Girls looking for the tiara they so richly deserve

Material World

September 05, 2004|By Mary McNamara | Mary McNamara,Los Angeles Times

Where once they stood alone, now they are united, their faces smiling up from T-shirts and backpacks in small groups like particularly well-coifed members of the Justice League. They hold teas and birthday parties, hold classes in animal husbandry and geography, and have their own color scheme, including a signature paint available at Home Depot. Their influence over fashion is incalculable -- their clothing and accessories are coveted by and reproduced for millions of fans. They are about to launch their own line of personal care products.

They are the Disney Princesses, and their goal is world domination.

In 2004, 23 years since the publication of The Cinderella Complex: Women's Hidden Fear of Independence, princess culture is entering what can only be considered its Golden Age. In the three years since Disney executives decided to consolidate Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Belle (Beauty and the Beast) and Jasmine (Aladdin) into one brand, princess merchandise sales have skyrocketed from $200 million in 2000 to $2 billion last year.

In Los Angeles, Disney Princess teas held in conjunction with the release of Princess Diaries 2 at the El Capitan Theater sold out weeks before the movie had its premiere. Those teas, and other princess-themed events, have become popular permanent additions to Walt Disney World attractions. In Japan, princess classes, which began in Tokyo three years ago as an attempt to introduce the new princess brand, have spread to five cities -- last year, more than 15,000 girls paid $150 a pop to learn from Snow White how to love animals or from Ariel how to sing.

And princesses don't just rule the Disney kingdom. As the media serves up stories of middle- and upper-class mothers bowing out of the workplace in search of new family values, females of every age now sport crowns and tiaras and T-shirts proclaiming their temperamental if not dynastic claim to the word.

She's got the power

Princess costumes and accouterment remain top sellers at toy stores everywhere. Barbie and her many full-size accessories are available in fairy tale and international princess form. Recent movies such as Ella Enchanted, The Prince & Me, A Cinderella Story and Princess Diaries 2 have hauled out all the time-honored symbols of the mythology -- the jewels, the dresses, the handsome boyfriend and, of course, all that dancing.

The films, like the books that many are based on, all have slight post-feminist twists, but they still adhere to the basic princess ethos: You may think for the moment that you are a normal, powerless girl plagued by mean friends and nagging parents / stepparents, but really you are a princess, with liberation and a truly excellent wardrobe just a few plot points away.

"Whether feminists like it or not," says Gary Foster, spokes-man for Disney consumer products, "at some point in their lives, most girls want to be a princess."

"The princess brand is all about fantasy," adds Mary Beech, director of franchise management for Disney Princess. "It's transformational and allows the girls to be in charge, and in real life, children aren't in charge of very much."

Foster and Beech may have a bit of a bias, but they are merely echoing the sentiments of psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in his groundbreaking 1985 book, The Uses of Enchantment. "Every child at some time wishes that he were a prince or a princess," he wrote, "and at times, in his unconscious, the child believes he is one, only temporarily degraded by circumstances."

It's wish-fulfillment

"The princess myth is very tempting," says Maria Tatar, dean of humanities at Harvard University and author of The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. "You start out as disempowered and, by becoming royalty, you don't have to do the work, you get everything you want."

The "rags-to-riches story is everywhere these days," says Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.

"The princess is the last frontier of acceptable girliness," she says. She applauds any arena that allows girls to access playfulness and protects them from sexualizing themselves before they are ready. "It points to how crazy our times have become that I, as a feminist, am promoting princess culture because, hey, at least you don't have a 12-year-old wearing a thong."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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