November 8, 2011

{Princess Redux} Disney Princesses: Part Two

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

Toddlers & Tiaras contestant
“‘The ever increasing marketing to younger and younger girls of an adult sexualized version of the princesses is concerning,’” Tomi-Ann Roberts said in a 2007 interview (by Merissa Marr ) titled “Disney Reaches to the Crib to Extend Princess Magic” in The Wall Street Journal. Roberts, a professor of psychology at Colorado College who co-authored a report on the sexualization of girls, is not the only critic who is concerned that “encouraging young girls to obsess about being a princess sends the wrong message, with too much focus on being beautiful and not more substantive achievements,” Marr’s report adds.

Barbie as Princess
But it wasn’t just Disney. Other companies and entrepreneurs found that “pink is the new gold”—as Peggy Orenstein had declared! In 2001, “Mattel brought out its own ‘world of girl’ line of princess Barbie dolls, DVDs, toys, clothing, home décor and myriad other products,” Orenstein wrote in her New York Times article. This was at a time, she explained, that sales for Barbie were declining in the United States, but after being crowned “princess,” the dolls “became instant best sellers.” Another huge factor in the princess saturation of little girls’ psyche was already underway. A former Montgomery Ward executive, Chicago-area mother Mary Drolet, opened Club Libby Lu which grew into “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.’” Orenstein reported that “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….”

Features like The Princess Diaries books and movies (three Disney films that began in 2001 based on Meg Cabot’s series of novels) and other princess-props of pop culture, continued to “up the princess ante” and lower the age of targeted little girls in the marketing campaigns that “presented what many girls throughout the world want to do: live a princess life,” according to the study “Modern Princesses” by Julia Shin. (Or at least what they think it is to live a princess life!) The bigger, real person picture of Princess Diana’s life shows that being beautiful, marrying a prince, having a palace for a home, and living in the world spotlight doesn’t equate to being happy.

When I was working on the final stages of this book, I enjoyed a chat with my neighbor’s 13-year-old niece who was spending her spring break with them in the mountains. I asked Emily—who just happens to be a descendant of the Spencer family, a 17th cousin of Princess Diana her aunt explained—about her take on the whole princess thing. “Well, when I was a little girl,”—meaning four or five when the Disney Princess enterprise was in high gear with their princess heroine marketing company—“my best friend came up and sat down right in front of me and asked, ‘Who is your favorite princess? Which one do you want to be?’ I knew what she meant, I’d seen the movies but I didn’t think of them as princesses. Maybe Ariel was my favorite, but I wasn’t much into that, I just wanted to be me.”

Lois Smith Brady, longtime “Vows” columnist for the New York Times, wrote on the occasion of Prince William’s engagement to Kate Middleton in 2010:

Most people I know are wary of fairy tales and princesses, at least traditional ones. Ever since Diana, the dream of wearing a tiara has been kind of tarnished. I have a teenage son, and I have never heard any of his girlfriends say they want to marry a prince someday.

“I never wanted to be a princess,” said one [15 year-old girl]. “It seems like their life is superguarded [sic] and they’re not really allowed to go on adventures.” Her sister, 14, added: “None of my friends want to be princesses. They all want to be pop stars.”

Has “American Idol” usurped the ages-long “princess myth” so that “pop stars” are now the new “princesses” for young girls? Either way, it still continues the assault on girls to “be somebody else, you’re not okay the way you are”—and unfortunately the message is be a sexed-up, sassy seven-year old! According to Peggy Orenstein the “girl-power” of the 90’s got hijacked by the new hard-edged pretty and pink “girly-girl” culture.

Orenstein, who has written about girls for nearly two decades including her groundbreaking book from 1995, Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, asks: “Could today’s little princess become tomorrow’s sexting teen? And what if she does? Would that make her in charge of her sexuality—or an unwitting captive to it?” The author encourages parents to pay more attention to what’s in their little girls’ world:

Pink and pretty or predatory and hardened, sexualized girlhood influences our daughters from infancy onward, telling them that how a girl looks matters more than who she is. Somewhere between the exhilarating rise of Girl Power in the 1990s and today, the pursuit of physical perfection has been recast as a source—the source—of female empowerment. And commercialization has spread the message faster and farther, reaching girls at ever-younger ages. ~

[Part Three 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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