A few days ago, while my daughter was watching a t.v. show, I happened to catch a Disney commercial (more like an infomercial) in which a lucky girl was surprised with a Disney Princess Makeover. The little girl gets whisked off into makeover land while her parents are interviewed behind-the-scenes about her princess obsession ("When she dresses up, she always dresses up like a princess!") and the little girl is interviewed about which princess she likes best: "Belle" she replies. Her makeover expert asks her what she likes about her, "She's kind." "How does it make you feel to be a princess?" "Proud," says the little girl beaming while her hair is being put up and her lips coated with lipgloss. The final "reveal" is the moment when the little girl sees herself in a floor length mirror wearing a pale yellow gown and sparkly tiara for the first time and her parents come in to see the finished product with the father proclaiming, "She's my princess!" (That's when I cringed.)
I wondered what the little girl (who by the way was African American and had not chosen the one African American Disney princess, Tiana) saw in the mirror. She was now a complete princess transformed as if by magic because there was little she had actually done to become one. She just sat passively while someone made up her face, gave her an updo, and helped her don the dress and tiara and...voila! Basically, becoming a princess means you get to look pretty. Then what? And while I commend the little girl in this Disney piece for choosing a wonderful quality such as kindness to describe her favorite princess, all I could think was wouldn't it be nice if she could identify with a character that is kind, but one that also offers something more in terms of substance?
Something that further illustrates this phenomenon of becoming a princess is Mattel's video for Barbie's Princess Charm School. It is in fact very similar to the makeover process that the little girl receives in the Disney bit. While I haven't seen the entire video, the trailer says it all (I don't think it's necessary to watch the entire video). A little girl named Blaire gets whisked off to Princess Charm School ("Wow! You get to ride in a carriage!") where she immediately is introduced to her "personal princess assistant" and begins to learn all the ways of princess. Cut to scenes of her walking while balancing books on her head, and dancing with a handsome young man. Blaire says, "We just use some hard work to unlock our princess potential" as she is seen getting a facial with her hair wrapped in a towel while fairies yell out "manicure time!" The voice-over tells us that "she'll learn what it will take to become a real princess" while the head mistress of the school says, "I believe every one of you has princess potential!"
With ten current princesses in the Disney Princess franchise (Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, and Rapunzel), and those who are considered unofficial princesses and a host of other princess options, every little girl has their pick of the royal litter. Of course, it wasn't always this way. I was born in 1965 when there was just Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty (didn't even know her name was Aurora). I recall seeing the movies, but have no recollection of anything else. I never dressed up as a princess and there certainly were no princess sections in toy stores like there are now. Technically, princess culture was not created until the year 2000. That's when Peggy Orenstein, in her now well-known book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, notes the intentional strategy by Disney to form a princess group. She says, "It was a risky move: Disney had never marketed its characters separately from a film's release...[t]hat is why, these days, when the ladies appear on the same item, they never make eye contact. Each stares off in a slightly different direction, as if unaware of the others' presence." Once the princesses were marketed this way, profits literally exploded: "Within a year, sales had soared to $300 million. By 2009, they were at $4 billion."
She goes on to say that there are more than 26,000 Disney Princess items (and I'm sure that's growing) on the market. Twenty-six thousand (26,000)! So, when I hear some say that it's not right to move in on the princess ideal or that being "anti-princess" isn't right or that "You don't want to alienate girls who like princess"--I remind them that there are 26,000 princess items on the market--who is anti and who is alienating? Aren't there enough tiaras for everyone to literally drown in? And shouldn't there be more alternatives to princess given the over-abundance of sparkliness that seems to be reproducing faster than the rat population?
As I watched the Disney Princess Makeover moment with my daughter, who is as non-princess as you can get (not all girls have--or want to have--princess potential), I wondered how we got to be this instant makeover society that teaches young girls to value appearance over almost everything else while thinking adults simply accept the false premise that it is completely normal for girls to be obsessed with princess. That's because it's been like a slow, steady IV drip adjusted by large corporations over the years--you don't even feel it.
Look--I am not unemotional or coldhearted. I see how much wonder and excitement young girls seem to feel when they dress and look like a princess and it can be sweet. It's a fairy tale moment. But it is a fairy tale. Sure, a lot of girls grow out of it, but many are locked into an unattainable idea of perfection and beauty that never ends--or as my friend Lori Day puts it in her article, The Gender Pendulum: "Girls fall down a rabbit hole of beauty propaganda from which they may never emerge." Do you want that to be your daughter? Just think if there were a surprise makeover for a girl in which she was told, "I believe you have astronaut potential" or "scientist potential" or "heroic potential." Why always princess? Wouldn't it be amazing if you could watch your daughter's face light up thinking she could be president someday? After all, the chances of her becoming president are greater than her becoming a princess.