October 25, 2011

{Princess Redux} Disney Princesses: Part One

[excerpt from upcoming book The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride]

In 2000, as the world was merging into a new millennium, the nature of the princess myth changed dramatically. In fact, before this new level of hyped-up consumerism, the influence of the princess myth could have been considered subtle. Andrew P. Mooney had just become president of the consumer products division of the Walt Disney Company and saw the next huge market: little girls! He became the chief pioneer of the super successful $4 billion Disney Princess franchise. An idea, he said, that came to him while attending a Disney on Ice event where he realized that there was a demand for “princess products” that would allow young girls to “project themselves into the character from the classic movies.”

Or as Peggy Orenstein, who has written extensively about girls and women’s issues and is the author of the 2011 book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, puts it: “…he went to an ice show in Phoenix and he saw a bunch of little girls dressed as princesses. And horrors: they were wearing homemade costumes that they had developed with their imaginations. That had to be stopped—that had to be licensed.” So old Disney-version favorites like Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were joined by newer Disney enhanced fairy-tale characters Ariel (“The Little Mermaid”), Belle (“Beauty and the Beast”) and Jasmine (“Aladdin”) to become crowned princess-sisters!

“Mooney picked a mix of old and new heroines to wear the Pantone pink No. 241 corona,” wrote Orenstein in “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?,” her 2006 article for the New York Times Magazine that inspired her new book. There are now more than 25,000 Disney Princess items for sale worldwide according to the author. “‘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.’” (Yeah…little girls crave sugar as well; and if they have too much, they become addicted!)

The executive added in his interview with Orenstein that little girls and boys “pass through” various stages of attachment in childhood. “‘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….’” But there’s a big difference in a child being encouraged to use their imagination naturally and to be indulged in staggering overkill by their parents, grandparents and others—usually because of an attempt to fulfill something incomplete in their own desires.

In an interview on American Public Media’s show, “Marketplace Morning Report,” broadcast soon after Orenstein’s Cinderella book came out, the host Jeremy Hobson asked the author about the Disney princess phenomenon: “Now, when you think about all of the characters that little girls look up to and want to be like, I would think princesses would be the least bad.” In response, Orenstein shared: “What happens with the princess culture is that it goes from being this sort of sweet, innocent wand-waving thing to being about being the princess diva, and [about] the make-up. The culture is telling them and encouraging them to define themselves from the outside in.” It’s as though we’ve put the mentality of those little girl beauty pageants, like “Toddlers & Tiaras” (sexing up two year-olds) on a global loudspeaker, announcing to the girls of the world that they’re not okay just the way they are. (Change, and you’ll be pretty. Change, and you’ll be popular. Change the way you naturally are and you’ll be happy.)

This is one of the problems with Disney’s “princesses.” Their look is the masculine-driven idea of the feminine ideal straight out of a Victorian romance novel, only now with digital enhancements. The characters not only continued but reinforced the convoluted Western extreme of female “beauty” by molding the dolls, or drawing the images, or air-brushing the real-live models into distorted versions of being a woman: tiny waistline, large breasts, long silky hair, big eyes, flawless skin, high-bridged nose, long slim neck—and the Photoshop list goes on. And this distorted image was part of a worldwide marketing campaign going straight to the hearts and psyches of pre-teen, and now much younger, girls.

The images were a retro trend toward the ultra-feminine; as though returning to the Barbie doll stereotype (that’s been around since 1959 when the doll made its debut), but with an injection of Disney steroids! Granted, many of the new Disney characters (later labeled “princess” by the marketing team even if they weren’t “royal” or a real princess) were strong, independent, think-for-themselves girls or young women and healthy role models as characterized in the original film from which the characters came. (Or like new versions of old fairy-tale characters that are not part of the princess realm. For instance, Rapunzel in the 2010 Disney film, Tangled, that I mentioned earlier and which I liked.) However, when the characters became more sexualized with the girly-girl marketing slant, then there is trouble at the castle. ~

[Part Two of “Disney Princesses” will be posted in a few days; all are excerpts from the soon-to-be released book, The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride. To see other excerpts in the series, click on Disney Princesses in Labels below.]

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