Over the past decade, Disney’s princess franchise has ballooned a $4 billion dollar industry—and your little girl will inevitably get swept up in it, even if you maintain a Cinderella-free household.
When fallen Disney princess Lindsay Lohan hosted Saturday Night Live last weekend, the lone highlight was the “Real Housewives of Disney” sketch in which La Lohan’s Rapunzel joined Cinderella, Belle, Jasmine and Ariel to cry, snipe and boast “I’m the fairest of them all—until you cross me!”
In other words, it parodied that franchise’s worst excesses. And by that, I mean the Disney Princess franchise, not the Real Housewives one.
I actually understand the appeal of princess culture, even without Disney’s full-court marketing press. My two-year-old son may be mostly into robots, trains and dinosaurs, but even he’s been fascinated by Glinda the Good Witch ever since seeing her pop out of a bubble in an effervescent wedding-cake gown. “She’s pretty,” he exclaimed, and with reason.
However, his female cousins—at least the two older ones who are between four and five, smack-dab in Disney’s target sight, er, market—are in full-on princess-obsession mode, in spite of their feminist, anti-consumerist mothers.
Princesses, of course, have been a part of popular culture for centuries and a Disney signature since 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In the 1990s, Disney’s revival was carried on the back of princess-fuelled films like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid.
But the sum proved to be greater than its parts around 2000, when Disney employee Andy Mooney noticed little girls dolled-up in homemade princess gear at a Disney on Ice show. He brought the royal heroines together to form a Voltron-like brand that, over the past decade, ballooned from $350 million to a $4.4 billion annual business with 26,000 products “touching every aspect of girls’ lives around the world.” Cinderella Ate My Daughter author Peggy Orenstein, perhaps the phenomenon’s staunchest critic, worried to NBC that “all these products at such an early age push girls to focus on how they look. When girls get overly focused on appearance, we see things like distorted body images, eating disorders, poor sexual choices, depression, low self-esteem.”
My older sister Alicia considers herself an “urban, super-independent, feminist Mama” and hoped she could avoid her daughter Zoe becoming interested in Disney’s damsels-in-distress. Nope.
“Although she had never—and still hasn’t—watched any of the traditional Disney movies, the characters are ubiquitous for little girls,” she says. Zoe discovered them at two and a half, when her ballet teacher gave out princess stickers after each class. “Many of the girls taught her the names, and she was proud and excited to see whether or not she had ‘Belle’ or ‘Jasmine.’”
When I asked Alicia if she’d tried to dissuade her daughter, my sister reminded me of how our parents had forbidden us from watching the ’70s sitcom Three’s Company, which only made us want to watch it more. Of course, we didn’t understand the show’s sexism or innuendo—we just liked John Ritter’s pratfalls. (Alicia also recalled that she forced me to play Barbies with her, including ice-cream bucket hot tub parties, much to our hippie mother’s chagrin.)
“So no, I didn’t exactly dissuade her,” Alicia says, “although I may have died a little on the inside. We just talked a lot about the virtues of princesses: that they are strong, brave, intelligent, kind, generous and so on. Rather than taking [princesses] away, we gave them a more well-rounded story. I feel it’s up to parents to discuss and deconstruct the whole thing—then, ultimately, they’re just pretty girl toys.”
My sister-in-law Sarah faced a similar situation with her daughter, Emma. She, too, thought the heavily marketed Disney Princesses were “too girlie” and “not strong female role models.” Though Sarah notes modern ones like Mulan get to save the day, she feels the franchise is nonetheless a throwback. “You are judged and appreciated by your beauty, you wait until your ‘prince comes along’ and whisks you off to enjoy your life. This list goes on and on.”
But, as with Zoe, there was not much that could be done. “We are doing our best on the nurture front, but the nature aspect of her personality—and possibly peer interest—is strongly in favour [of the princesses]. I think that, with support on the entertainment vs. real life discussion and a re-affirmation of what it means to be a strong smart woman in a modern western society, the negatives can be overcome. Or at least I sure hope they can.”
Ironically, the strongest female role models in kiddie culture are also under the Mouse House umbrella. Pixar’s upcoming summer film Brave is the Disney-owned studio’s first foray into fairy tales (and female leads), boasting a Celtic warrior-princess who would no doubt lay waste to the prince-awaiting Snow White.
Disney also distributes the works of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, which are featured in a sprawling retrospective at TIFF’s Bell Lightbox Theatre over the next six weeks. The “Japanese Walt Disney’s” female leads range from the princesses of post-apocalyptic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the Little Mermaid-based Ponyo and eco-war-fantasy Princess Mononoke through the less royal but similarly strong little ladies of Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. The studio’s most recent film, The Secret World of Arietty, stars yet another heroic girl—one who is two-inches tall but still tougher than her full-sized male friend.
Yet without the same marketing might, they can’t really compete with their pink-ruffled rivals for little girls’ hearts and minds.
“I can’t help but fall deeply in love with the non-sexualized brave girl heroines in the Miyazaki movies,” Alicia says. “But although Zoe loves Totoro et al., it’s simply not a one-or-the-other kind of thing. Seeing strong women and girls as role models is so important. But it’s also okay to admire ‘the pretty’ and want to wear twirly dresses and pretend to put on make-up, as long as she’s willing to get down and dirty and save those princes when they need the saving. And she is.”