls’ franchise on the planet.
Meanwhile in 2001, Mattel brought out its own “world of girl” line of princess Barbie dolls, DVDs, toys, clothing, home décor and myriad other products. At a time when Barbie sales were declining domestically, they became instant best sellers. Shortly before that, Mary Drolet, a Chicago-area mother and former Claire’s and Montgomery Ward executive, opened Club Libby Lu, now a chain of mall stores based largely in the suburbs in which girls ages 4 to 12 can shop for “Princess Phones” covered in faux fur and attend “Princess-Makeover Birthday Parties.” Saks bought Club Libby Lu in 2003 for $12 million and has since expanded it to 87 outlets; by 2005, with only scant local advertising, revenues hovered around the $46 million mark, a 53 percent jump from the previous year. Pink, it seems, is the new gold.
Even Dora the Explorer, the intrepid, dirty-kneed adventurer, has ascended to the throne: in 2004, after a two-part episode in which she turns into a “true princess,” the Nickelodeon and Viacom consumer-products division released a satin-gowned “Magic Hair Fairytale Dora,” with hair that grows or shortens when her crown is touched. Among other phrases the bilingual doll utters: “Vámonos! Let’s go to fairy-tale land!” and “Will you brush my hair?”
As a feminist mother — not to mention a nostalgic product of the Grranimals era — I have been taken by surprise by the princess craze and the girlie-girl culture that has risen around it. What happened to William wanting a doll and not dressing your cat in an apron? Whither Marlo Thomas? I watch my fellow mothers, women who once swore they’d never be dependent on a man, smile indulgently at daughters who warble “So This Is Love” or insist on being called Snow White. I wonder if they’d concede so readily to sons who begged for combat fatigues and mock AK-47s.
More to the point, when my own girl makes her daily beeline for the dress-up corner of her preschool classroom — something I’m convinced she does largely to torture me — I worry about what playing Little Mermaid is teaching her. I’ve spent much of my career writing about experiences that undermine girls’ well-being, warning parents that a preoccupation with body and beauty (encouraged by films, TV, magazines and, yes, toys) is perilous to their daughters’ mental and physical health. Am I now supposed to shrug and forget all that? If trafficking in stereotypes doesn’t matter at 3, when does it matter? At 6? Eight? Thirteen?
On the other hand, maybe I’m still surfing a washed-out second wave of feminism in a third-wave world. Maybe princesses are in fact a sign of progress, an indication that girls can embrace their predilection for pink without compromising strength or ambition; that, at long last, they can “have it all.” Or maybe it is even less complex than that: to mangle Freud, maybe a princess is sometimes just a princess. And, as my daughter wants to know, what’s wrong with that?
The rise of the Disney princesses reads like a fairy tale itself, with Andy Mooney, a former Nike executive, playing the part of prince, riding into the company on a metaphoric white horse in January 2000 to save a consumer-products division whose sales were dropping by as much as 30 percent a year. Both overstretched and underfocused, the division had triggered price wars by granting multiple licenses for core products (say, Winnie-the-Pooh undies) while ignoring the potential of new media. What’s more, Disney films like “A Bug’s Life” in 1998 had yielded few merchandising opportunities — what child wants to snuggle up with an ant?
It was about a month after Mooney’s arrival that the magic struck. That’s when he flew to Phoenix to check out his first “Disney on Ice” show. “Standing in line in the arena, I was surrounded by little girls dressed head to toe as princesses,” he told me last summer in his palatial office, then located in Burbank, and speaking in a rolling Scottish burr. “They weren’t even Disney products. They were generic princess products they’d appended to a Halloween costume. And the light bulb went off. Clearly there was latent demand here. So the next morning I said to my team, ‘O.K., let’s establish standards and a color palette and talk to licensees and get as much product out there as we possibly can that allows these girls to do what they’re doing anyway: projecting themselves into the characters from the classic movies.’ ”
Mooney picked a mix of old and new heroines to wear the Pantone pink No. 241 corona: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan and Pocahontas. It was the first time Disney marketed characters separately from a film’s release, let alone lumped together those from different stories. To ensure the sanctity of what Mooney called their individual “mythologies,” the princesses never make eye contact when they’re grouped: each stares off in a slightly different direction as if unaware of the others’ presence.
It is also worth noting that not all of the ladies are of royal extraction. Part of the genius of “Princess” is that its meaning is so broadly constructed that it actually has no meaning. Even Tinker Bell was originally a Princess, though her reign didn’t last. “We’d always debate over whether she was really a part of the Princess mythology,” Mooney recalled. “She really wasn’t.” Likewise, Mulan and Pocahontas, arguably the most resourceful of the bunch, are rarely depicted on Princess merchandise, though for a different reason. Their rustic garb has less bling potential than that of old-school heroines like Sleeping Beauty. (When Mulan does appear, she is typically in the kimonolike hanfu, which makes her miserable in the movie, rather than her liberated warrior’s gear.)
The first Princess items, released with no marketing plan, no focus groups, no advertising, sold as if blessed by a fairy godmother. To this day, Disney conducts little market research on the Princess line, relying instead on the power of its legacy among mothers as well as the instant-read sales barometer of the theme parks and Disney Stores. “We simply gave girls what they wanted,” Mooney said of the line’s success, “although I don’t think any of us grasped how much they wanted this. I wish I could sit here and take credit for having some grand scheme to develop this, but all we did was envision a little girl’s room and think about how she could live out the princess fantasy. The counsel we gave to licensees was: What type of bedding would a princess want to sleep in? What kind of alarm clock would a princess want to wake up to? What type of television would a princess like to see? It’s a rare case where you find a girl who has every aspect of her room bedecked in Princess, but if she ends up with three or four of these items, well, then you have a very healthy business.”
Every reporter Mooney talks to asks some version of my next question: Aren’t the Princesses, who are interested only in clothes, jewelry and cadging the handsome prince, somewhat retrograde role models?
“Look,” he said, “I have friends whose son went through the Power Rangers phase who castigated themselves over what they must’ve done wrong. Then they talked to other parents whose kids had gone through it. The boy passes through. The girl passes through. I see girls expanding their imagination through visualizing themselves as princesses, and then they pass through that phase and end up becoming lawyers, doctors, mothers or princesses, whatever the case may be.”
Mooney has a point: There are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. On the other hand, there is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs — who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty — are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception. What’s more, the 23 percent decline in girls’ participation in sports and other vigorous activity between middle and high school has been linked to their sense that athletics is unfeminine. And in a survey released last October by Girls Inc., school-age girls overwhelmingly reported a paralyzing pressure to be “perfect”: not only to get straight A’s and be the student-body president, editor of the newspaper and captain of the swim team but also to be “kind and caring,” “please everyone, be very thin and dress right.” Give those girls a pumpkin and a glass slipper and they’d be in business.
At the grocery store one day, my daughter noticed a little girl sporting a Cinderella backpack. “There’s that princess you don’t like, Mama!” she shouted.
“Um, yeah,” I said, trying not to meet the other mother’s hostile gaze.
“Don’t you like her blue dress, Mama?”
I had to admit, I did.
She thought about this. “Then don’t you like her face?”
“Her face is all right,” I said, noncommittally, though I’m not thrilled to have my Japanese-Jewish child in thrall to those Aryan features. (And what the heck are those blue things covering her ears?) “It’s just, honey, Cinderella doesn’t really do anything.”
Over the next 45 minutes, we ran through that conversation, verbatim, approximately 37 million times, as my daughter pointed out Disney Princess Band-Aids, Disney Princess paper cups, Disney Princess lip balm, Disney Princess pens, Disney Princess crayons and Disney Princess notebooks — all cleverly displayed at the eye level of a 3-year-old trapped in a shopping cart — as well as a bouquet of Disney Princess balloons bobbing over the checkout line. The repetition was excessive, even for a preschooler. What was it about my answers that confounded her? What if, instead of realizing: Aha! Cinderella is a symbol of the patriarchal oppression of all women, another example of corporate mind control and power-to-the-people! my 3-year-old was thinking, Mommy doesn’t want me to be a girl?
According to theories of gender constancy, until they’re about 6 or 7, children don’t realize that the sex they were born with is immutable. They believe that they have a choice: they can grow up to be either a mommy or a daddy. Some psychologists say that until permanency sets in kids embrace whatever stereotypes our culture presents, whether it’s piling on the most spangles or attacking one another with light sabers. What better way to assure that they’ll always remain themselves? If that’s the case, score one for Mooney. By not buying the Princess Pull-Ups, I may be inadvertently communicating that being female (to the extent that my daughter is able to understand it) is a bad thing.
Anyway, you have to give girls some credit. It’s true that, according to Mattel, one of the most popular games young girls play is “bride,” but Disney found that a groom or prince is incidental to that fantasy, a regrettable necessity at best. Although they keep him around for the climactic kiss, he is otherwise relegated to the bottom of the toy box, which is why you don’t see him prominently displayed in stores.
What’s more, just because they wear the tulle doesn’t mean they’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. Plenty of girls stray from the script, say, by playing basketball in their finery, or casting themselves as the powerful evil stepsister bossing around the sniveling Cinderella. I recall a headline-grabbing 2005 British study that revealed that girls enjoy torturing, decapitating and microwaving their Barbies nearly as much as they like to dress them up for dates. There is spice along with that sugar after all, though why this was news is beyond me: anyone who ever played with the doll knows there’s nothing more satisfying than hacking off all her hair and holding her underwater in the bathtub. Princesses can even be a boon to exasperated parents: in our house, for instance, royalty never whines and uses the potty every single time.
“Playing princess is not the issue,” argues Lyn Mikel Brown, an author, with Sharon Lamb, of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes.” “The issue is 25,000 Princess products,” says Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College. “When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”
It’s hard to imagine that girls’ options could truly be shrinking when they dominate the honor roll and outnumber boys in college. Then again, have you taken a stroll through a children’s store lately? A year ago, when we shopped for “big girl” bedding at Pottery Barn Kids, we found the “girls” side awash in flowers, hearts and hula dancers; not a soccer player or sailboat in sight. Across the no-fly zone, the “boys” territory was all about sports, trains, planes and automobiles. Meanwhile, Baby GAP’s boys’ onesies were emblazoned with “Big Man on Campus” and the girls’ with “Social Butterfly”; guess whose matching shoes were decorated on the soles with hearts and whose sported a “No. 1” logo? And at Toys “R” Us, aisles of pink baby dolls, kitchens, shopping carts and princesses unfurl a safe distance from the “Star Wars” figures, GeoTrax and tool chests. The relentless resegregation of childhood appears to have sneaked up without any further discussion about sex roles, about what it now means to be a boy or to be a girl. Or maybe it has happened in lieu of such discussion because it’s easier this way.
Easier, that is, unless you want to buy your daughter something that isn’t pink. Girls’ obsession with that color may seem like something they’re born with, like the ability to breathe or talk on the phone for hours on end. But according to Jo Paoletti, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, it ain’t so. When colors were first introduced to the nursery in the early part of the 20th century, pink was considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red. Blue, with its intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness, was thought to be dainty. Why or when that switched is not clear, but as late as the 1930s a significant percentage of adults in one national survey held to that split. Perhaps that’s why so many early Disney heroines — Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Wendy, Alice-in-Wonderland — are swathed in varying shades of azure. (Purple, incidentally, may be the next color to swap teams: once the realm of kings and N.F.L. players, it is fast becoming the bolder girl’s version of pink.)
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, when amplifying age and sex differences became a key strategy of children’s marketing (recall the emergence of “ ’tween”), that pink became seemingly innate to girls, part of what defined them as female, at least for the first few years. That was also the time that the first of the generation raised during the unisex phase of feminism — ah, hither Marlo! — became parents. “The kids who grew up in the 1970s wanted sharp definitions for their own kids,” Paoletti told me. “I can understand that, because the unisex thing denied everything — you couldn’t be this, you couldn’t be that, you had to be a neutral nothing.”
The infatuation with the girlie girl certainly could, at least in part, be a reaction against the so-called second wave of the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s (the first wave was the fight for suffrage), which fought for reproductive rights and economic, social and legal equality. If nothing else, pink and Princess have resuscitated the fantasy of romance that that era of feminism threatened, the privileges that traditional femininity conferred on women despite its costs — doors magically opened, dinner checks picked up, Manolo Blahniks. Frippery. Fun. Why should we give up the perks of our sex until we’re sure of what we’ll get in exchange? Why should we give them up at all? Or maybe it’s deeper than that: the freedoms feminism bestowed came with an undercurrent of fear among women themselves — flowing through “Ally McBeal,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Sex and the City” — of losing male love, of never marrying, of not having children, of being deprived of something that felt essentially and exclusively female.
I mulled that over while flipping through “The Paper Bag Princess,” a 1980 picture book hailed as an antidote to Disney. The heroine outwits a dragon who has kidnapped her prince, but not before the beast’s fiery breath frizzles her hair and destroys her dress, forcing her to don a paper bag. The ungrateful prince rejects her, telling her to come back when she is “dressed like a real princess.” She dumps him and skips off into the sunset, happily ever after, alone.
There you have it, “Thelma and Louise” all over again. Step out of line, and you end up solo or, worse, sailing crazily over a cliff to your doom. Alternatives like those might send you skittering right back to the castle. And I get that: the fact is, though I want my daughter to do and be whatever she wants as an adult, I still hope she’ll find her Prince Charming and have babies, just as I have. I don’t want her to be a fish without a bicycle; I want her to be a fish with another fish. Preferably, one who loves and respects her and also does the dishes and half the child care.
There had to be a middle ground between compliant and defiant, between petticoats and paper bags. I remembered a video on YouTube, an ad for a Nintendo game called Super Princess Peach. It showed a pack of girls in tiaras, gowns and elbow-length white gloves sliding down a zip line on parasols, navigating an obstacle course of tires in their stilettos, slithering on their bellies under barbed wire, then using their telekinetic powers to make a climbing wall burst into flames. “If you can stand up to really mean people,” an announcer intoned, “maybe you have what it takes to be a princess.”
Now here were some girls who had grit as well as grace. I loved Princess Peach even as I recognized that there was no way she could run in those heels, that her peachiness did nothing to upset the apple cart of expectation: she may have been athletic, smart and strong, but she was also adorable. Maybe she’s what those once-unisex, postfeminist parents are shooting for: the melding of old and new standards. And perhaps that’s a good thing, the ideal solution. But what to make, then, of the young women in the Girls Inc. survey? It doesn’t seem to be “having it all” that’s getting to them; it’s the pressure to be it all. In telling our girls they can be anything, we have inadvertently demanded that they be everything. To everyone. All the time. No wonder the report was titled “The Supergirl Dilemma.”
The princess as superhero is not irrelevant. Some scholars I spoke with say that given its post-9/11 timing, princess mania is a response to a newly dangerous world. “Historically, princess worship has emerged during periods of uncertainty and profound social change,” observes Miriam Forman-Brunell, a historian at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Francis Hodgson Burnett’s original“Little Princess” was published at a time of rapid urbanization, immigration and poverty; Shirley Temple’s film version was a hit during the Great Depression. “The original folk tales themselves,” Forman-Brunell says, “spring from medieval and early modern European culture that faced all kinds of economic and demographic and social upheaval — famine, war, disease, terror of wolves. Girls play savior during times of economic crisis and instability.” That’s a heavy burden for little shoulders. Perhaps that’s why the magic wand has become an essential part of the princess get-up. In the original stories — even the Disney versions of them — it’s not the girl herself who’s magic; it’s the fairy godmother. Now if Forman-Brunell is right, we adults have become the cursed creatures whom girls have the thaumaturgic power to transform.
In the 1990s, third-wave feminists rebelled against their dour big sisters, “reclaiming” sexual objectification as a woman’s right — provided, of course, that it was on her own terms, that she was the one choosing to strip or wear a shirt that said “Porn Star” or make out with her best friend at a frat-house bash. They embraced words like “bitch” and “slut” as terms of affection and empowerment. That is, when used by the right people, with the right dash of playful irony. But how can you assure that? As Madonna gave way to Britney, whatever self-determination that message contained was watered down and commodified until all that was left was a gaggle of 6-year-old girls in belly-baring T-shirts (which I’m guessing they don’t wear as cultural critique). It is no wonder that parents, faced with thongs for 8-year-olds and Bratz dolls’ “passion for fashion,” fill their daughters’ closets with pink sateen; the innocence of Princess feels like a reprieve.
“But what does that mean?” asks Sharon Lamb, a psychology professor at Saint Michael’s College. “There are other ways to express ‘innocence’ — girls could play ladybug or caterpillar. What you’re really talking about is sexual purity. And there’s a trap at the end of that rainbow, because the natural progression from pale, innocent pink is not to other colors. It’s to hot, sexy pink — exactly the kind of sexualization parents are trying to avoid.”
Lamb suggested that to see for myself how “Someday My Prince Will Come” morphs into “Oops! I Did It Again,” I visit Club Libby Lu, the mall shop dedicated to the “Very Important Princess.”
Walking into one of the newest links in the store’s chain, in Natick, Mass., last summer, I had to tip my tiara to the founder, Mary Drolet: Libby Lu’s design was flawless. Unlike Disney, Drolet depended on focus groups to choose the logo (a crown-topped heart) and the colors (pink, pink, purple and more pink). The displays were scaled to the size of a 10-year-old, though most of the shoppers I saw were several years younger than that. The decals on the walls and dressing rooms — “I Love Your Hair,” “Hip Chick,” “Spoiled” — were written in “girlfriend language.” The young sales clerks at this “special secret club for superfabulous girls” are called “club counselors” and come off like your coolest baby sitter, the one who used to let you brush her hair. The malls themselves are chosen based on a company formula called the G.P.I., or “Girl Power Index,” which predicts potential sales revenues. Talk about newspeak: “Girl Power” has gone from a riot grrrrl anthem to “I Am Woman, Watch Me Shop.”
Inside, the store was divided into several glittery “shopping zones” called “experiences”: Libby’s Laboratory, now called Sparkle Spa, where girls concoct their own cosmetics and bath products; Libby’s Room; Ear Piercing; Pooch Parlor (where divas in training can pamper stuffed poodles, pugs and Chihuahuas); and the Style Studio, offering “Libby Du” makeover choices, including ’Tween Idol, Rock Star, Pop Star and, of course, Priceless Princess. Each look includes hairstyle, makeup, nail polish and sparkly tattoos.
As I browsed, I noticed a mother standing in the center of the store holding a price list for makeover birthday parties — $22.50 to $35 per child. Her name was Anne McAuliffe; her daughters — Stephanie, 4, and 7-year-old twins Rory and Sarah — were dashing giddily up and down the aisles.
“They’ve been begging to come to this store for three weeks,” McAuliffe said. “I’d never heard of it. So I said they could, but they’d have to spend their own money if they bought anything.” She looked around. “Some of this stuff is innocuous,” she observed, then leaned toward me, eyes wide and stage-whispered: “But ... a lot of it is horrible. It makes them look like little prostitutes. It’s crazy. They’re babies!”
As we debated the line between frivolous fun and JonBenét, McAuliffe’s daughter Rory came dashing up, pigtails haphazard, glasses askew. “They have the best pocketbooks here,” she said breathlessly, brandishing a clutch with the words “Girlie Girl” stamped on it. “Please, can I have one? It has sequins!”
“You see that?” McAuliffe asked, gesturing at the bag. “What am I supposed to say?”
On my way out of the mall, I popped into the “ ’tween” mecca Hot Topic, where a display of Tinker Bell items caught my eye. Tinker Bell, whose image racks up an annual $400 million in retail sales with no particular effort on Disney’s part, is poised to wreak vengeance on the Princess line that once expelled her. Last winter, the first chapter book designed to introduce girls to Tink and her Pixie Hollow pals spent 18 weeks on The New York Times children’s best-seller list. In a direct-to-DVD now under production, she will speak for the first time, voiced by the actress Brittany Murphy. Next year, Disney Fairies will be rolled out in earnest. Aimed at 6- to 9-year-old girls, the line will catch them just as they outgrow Princess. Their colors will be lavender, green, turquoise — anything but the Princess’s soon-to-be-babyish pink.
To appeal to that older child, Disney executives said, the Fairies will have more “attitude” and “sass” than the Princesses. What, I wondered, did that entail? I’d seen some of the Tinker Bell merchandise that Disney sells at its theme parks: T-shirts reading, “Spoiled to Perfection,” “Mood Subject to Change Without Notice” and “Tinker Bell: Prettier Than a Princess.” At Hot Topic, that edge was even sharper: magnets, clocks, light-switch plates and panties featured “Dark Tink,” described as “the bad girl side of Miss Bell that Walt never saw.”
Girl power, indeed.
A few days later, I picked my daughter up from preschool. She came tearing over in a full-skirted frock with a gold bodice, a beaded crown perched sideways on her head. “Look, Mommy, I’m Ariel!” she crowed. referring to Disney’s Little Mermaid. Then she stopped and furrowed her brow. “Mommy, do you like Ariel?”
I considered her for a moment. Maybe Princess is the first salvo in what will become a lifelong struggle over her body image, a Hundred Years’ War of dieting, plucking, painting and perpetual dissatisfaction with the results. Or maybe it isn’t. I’ll never really know. In the end, it’s not the Princesses that really bother me anyway. They’re just a trigger for the bigger question of how, over the years, I can help my daughter with the contradictions she will inevitably face as a girl, the dissonance that is as endemic as ever to growing up female. Maybe the best I can hope for is that her generation will get a little further with the solutions than we did.
For now, I kneeled down on the floor and gave my daughter a hug.
She smiled happily. “But, Mommy?” she added. “When I grow up, I’m still going to be a fireman.”
Peggy Orenstein is a contributing writer for the magazine. Her book “Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, An Oscar, An Atomic Bomb, A Romantic Night and One Woman’s Quest to Become a Mother” will be published in February by Bloomsbury.