Peggy Orenstein has written a piece in the December 24, 2006 issue of New York Times Magazine (sorry--I'd give you the exact URL for the article but you have to pay to see it now--cost is minimal, though, and all you have to do is enter "Cinderella" as a search word to find it) entitled "What's Wrong with Cinderella?" Orenstein is lamenting the staggering number and variety of "princess" items being marketed to young girls these days. The craze began about six years ago when Disney (who else?) came up with the idea of packaging all of their most famous female characters--Ariel the Mermaid, Cinderella, Snow White, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, even Pocohontas--as a "princess" product. Little girls ate it up, to the tune of $3 billion (that's billion with a "b") this year, up from $300 million in 2001. Mattel has brought out a slew of "princess" Barbies (which is confusing; I thought Barbie always WAS a princess), and even Dora the Explorer has debuted with a FairyTale Dora doll. All of which makes an old-line feminist mom like Orenstein apprehensive. Is all this Prince Charming crap going to sabotage her efforts to instill feminist values in her daughter? Will her daughter take this retrograde role model seriously?
I think Orenstein is missing the forest for the trees. Yeah, there's a shitload of princess stuff around, but it just happens to be pink and sparkly. Let's not forget the success of Bratz dolls (I call them Slutz, but I've also heard them referred to as My First Trollop dolls, which I kinda like), who are not "princess-y" at all but who have been pulling in big bucks from little girls, via their mommies, for about three years now. And let's not forget Build-A-Bear Workshop, which is one of the slickest ways I've seen lately to suck money out of your wallet: a store that caters to little girls and their desire for their very own teddy bear (or cat, or pink poodle, or whatever) with its very own heart inserted during the production process, with special noises that you can pick out, with a registered name all its own....and, naturally, lots and lots and lots of clothes and accessories to buy to go with. Just walking past that store will cost you $50; if you actually go in, you risk having to get a second mortgage. My kids over the years have conned me into going in there on three occasions--the last time, ostensibly, to spend their own allowance money, but of course I ended up ante-ing up too, being the craven idiot that I am--and guess what: the creations they walked out of there with, the stuffed animals they could not contemplate living without for one more hour, that's how bad they needed them, are now gathering dust on various shelves in their rooms.
It doesn't matter a hill of beans whether people are out there selling princess stuff to our little girls. They could be selling Wall Street Tycoon Barbie, or Greenpeace Activist Dora (hmmm...that might not be so bad) or Diane von Furstenberg bean bags--WHAT they're selling doesn't matter half as much as the fact that they are selling it, and in such staggering amounts. Kids these days are expert consumers at a mind-blowing age; my daughters' consumer savvy has already far eclipsed mine, if by "savvy" you mean awareness of brand names and logos (as distinct from value). The other day I was brushing my hair when my 10-year-old joined me in the bathroom to do the same. She looked at my jeans and said, "Nice logo, Mom. Very cool." I looked down and saw a swan. I had to read the tag in the back before I understood that this was Gloria Vanderbilt's logo. I'd bought the jeans off the sales rack at Kohl's for about $15, and I guarantee you I had no idea they were Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, nor would I have cared. But Rebecca knew.
No, the problem isn't that little girls buy princess stuff. If Disney didn't market princess stuff, my kids (and lots of other little girls) would find lace curtains to dress up in, or one of my old bridesmaid dresses, or something, and they would make themselves princesses, or brides, or something of the sort. Little boys will dash around wearing Superman capes, too. As a generation of two of feminist ought to have learned by now, some behaviors like this are genetically hardwired: little girls tend to play with dolls, no matter how many trucks you give them; little boys tend to play with trucks, even when you give them dolls. What kind of fantasy role model kids imitate at 6 or 8 or 10 is of concern to me, but it's ultimately of less concern than the fact that my daughters are both being bombarded with the message that in order to be happy, and popular, and socially accepted, they must buy, buy, BUY! baby. It's a message I strenuously try to counter every single day but it's like bailing out a boat with a tippy cup when the waves are washing over the sides. I get help in that regard from a fantastic organization called the Center for a New American Dream, which is always coming up with ideas to live more simply, buy less and fight the proliferation of junk in our lives. But it's an ongoing fight. The amount of pure-D crap marketed to kids these days will blow you away.
Princess, schmincess. This is not a feminist issue, Peggy. If you look past the sparkles and the tulle, you'll see that it's really an environmental and moral issue. Those Cinderellas you're so worried about are made of plastic--that's a petroleum product--they are manufactured most likely in Third World countries by people who make shit wages, probably via production methods that contribute to global warming, and they are marching into the stores by the millions. When the money has flowed out of our wallets and into the coffers of Disney Inc., and their top executives are enjoying the good life along pristine stretches of Malibu beach that the rest of us are banned from, and our little girls outgrow their princess phase--which they will--where do you think all those tons of plastic will wind up? Melted into a park bench? Now, that's a fantasy world for ya.