Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Problem With Princesses

It may come as a surprise, but as a child, I wasn't a particularly girly girl. I spent most of my time at swim practice, climbing trees, making mud pies with my sister and generally spending the days barefoot outside. But even as a sunburned, dirt-caked, hyperactive kid, I loved playing make-believe with my sister and friends, usually dressing up as our moms, or in a close second, as tea party-attending princesses. I understand the allure for a little girl of being a princess... you get to wear pretty clothes, you're beautiful and glamorous, there isn't anyone to boss you around (you might even have maids!) and you get to be swept off of your feet by a handsome prince who chose you over every other girl in the kingdom.

After about an hour of play, I usually got sick of pretending to be a princess. Those poufy dresses didn't lend themselves well to digging up worms or playing capture the flag with the kids next door. And I shed my princess fantasies altogether by the time I hit middle school, when I started thinking more about all the cool things I could do as an adult, and sitting in a castle for the rest of my life didn't match my growing ambition.

But I am clearly in the minority, since Disney's booming "Disney Princess" franchise is worth over $4 billion and continues to capture the hearts (and pocketbooks) of girls and grown women across America. Disney bets that being a princess is an aspiration that begins at birth (princess cribs and changing pads!), continues through childhood (costumes, clothes, shoes, furniture, toys and so much more), and continues until a girl can realize her princess dreams on her wedding day with a Disney princess-inspired gown and then decorate her castle, er, I mean home, with princess decor. She can even pay for it all with an Ariel Visa credit card.

I don't know about you, but I find this trend a little disturbing. Obviously fantasy and make-believe are a crucial part of childhood, and I'd never suggest that it's bad for girls to do what I did as a child or go through a "I want to be a princess when I grow up" phase. But I don't know if it's great to be pushing the princess idea so heavily, and there's certainly a point where a girl should grow out of wanting to be a princess.


One of the problems with the Disney princesses is that they represent a very specific version of femininity, particularly an image-focused, sexualized one. In every Disney movie, the princess has proportions that make even Barbie seem frumpy, with big hair, huge eyes, large breasts, an itty-bitty waist, curved hips and long legs. They dress in form-fitting often sexy clothes and are uniformly gorgeous. Their beauty, kindness and gentle nature (but mostly beauty) enchants a prince, who is there to sweep them off their feet. There's almost always a class element to the story, with the princess being poor until she meets the prince (who always has money) and never has to work again (which is the dream come true, apparently). Don't plan on getting an education if you want to be a princess. Brains are unnecessary for this job, and you'll never use them anyway.

Being a princess is just about as far from empowering as one could get. Unlike queens, princesses have no power or agency... they don't really do much of anything. If you want to be a princess, don't think about having a career on the side. Being rich and beautiful is enough to fulfill you. Let your prince go out and fight wars and rule kingdoms, you've go to get ready for the next ball.

So what attracts grown women to this fantasy? The idea of giving up housework forever, of escaping an unfulfilling job, of relieving financial burdens and the pressure of balancing work and family life? I don't really understand how the princess alternative is so much better. And it's interesting that the same group of princesses are marketed to children and adults... you have women in their 20's, 30's and 40's idealizing these teenaged cartoon characters.

I think it's particularly telling that Disney has been so successful in the wedding market. Weddings have taken on this ridiculous importance in recent years as women have been hammered with the idea that their wedding day is the one day in their lives when they should be treated as princesses (one frequent refrain is "this is the most important day of your life!"). The bridal industry has been extremely successful in transferring the purpose of wedding from celebrating a relationship and a commitment between two people to making the bride's every wish come true by making her the star of the show.

One final note: if I ever get an invitation to a Disney Princess themed wedding, I'm going to gag.

20 comments:

Mom 2 Divas said...

Having two young daughters, I was always worried aout this whole princess thing. I don't push it or encourage it but with birthdays and Christmas, someone always ends up giving us something that is Disney Princess related. I've come to the conclusion that it is unavoidable because I am not the type to tell people "Don't buy that for me kids." On a postiive note, both are not interested in being princesses. They'd rather take care of their dolls with their medical set, play with cars, puzzles, cards, build and draw. Who knows if this will change in the future but for now, I am happy they have other interests.

Cate said...

Interesting point, Meg, but I think that the princess mentality is echoed in the culture at large, and that Disney is simply capitalizing on a larger trend. 20 years ago, there were Disney princesses, but there was not the culture of conspicuous consumption we live in now. The way I see it, grown women decking themselves out in head-to-toe Dior or Chanel are operating on the same "i am a princess, i deserve the best" mentality. Although a finger can be pointed at Disney for starting the trend, I think pop culture has created a real life version for women to aspire to (rather than the mythical, actual princess aspiration). Seen in that light, the Disney monetization of the actual princess trend is actual conceivable. The majority of women can't afford the real life princess (the Dior girl), and so their wish fulfillment comes from pretending to be a princess for a day at their wedding...or representing themselves as a princess with a piece of jewelry.
I really like your point about the highly sexualized and image-conscious princess that Disney purveys, because I see them as helping socialize young girls into understanding the "Correct" figure and face much too early in their development. Even Mulan was a skinny waif!

sparkler said...

Full disclosure: My husband's pet name for me is Princess, and my niece loves the Disney Princess stuff.

But my niece is 2 and is also already quite a force with which to be reckoned. And while my husband spoils me rotten, I have no illusions or desires about being a brainless twit loved only for my looks.

I agree with you that it's fine for little girls to want to be pretty princesses as long as they are aware that they can be other things, too. I also agree that the culture of weddings has gotten totally out of control – to the point where people think it's OK to torment their friends and family with selfish, egocentric crap because "it's my special day!"

But my biggest problem with the Princesses is that there's only one who isn't white. Jasmine seems lucky to have even managed to sneak in there, Mulan is omitted, and I can't even name an African American Disney character. Apparently only white girls in big dresses are Princess material.

Anonymous said...

Great topic -- this has bothered me for a while now, but I (also) don't want to be too puritan and request well meaning friends and family to NOT buy my daughter anything in this theme. I hate how all their expressions are so coy and "come hither" and their poses and body types so sexualized. Disney was smart to see the potential, but the characters are too shallow and one dimensional for my taste. I prefer the American Girl line. While expensive, at least there's some historical storyline to go along with all the "stuff", and the girl's image is more realistic.

Ms. P&C said...

Oh my goodness - Meg, you and I are on the same wavelength...again!

I hate the notion of "princess" being applied to any modern woman. It makes my skin crawl.

Lately, I've been watching TLC's "Say Yes to the Dress" - don't ask me why, it's not like I'm getting married any time soon, but it's a good time-killer on a weekend afternoon. Anyways, in this show, women go to Kleinfeld's Bridal Salon to pick out wedding dresses. They're all New Yorkers and seem to bring their parents, grandparents and best friends to pick out the dress too. Why the entourage? Who knows...

Inevitably, the initial meeting goes like this:

Consultant: "So, how do you image your wedding day, or how do you picture yourself on your wedding day."

Bride-to-Be: "I want to look like a princess."

This is the point in the program when I start throwing things at the television.

WHY WHY WHY? What is the big effing deal about being a "princess"? Big, poofy dresses are rarely flattering, and why build up this huge fantasy expectation when the next day you're going to be married to a man, who though hopefully kind, loving and wonderful, is still a man...not a myth, and certainly not a prince. (At least not one with the title of prince...) It's like they come to buy the dress and any intelligence or confidence goes out the window and they have to bow down to the boring ideal they've harbored since preschool.

I just don't get it. I would rather be myself than some animated ideal...UGH! I gotta stop watching that show.

merideth said...

I am 40, but I know that if the Disney Princess phenomenon was around 30 or 35 years ago, I would have LOVED it. The hypersexualization would have gone right over my head.

Is anything different decades later? Well, I have a job and a house and a family, and they are all truly wonderful. But after years of hard work, do I find the idea of "giving up housework forever, escaping an unfulfilling job, relieving financial burdens and the pressure of balancing work and family life" appealing? Hell, yes. Sign me up.

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean, and I especially think it permeates interpersonal relationships. I know too many women who chose their boyfriends/husbands according to a strict laundry list, and have molded them over the years to become exactly what they (think) they want, instead of appreciating and valuing them for who they are. They choose the image over the relationship. How messed up is that? Disney Fairytale weddings are just an extension of that in my opinion.

lisa said...

Great post. I too find it disturbing that grown women would want to buy Disney princess wedding gowns.

I also agree with cate's comments about how the Princess phenomenon is an echo of what's going on in pop culture. If we look for the real life princesses, the girls who waltz through life without purpose but gaining fame because they're attractive/rich/well-connected, we find--celebutantes.

Andi O'Rourke said...

Meg, I think we would have been friends growing up!! I was a swimmer and a tomboy and I loved climbing... trees, roofs, the car, ladders :) I gave my parents quite a time!

But anyways, even with my tomboy bias, I think that this whole "Princess" ambition that most little girls have is a grotesque extension of the American Dream- "do everything right, and you can be anything you want to be! " (IRONICALLY one thing that it is IMPOSSIBLE to become in America) or even to an extent what kids are told time and time again by adults "you are special, you can do whatever you want". Well, when what they want to be when they grow up is a princess, ta da, Disney Princesses. And the twisted part is now in wedding planning, we see the first generation of Disney Princesses growing up and being a princess!! (for a day).

Side note- when I see these bridal shows, I really wonder "where the hell is the husband in all of this??? isn't a wedding supposed to celebrate the JOING of TWO people and not the egotistical bitchfits of an overgrown teenager?" i know that my boy has always wanted to get married and he has his own ideas about a wedding... don't these other men have the cajones to stand up for their wants??

It all comes back to entitlement... when we raise kids from such an early age that they are the center of attention and the center of the world, we create little monsters who grow up into big narcissists... and we wonder why divorce and debt are skyrocketing.... sorry for the rant guys... :)

Carolyn J. said...

It's all about control. The concept of a princess is about controlling countries and lines of succession. A princess's sexual appetites are under strict control.

Women who want the whole princess-thing seem to want control, too.

Victoria said...

I'm probably one of the more biased readers on this subject. I grew up in Florida and visited Walt Disney World regularly. Disney has always had an amazing regard for people with disabilities, and the theme parks were one of the only places I could be with my dad where people would treat him like a normal person. So, my positive feelings originating from that have caused me to associate a lot of great things with Disney in general, even extending itself to the Disney princess phenomenon. I even live in Orlando now, and I enjoy Disney on a regular basis as a Cast Member and a guest.

I would say I was like you as a kid. The princess game was fun for a little while, but others thing were more fun. My nieces have all had their time enjoying the princess phase. Many of my friends grew out of the princess phase like me but retain their appreciation for it.

I don't put as much thought into it as other people do. The princesses are just something that make people happy. I think it's unfortunate when it's tied to a sense of entitlement - good grief, I have seen some crazy spoiled weddings that the families couldn't afford as a decent example. But most of the time? It seems to be a lot more innocent than that. It's just another facet of live we can enjoy and appreciate - the princess facet. But it's not an entire identity.

Just my rambling thoughts on the matter!

Missy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I think your post and the comments on this thread are very inspiring and intellectually stimulating. It is a really grownup nice break for me from Noggin.

I am fully entrenched in the Mom world and have a 3 year old who has made it well known that she wants a "pwincess" for Christmas.

I find it ironic that the one true princess we know of so much about, Diana, had such a pathetic life. So I guess it really is the fantasy that women and girls are drawn towards.

As a mom, I am going with the flow. This week princesses, next week Curious George. Princesses are not my main concern - at least the Disney princess is required to exude grace and a positive attitude in the face of adversity, which are attitudes I would be thrilled for my daughters to embody. And aside from Jasmine in some fairly hoochie outfits, they dress quite modestly. In fact, I would wager that much of the princess obsession at least among little girls is all about fashion. They love the poofy dresses with the spin factor. And we all love a tiara.

What concerns me more is the Diva image that is being pushed on little girls, the Princess Slut image that is so prevalant today. The first time I went back to the Barbie aisle I was stunned. When did Barbie get so tramped up? And don't get me started on Bratz.

This is wherein the problem lies, because women are not apsiring to be a princess on their wedding days, a la Princess Grace or Diana. They are told to be a demanding selfish diva.

Frequently I see little girl outfits, pillows, etc etc with Diva In Training, It's All About Me, and other disgusting messages that embody exactly what I spend most of my day as a mother countering. Children are born selfish and egocentric, and we spend 18 years trying to diffuse those innate characteristics. But that is the exact opposite of what the culture pushes at the moment.

-Missy

Meg the Florida Bargain Queen said...

Great post, Meg!

Granted, my dad did a good job spoiling me when I was a kid, and my husband has continued it, but life has certainly not been a fairy tale for me or anyone else I know. We women have to take charge of our lives to succeed and the Disney princesses do anything but.

At 2, this "I'm a princess (waiting for my prince to make everything right)" mentality is cute. At 14, it's annoying. At 20-something it's scary and, well, any later and it's just pathetic.

There's nothing wrong with dressing up or expecting others to treat you well, but the overblown entitlement and fairytale expectations is where things go very wrong.

(By the way, some people might be a bit surprised but I was a bit of a tomboy, too. I loved camping, running around in the woods, and horseback riding as a kid.)

Ally said...

Speaking of hypersexualization, check out the Bratz dolls. My friend calls them Hooker Barbie.

Anyway, I'm with you on throwing up if I'm invited to a "Disney Princess Wedding." At some point, I guess growing up is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

ANOTHER GREAT post Meg - -

And I agree with pretty much everyone's comments, each with their own sides to the story.

As with all things in life - Moderation...

Meghan said...

Yes, a Disney-themed Princess wedding would merit gagging, and display a shocking lack of maturity for the bride and groom. Although little girls are oftentimes raised in pink-themed fairy-tale kingdoms, a dose of reality in the teens and twenties teaches them that romantic relationships are more about mutuality and companionship than being treated like a goddess.

Tracy said...

A friend of mine and I actually started to write a book about this very subject. We actually found the essence of princess myths empowering. Here's what I learned from princesses:

1. Honor my flow (Even when the world appears to be against you, do what feels right in your heart and everything will work out fine. Ex. Snow White and Cinderella)

2. Accept circumstances as gifts, even when they challenge you. (Cinderella spent NO time bitching and moaning about how unfair it was to clean the floors. She did what she was supposed to do and went to the ball AFTER her chores were done)

3. Cultivate a relationship with yourself and friends/partners will follow (In every princess story I know, the princess was never chasing a man or any other object. Princesses were just doing there thing, and people came to them. It flies in the face of what we are culturally taught to do, but I've been trying it and the results are SHOCKING.

3. Be honorable (no matter what happens around you or to you, nothing changes your inherant divinity. Treat EVERYONE like a loyal subject. I've also been trying this and I tell you that life is a lot sweeter)

I think that a lot of people try to cut corners, but princesses do not. Heavy is the crown.

Anonymous said...

Hey, just FYI Disney is coming out with an African American princess next year, apparently. She's from New Orleans and her name is Tiana, I think the movie is called The Princess and the Frog.
Must have finally clued in!!

Anonymous said...

... I have always thought that this Disney Princess thing is overrated, but I went to check out the wedding dress link (to have a good laugh). Those dresses are really pretty. I would wear almost anyone of them (except for Ariel... who would have thought that her modern character would be a whore?). I would not, however be married in a theme park. That is ridiculous. Why would I want to when I can pay less and be married in an *actual* location!