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Dr. Toon: Growing Up Princess

In this month's "Dr. Toon," Martin Goodman contemplates the Princess explosion and whether fairy-tale role models are good for little girls.

In Disney's Enchanted, life is complete with love's true kiss, but does that way of thinking prepare kids for real life? All images © Walt Disney Enterprises.

At the time of this writing, Disney's live-action (and partly animated) feature film Enchanted was speeding in its pumpkin-shaped coach towards the $100 million mark. One month after its release, the film was still the fourth-highest box-office draw in the country and wearing its tiara proudly as critical acclaim has been near unanimous. The reasons for the film's success are manifold: A delightful romance in which the incongruities of storybook and real life were transcended by love, lively musical numbers, and a cast that truly seemed to love performing in the service of total fantasy. The Disney animation team, bolstered by the temporary return of Andreas Deja and Mark Henn, contributed ten enchanting minutes in which the Disney conventions of the 1990s were lovingly recreated and gently satirized. Still, the film was successful for another reason, one which harkens back to the very origins of childhood fantasy.

Most princesses throughout history had it rougher than one might think. Power in royalty, with a few notable exceptions, rested with males. The daughters of European kings and queens were educated and supplied with sufficient social skills to make them desirable bargaining chips. They were then used as pawns in order to secure complicated lines of successions that guaranteed alliances and other military or economic deals. Sometimes the Church and Pope were involved, sometimes not, but one thing is certain: very few princesses found husbands through true love's kiss, and even fewer expected to.

The life of a fairy-tale princess, however, is pretty sweet. You're beautiful, your royal parent doth dote on you, and enchantment abounds. Oh, there may be an evil queen, nasty witch, or occasional dragon gumming up the works, but in the end you are swept away by Ye Hot Prince and live Happily Ever After. It is little wonder then that so many young girls love to try the part on. It seems to be a universal phase of fantasy play in our culture, and as it turns out, far more pervasive than most of us dreamed. At least that's what was discovered back in 1999.

Andy Mooney, recently hired by Disney Consumer Products division, had a problem. Sales were slow and a new brand was needed to save the day. While fishing for new concepts, he attended a "Disney on Ice" show in Phoenix, Arizona and found himself surrounded by a plethora of princesses. Not Disney princesses, mind you, simply scores of little girls flitting about in some conception of royal costume. Mooney, no fool he, woke up and smelled the mead (and the money). Better still, the Disney stable already contained a fair number of fair princesses, many of them sitting about idly waiting for appearances in listless direct-to-video DVDs.

Mooney and his team convened under the newly adopted Pantone Pink (No. 241) banner and gathered together the grandest gaggle of princesses ever convened in one castle. The lineup was as formidable as any team-up of heroes seen in Marvel or DC: Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan. Considered for the starting lineup but unable to crack it was Tinker Bell; fear not -- she would have her day a bit down the royal road.

Princess Giselle from the aforementioned film Enchanted was likewise intended to join the royal rally, until it became apparent that Amy Adams would have to be paid a king's ransom for her likeness. Mulan was not actually a fairy-tale princess, but she fit the mold closely enough to make the cut. None of the above had ever met on film and, according to Disney mythology, could not have possibly known each other, but the myths were about to be re-written. Enter the Disney Princesses.

It all started with Snow White and her seven doting admirers.

This is the age of demographic research, careful marketing strategies, focus groups, and carefully constructed advertising campaigns. No high-profile product is released without them, but Andy Mooney was so certain he had a hit that he dispensed with all of them and took the Princesses straight to the shelves. The Big Eight hit for $100 million in sales in their first year as a posse; the franchise has currently generated over $3.4 billion dollars, with over 25,000 items for sale in 90 countries. That's quite a team: The combined value of the New York Yankees, Washington Redskins, and Los Angeles Lakers would come in at slightly less that a billion below that. The Disney Princesses have superseded all other Disney characters in terms of profitability, and few little lasses in the country do not own some artifact featuring a princess or two.

Soon they will have another, Princess Tiana from the upcoming 2009 film The Princess and the Frog. This perky princess will be the first African-American character to play on the team, and will doubtless bring more gold to the royal counting house that is Disney. Meanwhile, the current princesses are tighter than any version of the Yankees or Lakers, sharing a "Princess Anthem" and gamboling their way through various configurations and team-ups in DVDs, videogames, and appearances at live Disney events. The Pantone Pink juggernaut has become so pervasive, in fact, that the inevitable question has been raised by child experts; "Is this good for little girls?"

There is somewhat of a split in opinion here. Some writers, such as Melissa Fletcher Stoelje, writing in My San notes that "little girls have loved princesses for eons, ever since Cinderella lost that glass slipper on the castle steps." Yet, she goes on to say that " recent times, shrewd marketing by retailers has pushed preadolescent princess worship into the stratosphere." Disney spokesman Gary Foster agrees with at least the first statement, claiming that Disney is simply marketing to an urge that is somehow innate in little girls, that of dress-up, role-play, and "a genetic desire to like pink."

Sharon Lamb, who along with Lyn Mikel Brown has written a terrific book titled Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers' Schemes, informed Stoelje that the princess explosion influences girls to be obsessed with beauty, body image, and being the magical, special one who gets the attention (and wins the boy). This, according to Lamb, excludes other ways in which one can explore the wonder of being a girl, and a multimillion dollar industry makes a tidy profit by virtually ensuring that they don't by drowning them in 25,000 products.

Can an obsession with princesses at a young age perpetually paralyze a woman in a pink fantasy world?

Lamb's co-author is even harsher in this regard, stating that "princess pink is in that way connected to other, more sexual choices... If what we want is innocence, why do we consider princesses in romantic story lines, when there are a load of other innocent activities for girls, like sports and science?" Cultural journalist Peggy Orenstein (who writes with considerably more humor) has her doubts more evenly distributed. Interviewing Andy Mooney for the New York Times, Orenstein asked him, "Aren't the Princesses, who are interested only in clothes, jewelry and cadging the handsome prince, somewhat retrograde role models?" Mooney, for his part, avers that "they are caring, they are loving, they are friendly, they are courteous. This is not really about being a damsel in distress. This is really about these girls projecting themselves into the life of a princess and the environment of a princess, and kind of really reveling in that moment."

Does Disney (already accused of numerous cultural poisonings) actually constrict the fantasy play of young girls, subject their secret dreams to commercialized pabulum, and sexualize them at too early an age? Is there a conspiracy both economic and psychological in nature to channel girlhood down a path of pink puffery? Or could it simply be that Disney is simply treading a well-worn path made smooth by generations of fairy tales and stories that end happily ever after? As ABC news (yes, I know, it's Diz' biz) asked last April, "What's Wrong with Being a Princess?"

Well, plenty, if the Disney Princesses are a girl's sole source of acculturation, just as it would be for boys if the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the GI Joes were the primary map to their social roles. However, we know that this is simply not true. Theories of child development pay heavy heed to the function of fantasy play, and indeed fantasy seems to be so endemic among children that one might suspect it was genetically programmed. If anything, children's fantasy lives give as much credence to Jung's concept of a collective unconscious as do the world's religions.

Daydreaming about being Princess Giselle isn't something most little girls will engage in for a lifetime.

It appears that Andy Mooney and his development team tapped into a wellspring common to all children. The real danger posed to girls, it would seem, is being permanently stuck at some level in the princess fantasy or having it become a template for future expectations. In most cases, this result would be highly unrealistic. Were it not true, most girls at play would be grossly retarded in their process of maturation or at least in their ability to employ reality testing. In the film Enchanted, Princess Giselle rudely arrives in New York and is considered to be delusional, or at best, an oddball; so would it be for any girl who went so far as even high school still immersed in a princess fantasy.

One UCLA child psychiatrist, Dr. Mark DeAntonio, went on record with ABC news, stating, "I think it's normal for kids to kind of fantasize roles, to try them on for size... both boys and girls do this, and it's a very normal thing... The values that kids really pick up on and incorporate are really more the values they're exposed to with their family, within their community, with people." Even Orenstein admits that "...just because [little girls] wear the tulle doesn't mean they've drunk the Kool-Aid. Plenty of girls stray from the script, say, by playing basketball in their finery, or casting themselves as the powerful evil stepsister bossing around the sniveling Cinderella."

Thus we can see the Pantone Pink period for what it truly is: a developmental phase of no great consequence, notable only for its commonality. Orenstein asked, "Will the girl who is wearing 'Princess' across her chest when she's three be wearing 'Spoiled' across her chest when she's six, and 'Porn Star' when she is 12?" Why, indeed, should this happen? Can repeated viewings of Disney Princess Stories: Beauty Shines from Within produce such an effect? Or playing the videogame Kingdom Hearts? Might it be deficient parenting and poor socialization skills that set up expectations of entitlement, rather than sing-along videos? Can one really set up girls for premature sexual tendencies by singing with Ariel and Jasmine? Has anyone ever seen Snow White wearing a shirt emblazoned with "Porn Star"?

It should be noted that Disney could have added another Princess with great ease: Esmerelda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If Mulan could be a princess, why couldn't Esmerelda? She was beautiful, kind, had a cute animal sidekick, and won the guy in the end, right? The answer is one that almost exonerates Disney from charges such as the one leveled by Orenstein and others: Esmerelda was an identified object of male lust, pursued by no fewer than three men during the film. Esmerelda did not dance like Snow White and certainly did not exude the naiveté of Ariel. She was a fully adult, sexualized female who was not even allowed to "guest" on the Princess' videos. Yet, it would have been so easy to simply pass her off as a gypsy princess and give her full membership in Princess Academy. So where is she?

Though she made it into direct-to-video land, the mature, sexualized Esmerelda didn't make the cut for the innocent Princess posse.

There is no doubt that, during their development, women face numerous issues concerning body image and self-efficacy, and sexual double-standards. Countless messages from the media stress the desirability of beauty and perfection, and it seems that the more standing and education that women gain in our society, the harder the stereotypes fight against burial and banishment. Still, fantasy is fantasy and play is play. In echoing Dr. DeAntonio, play therapist Angela Sheely told Dallas Magazine that "Fantasy play can be over-interpreted... Parents are a stronger role model than anything depicted in the media." I could not agree more.

It is difficult to believe that the Disney Princesses influence the development and morals of young girls any more than Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, Britney Spears, or her pregnant sixteen-year-old sister do. Parents know a bad thing when they see one, and are as aware of commercialization as any pundit or journalist. If those who deride the Princesses have a valid point, it is that a flood tide of 25,000 Pantone pink products can intimidate the most perfect parent. I can't agree that girls are given less of a choice in roles because of them, simply because there are so many more choices open to women in the 2000s. I can accept that it may be difficult to keep the products out of the home, but again, if the parental hand is steady and mothers stress the options open, then the little girls should be allowed to sing, dance, play, and exult like princesses... or Princesses.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.