Prince William and Duchess Kate just wrapped up a visit to Australia. In a photo of Aussie crowds greeting the royals, two girls perhaps 5 or 6 years old stare upward at the Duchess’ face. One is clad in a costume modeled off Snow White’s. The other also wears a princess gown. Presumably, the two heard that they would be meeting a real live princess, and wanted to dress for the occasion. Who among us does not know at least one little girl who is happiest in a long, pink dress; wears a plastic tiara to the grocery store; recites the names of the princess collection before the ABC’s; and prefers that even her underwear are emblazoned with Disney royalty?
Somehow, images of slender femininity with flowing hair and royal pedigrees strikes a chord within the souls of small, female children across the globe. Not only can a professional party princess command a better annual salary than I did in my first teaching job, but Disney’s new line of princess merchandise also generated more than $4 billion between 2000 and 2009. This is true despite the efforts of many parents to avoid or sidestep the craze. A study by Sharon Hayes and Stacey Tantleff-Dunn observed that among the 3-year-olds to 6-year-olds they interviewed, the majority believed that they could be a princess, and over half said that a pretty dress or a crown would make them so.
It is easy to criticize the megabuck princess industry. One point of contention is the lack of diversity within the royal merchandise. In the study by Hayes and Tantleff-Dunn, the girls (contrary to researcher expectations) were not worried that their weight might prevent them from being princesses, but some of them did state that they would need to change their skin color from brown to white or to acquire yellow hair. It is common to urge Disney to diversify its line-up. When young Jewel More created an online petition to ask for a plus-sized princess as an encouragement to chubbier girls, she received interviews and write-ups in multiple media channels. Her request obviously struck a chord. In addition, re-imaginings of the Disney royalty as black, handicapped, and the like are frequently shared across social media. It is a testament indeed to the power of the princess industry that we speak as if it will legitimize girls in their own eyes to see a Disney princess who looks like them.
The industry is also heavily consumerist. Even if many of the movies on which it is based possess actual charm, the merchandise itself is slick, commercial, and plastic. It presents girls with dolled-up, physically unrealistic, uniform faces as role models. No matter how “spunky” and “spirited” these princesses are said to be, they still communicate the message that the key to success in life is to have diminutive waists and good fashion sense (not to mention small animal friends). They accustom little girls to adapting their attire and behavior to fit a media-created image. They encourage conspicuous consumption by creating masses of cheap (and not so cheap) merchandise for parents to shower upon their daughters. This commercialism may teach troubling lessons to our kids. In the book Cinderella Ate my Daughter, Peggy Orenstein points out that, “According to the American Psychological Association, the girlie-girl culture’s emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness can increase girls’ vulnerability to the pitfalls that most concern parents: depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, risky sexual behavior.” She argues that even if princess merchandise appears sweet and innocent, it prepares girls to receive their identity from the same popular culture that will pressure them as tweens to be image-driven and overly sexualized.
The Romance of Ordinary Life
Yet, as is often pointed out by princess defenders, this craze is merely a phase. Little girls grow out of fluffy dress-up gowns. They move on to other, less pink things. The question is, what are those things? When Aurora’s reunion with her prince fails to thrill, what kind of romances (in the broad sense of the word) are we offering older girls? It is interesting that dystopian stories are a hot thing in the world of young adult entertainment. Whether it is Divergent, Uglies, The Hunger Games, or even Game of Thrones, many young women gravitate toward books set in a world of cruel tyranny and dysfunctional societies. Somehow, images of determined, gutsy, politically helpless heroines in a dark and depressing world seem to strike a chord within the young adult soul. Perhaps this is connected to the relative pessimism of the younger generations. According to a Pew report, only half as many Millennials (19 percent) as Baby Boomers (40 percent) believe that most people can be trusted. More than half of teens in one survey worry that they will be financially worse off than their parents. I have certainly heard friends express the feeling that our elders have left us financially crippled in an ecologically destroyed world with corrupt politics, and yet have the gall to claim that we are lazy whiners who have it easier than they did. These friends are fans of dystopian fiction.
Correlation is not causation, but I wonder if, in a broad sense, the cultural message of pink princesses ultimately makes girls more receptive to stories in which traditional happy endings are impossible. Initially, many small girls really believe the princess story. They live and breathe it, plastic tiaras and all. What is this message that resonates with them? On a basic level, it is of course merely human to be attracted to youth, beauty, success, and happiness, as demonstrated by the friendly smile of the white-toothed heroine and opposed by the scowl of the witch. It is also the nature of a 3-year-old to believe that she is not only special but also probably the center of the universe, that she should be served by admiring retainers, that she is the best at everything, and that she should win the prize in every competition. The princess fantasy lures little girls in with shiny rhinestones and simultaneously tells them everything that they already believe. In a sense it is developmentally appropriate. However, the job of adults is not merely to mirror children back to themselves. Our job is to help them mature and grow beyond the narcissism of babyhood.
Adults are supposed to teach small children that the old, the ugly, the sick and handicapped, and even the grieving are human beings, just as fallible, and just as important, as pretty young maidens. We are supposed to help them see that they are not the center of the universe, but that this is OK, because their value does not depend on being any prettier, smarter, or more “special” than anyone else. We need to prepare them for the realization that most of us are just peasants without a single retainer, but that there is quite a bit of romance to the life of an ordinary peasant, after all. If we prepare them properly, real life won’t hit them like quite such a load of bricks. The thing is, the princess fantasy doesn’t just surround little girls with fluff. It actually weighs them down with a pressure that will feel heavier and heavier as they grow old enough to realize their own imperfections (if we continually communicate to little girls that they are beautiful, special winners, they will feel that they are expected to be beautiful, to win, and to be special, and who can fulfill that kind of expectation burden?). The Disney line-up and its accompanying merchandise makes it harder for girls to face the looming responsibility of adulthood.
Dystopian fiction is written as if it were designed to answer the questions of a soul who has been given only the babyish dreams of pink princesses with which to face real life—a soul that is secretly and angrily disappointed by the dawning realization that boys are not princes and kingdoms aren’t available, and that she herself is far from a perfect princess. Dystopian heroines cannot hope to save the world. Their worlds are too big, too bad, and too far gone to save. This message might sound gloomy. Yet it relieves the heroine of the responsibility to be heroic. It saves her from thinking that she need worry about anyone other than herself and her chosen, beloved few. It allows her to retreat to the ranks of the peasantry. It has been said that “Generation Y” is unhappy because they were told that they were special, and yet could not all be as special as they thought they deserved. Judging by the literature that is so eagerly devoured by today’s youth, they already know that they are not the center of anyone else’s world, and they do not want the pressure of being so.
What To Do About It
Yet the moral and political outlook of our dystopian bestsellers is tribal. It is as Lord-of-the-Flies-like as a Celtic legend or a high school hallway. It casts off the infantile narcissism of shiny pink crowns and takes on a grim, teenage struggle to snatch a little safety in a messed-up world. It assumes that most people cannot be trusted—neither to govern others justly, nor even to control themselves. It teaches especial suspicion of anyone who claims to be trying to improve the world, because that person is obviously trying to impose some view of their own on the masses. In some ways this outlook is realistic. People really are fatally flawed. They really are selfish, greedy, stupid, and inclined to murder for the crown. In fact, this kind of story is very much akin to the raw legends of ancient, warring cultures in which heroes struggle for survival and the gods favor the cunning.
Yet such a sketch of humanity is not the whole picture. People have minds (and, I would argue, souls) as well as bodies, and they desire more than mere survival or even just physical success. Our society was originally built around the understanding that humans are capable of seeking virtue as well as harboring vice. That understanding was what gave the founders the nerve to declare that humanity has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Dystopian novels may show individuals trying to maintain some kind of moral integrity, but they give no hope for societies or cultures as a whole. Taken in isolation, they may therefore undercut the motivation a former princess has for wondering whether there is a universal moral code that is true for everyone and helpful for society as a whole.
It is common to call upon toymakers and publishing houses to improve their offerings (“Just give us a plus-sized, non-white princess who drives Monster Trucks”). However, doesn’t this approach cede cultural power to companies whose job it is to make money off our kids? Isn’t it rather short-sighted to speak as if Disney and its ilk are welcome to instruct the souls of children, as long as their marketers first cave to social pressure and tweak a few products?
The problem is not that either pink princesses or dystopian fiction are evil. The problem is that they are insufficient to nurture the souls that seem so drawn to them. After all, how can they provide adequate intellectual and moral nutrition when, by and large, they are so highly processed and packaged? The real message is that our girls need us to step entirely outside of the shiny, commercial world that would channel them toward following one fad after another until their souls and sense of self are blunted. It is possible to raise children who are independent from commercial culture and who can safely dabble in a princess or two, or an occasional dystopia, without being shaped and limited by them. When I was young, before Bratz and its ilk pushed the envelope, Barbie was decried by many families I knew as a virtual sex toy and inappropriate for little girls. My sisters and I owned Barbie dolls (people kept giving them to us), but we had no idea how we were “supposed” to play with them. Our Barbies were pioneers with large families. They wore calico dresses that we sewed ourselves. They rode in covered wagons made from shoe boxes. Barbie may have entered our home, but Mattel and its commercial power did not.
How can children be taught such resistance to massive marketing campaigns that they sew prairie bonnets for a doll who is supposedly a hot chick? The answers that I observed in my own upbringing might seem radical. We did not watch any television (commercials are powerful things). We were not showered with material possessions—if we wanted a new doll, we usually had to earn money and buy it ourselves. When we were young and impressionable, our parents joined our doll games, and created playtime storylines like, “potluck wedding” or “missionary journey to Thailand.” Because they spent as much time with us as our peers did, and far more time than any commercial entertainers, their opinions and outlooks were more influential. They were able to consciously build a strong family culture that provided us with an alternative to aspects of the mainstream world. Our imaginations were filled and expanded with a vast range of books that possess no tie-in merchandise. The Little House series was, obviously, a big hit, but so were many other kinds of historical fiction and fantasy. We found romance (again, in the broad sense) in characters who were truly spunky and independent, because they pursued good and brave ends without reference to consumerism and commercialism.
Is it worth becoming radical non-conformists merely to protect one’s daughters from Pink Fairy Princess Barbie? Choosing to break free of consumerism and commercialism is about far more than Disney’s line-up. It is about giving oneself the ability to shape and transmit a culture to one’s child, instead of leaving her at the mercy of a world that says, “You are special and beautiful just the way you are, but only if you buy these sixteen sexy products so that you can look like someone else,” and, “Yeah, the world sucks, doesn’t it? All that you can do is to try to find a little meaning within yourself.” It is about giving her the opportunity to develop her character instead of blinding her with a pink princess crown that keeps slipping down over her eyes. The point of having one’s own children is to raise them. Don’t you want to be the one who shapes what they think it means to be beautiful, good, and happy?