Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Princess saturation

A friend recently remarked that she'll be glad when her girls, both pre-school age, outgrow the princess phase.

Today's announcement from Buckingham Palace suggests she'd better not hold her breath.

To be fair, my friend meant the Disney brand of princesses, eight of whom (by my recent unofficial count) are featured on everything from shirts to tea sets to bed linens. The kind of princesses who wear beautiful clothes, sing waltzes with woodland animals and find happiness (forever after, we're told as the credits roll) on the arm of a wealthy, handsome prince.

Which, apart from the compulsory bird and bunny serenade sequence, sounds an awful lot like the story of Will and Kate. He's the future king; she's a beautiful girl from a middle class family. Her likeness will appear later today - if it hasn't already - on a staggering assortment of household items from tea cups to towels to commemorative Christmas ornaments. Perhaps even, if she's unlucky, on bath tissue.

Disney has nothing on Buckingham Palace in the marketing department.

Obvious factoid of the day: The overwhelming majority of the Will and Kate merchandise will be gobbled up by female consumers.

Details of the royal wedding will mesmerize girls and women of all ages around the globe. Some analysts predict that global TV ratings will eclipse the World Cup, and perhaps, proportionally speaking, the moon landing.

The planet will slam to a halt as Kate Middleton, who seems like a lovely and clever young lady, lives the fairy tale. If the couple chooses a morning ceremony, little girls in America will wake early to tune in, and perhaps there's nothing wrong with that. The future queen is a public figure; the marriage of the Prince of Wales is a world event. I wish them all the best in their marriage. And, since everyone is obsessed with the happy couple, I'm thrilled that Ms. Middleton, at age 28, is a real grown up who can speak for herself, rather than a doe-eyed child bride thrust without life experience into the public eye.

But still, there's something troubling about the saturation of little girl world with all things princess. Visit any toy shop or website catering to children and you'll see princess everything. Princesses represent a huge percentage of Halloween costume sales, birthday party themes and film and book purchases.

I enjoy the old Disney films as much as the next person. They're beautifully drawn with memorable scores and familiar tales. Taken one by one, they each possess a certain charm and appeal. But if you take the princess movie genre as a whole, you cannot escape its central theme: Beautiful, agreeable girls get to make their lives complete, and indeed worth living, by marrying rich, handsome men. Some of whom appear markedly older to boot.

Of course that happens over and over again in real life, but I'm not sure it's a goal to which little girls should aspire with such single-minded focus from a tender age. Naturally, kids grow up and interests evolve, but I wonder if the underlying message: beauty and to a lesser extent, sweetness, will help you, as a female, succeed in life. The princesses tend not to get their guys by dazzling displays of wit or guts; two of the most famous are actually comatose at the climactic moment.

Brains and drive, if mentioned at all, are secondary virtues. By my tally, none of the eight big time Disney princesses have much in terms of education. In fact, they're usually isolated from society somehow, waiting to be saved perhaps, but also staying chaste and pure until Mr. Charming trots in on his white horse.

Success, even in updated fairy tales, equals marriage to a prince and not much else, because that's where all these tales end.

I'm not an absolutist; I believe there's a place in our culture for fairy tales. Escapist fantasies have entertained the human imagination since the earliest days of story telling.

It's the sheer volume of princess propaganda I find worrisome. That, and the fact that I bet you can go to any playground anywhere in the country, and find more than one little girl who will tell you she wants to be a princess when she grows up.

Go ahead, ask around. And please, please report back if I'm wrong.

Aside from my aforementioned concerns with this national preoccupation with princesses, today's little would-be-Cinderellas face a very real logistical challenge: our playgrounds suffer from a dearth of little boys who want to grow up and become princes.

When I was five, I wanted to be an astronaut. Before that, I think it was a farmer. I think there was a dolphin trainer phase in there somewhere around the first grade.

To date, none of those careers have worked out for me.

But, both now and at the time, they seemed like more desirable ambitions than "grow up and marry a prince."

I think I'm going to head out to the toy store now, to buy my two-year-old niece a doctor's kit. Or an art set. Or an airplane.

Not that I hope she'll become a physician, a painter or a pilot, but because I think it's beneficial to remind her that behind the sea of pink sparkles that makes up the girls' toy section, countless other possibilities exist.

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