For little girls, princesses hold roughly the same value that tulips did for the Dutch back in the 1500s, and that princess mania is sure to get a boost with the new Pixar movie Brave, which stars a Scottish princess named Merida.
For a keyhole glimpse into the pink and glittery world of pre-K princess culture, consider the scene at a recent princess-themed birthday party in a suburb of Washington, D.C.
"Look at those beautiful dresses!" coos a grown woman in a costumey blond wig and shimmering gown, aka a "real" princess. Every 4-year-old girl present is drawn to her like fillings to a magnet.
Kami Ragsdale, a mom at the party, says these little girls are so princess-obsessed that it's typical for grown-ups to use princesses as leverage. For example, she describes a recent visit to a Korean restaurant where her daughter refused to try the unfamiliar food.
"And they brought out, at the Korean restaurant, a princess plate to try to entice her to eat," Ragsdale says, laughing. "I thought, Wow, it's everywhere!"
Painting The Princess Into A Corner
If you want to sell something to little girls right now, chances are you'll slap a princess on it. Disney princesses in particular work as the engine of a massive marketing campaign that fuels a $4 billion industry. In 2011, Peggy Orenstein wrote a book about it called Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture. She says princesses are no longer just the provenance of little girls.
"Christian Louboutin just came out with a glass slipper shoe for grown-ups," Orenstein notes, adding dryly, "I'm waiting for the Snow White coffin so we can go womb to tomb."
Still, Orenstein says some parents encourage the princessy stuff because it's so cute — and it feels so safe.
"We feel like it retains or reinforces an innocence in little girls in a world that is feeling increasingly threatening and sexualizing of little girls," she says.
But Orenstein argues that the emphasis on beauty in princess culture doesn't protect little girls. Instead, she says, it primes them and puts them "on this sort of trajectory that [goes] from Disney princess at 3 and a full complement of Lip Smackers at 4 and Keeping Up with the Kardashians at 7 and America's Next Top Model at 11."
Orenstein points out that linking girls' development to appearance has been repeatedly shown to put them at risk for mental health issues such as depression and low self-esteem. And, she adds, the princess paradigm may even have painted Disney into a corner. Its 2009 release The Princess and the Frog was a relative box office disappointment, possibly because princesses are now associated with a niche audience.
"It used to be when these movies came out — like Cinderella, like Snow White, like The Little Mermaid, like Mulan — they were family movies and everybody went to see them," Orenstein says. "They weren't branded as for little girls."
Now, princesses are seen as specific to little girls — and that's been a bit of a problem for Brave.
"We've kind of had to fight the princess thing — like, 'Oh, well, she's a princess, it's a princess movie' — because we've seen the princess thing done so many times," admits Brave producer Katherine Sarafian.
Sarafian says Pixar actually experimented with making Brave's main character, Merida, not a princess at all.
"We tried making her the blacksmith's daughter and the milkmaid in various things," she says. "There [are] no stakes in the story for us that way. We wanted to show real stakes in the story where, you know, the peace of the kingdom and the traditions are all at stake."
Now, you'd think someone could find stakes in the story of a blacksmith's daughter or milkmaid, but apparently not Pixar (which is owned, of course, by Disney). Still, Pixar didn't seem to have the same problem with ordinary civilian boy heroes in movies such as Up.
When it comes to the problem of broadening princesses' appeal, Hollywood has resorted to giving them weapons. Warrior princesses are the new norm in movies like Brave, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Hunstman. But unlike their girl-power predecessor Xena, of the 1990s TV show, none of today's onscreen princesses have female friends — and the bad guys are often older women.
The Aspirational Princess
So why are princesses such a pop culture preoccupation right now? Perhaps they reflect a country with a growing wealth disparity and an enduring fascination with wealthy girls famous for being famous. But a rich girl is just spoiled — a princess is something special.
"I was a prissy little gay boy, and my roommate would call me 'princess,' " says Adam Biga, who competed as The Princess on the cable TV show RuPaul's Drag Race. Biga claims he's living, strutting proof that princesses have not been completely reduced to a marketing tool for Disney. He says there's still plenty of room in the culture for people to become whatever they think a princess should be.
"It doesn't take much. It's how you hold yourself and carry yourself," he says. "I definitely am a type of person who holds my head up high and carries my shoulders back."
By loving something as aspirational and transformative as a princess, Biga says, it's possible those little girls are on to something that no amount of packaging and marketing will ever completely disguise.