Friday, July 8, 2011


My daughters still make fun of me for one of my motherly quirks:  in the 1970s, I would not let them have Barbie dolls. To compensate, I gave them dolls from The Sunshine Family - a gentle suburban hippie couple and their tiny daughter, Sweets.

The Sunshine Family was not materialistic like Barbie. You could buy accessories for them, but they were things any impoverished young family might need, including a set of grandparents. They cared about the environment. They did crafts. They farmed.

They did not take the world by storm.

Princesses, by contrast, are huge. Bigger than Barbie ever was, though the grande dame of sexy dolls has pretty much given up practicing medicine (106 hits for "doctor Barbie" at and jumped into the royal coach herself (1681 hits for "princess Barbie"). Go to Barbie's princess website (dazzlingly pink!), and you'll be greeted by a perky electronic voice: "Shop time! A girl's just gotta wear a tiara!" That's the essence of Peggy Orenstein's complaint in Cinderella Ate My Daughter - not that playing princess is bad, but that the way princess play is being marketed to young girls raises all kind of red - or at least pink - flags.

Disney princesses, she writes, "did not exist until 2000. That's when a former Nike executive named Andy Mooney rode into Disney on a metaphoric white horse to rescue its ailing consumer products division" by producing toys, clothes, and other items to go with Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, and, to a lesser degree, Snow White, Jasmine, Mulan, and Pocahontas. The first year showed sales of $300 million; by 2009 sales had reached $4 billion.

And that was just Disney. Lots of other manufacturers took notice and started rolling out pink products too. When Orenstein visited the toy industry's largest annual trade show, she
lost count of the myriad pink wands and crowns (feathered, sequined, and otherwise bedazzled) and infinite permutations of pink poodles in purses.... The Disney Princesses reigned over a new pink Royal Interactive Kitchen with accompanying pink Royal Appliances and pink Royal Pots and Pans set (though I would have thought one of the perks of monarchy would be that someone else did the cooking). There were pink dinnerware sets emblazoned with the word PRINCESS; pink fun fur stoles and boas; pink princess beds; pink diaries (embossed with PRINCESS, BALLERINA, or butterflies); pink jewelry boxes; pink vanity mirrors, pink brushes, and toy pink blow-dryers; pink telephones; pink bunny ears; pink gowns; pink height charts ...
Well, you get the idea.

So, is this obsession with princesses really a problem, or is it just a harmless fad? Frivolous fun or regression to a pre-feminist era? Orenstein asks a lot of rhetorical questions as she looks not only at girls' toys but at beauty pageants for little girls, girls in children's literature, girl pop stars who quickly "slide from squeaky to skanky," girls' body image, girls online, and - the pink thread running through it all - how a certain version of femininity has become a marketing bonanza. Though her tone is light and often humorous, it's easy to see that she's worried. When she was a girl, it was an insult to call someone a "Jewish American princess." For her daughter, however, princess is a good word.

Trouble is, our little contemporary princesses are being taught that true love comes to those who are beautiful, and that beauty is the result of buying the right stuff. It was not always thus:
In her indispensable book The Body Project, the historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg wrote that for girls growing up before World War I, becoming a better person meant being less self-involved: helping others, focusing on schoolwork, becoming better read, cultivating empathy. To bring home the point, she compared New Year's resolutions of girls at the end of the nineteenth century with those at the end of the twentieth. Here's what a young woman of yore wrote:
   "Resolved: to think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversations and actions. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others."
   And the contemporary girl:
   "I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can.... I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories."
If this is typical, I'm terrified. As Orenstein points out, narcissism scores among college students are on the rise even as empathy scores plummet. Four-year-old princesses today may be cute, but what happens when the workforce is overrun with 20-, 30-, and 40-year-old princesses?

Perhaps, though, the situation isn't as dire as Orenstein fears. I would never go so far as to say that someone in my family is typical, but looking at my teen-aged granddaughters gives me hope. When Katie was maybe three years old, she fell off an ottoman and broke her arm while playing Cinderella (it is risky, even for a princess, to twirl on an ottoman). Now 16, she picked up my copy of Cinderella Ate My Daughter and started to read. "Is it any good?" I asked.

"I dunno," she said. "I've figured out that being beautiful just isn't all that important."

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