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Resist the princesses

Watch that little darling -- corporate Fantasyland has matricide in mind.

March 27, 2008|ROSA BROOKS

Mothers of America, Disney wants to destroy you.

You hoped your little girl's Disney princess obsession was harmless, didn't you? You chuckled over the picture of Sleeping Beauty on your toddler's pull-ups, and you told yourself it was "just a phase" when your 5-year-old insisted that she needed at least 63 Disney princess dress-up costumes.

But don't be fooled by the sparkly magic wands, the pint-sized tiaras and those cute little "animal friends." The Disney princesses aren't sweet and innocent. They're a gang of vicious hoodlums, and they're plotting against you.

Start with some light feminist analysis. It will not have escaped you, Mothers of America, that Disney princesses -- Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and the rest -- rarely slay dragons, play sports, pilot jets or do open-heart surgery. Instead, they fiddle with their coiffures, linger over invitations to the ball, flee ineffectually from evil crones and swoon.

You don't have to be Gloria Steinem to realize that these are not, for the most part, useful professional skills in today's world. So I was not thrilled when my 3-year-old informed me, over lunch, that she wants to be "a pwincess" when she grows up, and I was unhappier still when her 6-year-old sister expressed a similar ambition.

"Girls," I said, "you can do anything when you grow up! You can be scientists or ski instructors or hedge fund managers -- I beg you, be hedge fund managers. Why would you want to be passive, anorexic princesses?"

They looked at me as if I had gone mad. "Because princesses wear pretty dresses, Mama," they explained.

I tried another tack. "Not all princesses prance around in ball gowns," I remarked, and showed them some educational photos of Britain's 57-year-old Princess Anne, clad in hideously sensible tweeds. The girls denied that Anne was a "real" princess.

I tried again. "Girls," I said gently, "I don't want to shock you, but historically, princesses have not always been popular. Consider the Russian Revolution. Or the French. Does the word 'guillotine' ring a bell?"

"You are a commoner!" my 3-year-old shrieked, and adjusting their glittering tiaras, the little darlings ran off to watch "Disney Princess Enchanted Tales" for the 10-billionth time while I glumly cleaned the kitchen.

It was not always thus.

Sure, fairy tales have been around for centuries, little girls have always liked pretty dresses, and even most of the Disney princesses should, if there were justice in the world, be using Botox by now. (Disney's Snow White was a teen in the 1937 film, which would put her well into her 80s). But once upon a time, the Disney princesses lived their separate lives, waiting innocuously for their princes to come. You could buy a "Cinderella" book or a "Little Mermaid" doll, but, when you did so, you were establishing an allegiance to a particular character's story, not to an abstract "Princess concept." The princesses lived separately and were marketed separately.

As Peggy Orenstein documented in a 2006 New York Times Magazine article, that changed in 2000, when Disney decided that, henceforth, the princesses would collude. They went from princesses to "Princess" -- as Disney execs call the fast-growing product line marketed collectively under just that logo. Merged into a sort of uber-princess, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine and the older members of the gang formed a vast global conspiracy to turn a bunch of aging animated films into cold, hard cash -- faster than Cinderella's fairy godmother could turn a pumpkin into a coach.

Like an Al Qaeda sleeper cell, the princesses were activated -- and once activated, they would quickly dominate the world. In 2001, sales at Disney consumer products were a lethargic $300 million. By 2007, Disney's "Princess" franchise was raking in $4 billion. And who could stand in its way? With the "Princess" brand on baby bottles, sneakers, pencils, candy, T-shirts, everything, you and your little darlings don't stand a chance, Mothers of America. Your little girls will be brainwashed -- and you -- you ... .

Ah, yes. What happens to you?

You didn't think Disney was going to stand idly by while you engaged in those little feminist critiques, did you now? Pause for a moment to consider the fate of the princesses' mommies in those Disney movies. "Cinderella" and "Snow White"? Mothers killed off by mysterious illnesses. "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin"? Mothers all missing; presumed dead.

Disney really has it in for mommies: Even when you leave princess-land, it's the same pattern. Bambi's mom? Shot dead by a hunter. Nemo's mom? Eaten by a barracuda. Of all the major princesses, only Sleeping Beauty (a.k.a. Aurora; like all criminals, she often goes by an alias) has a nuclear family, not that it does her any good. But given Disney's track record, I wouldn't want to underwrite her mother's life insurance policy.

And hey, ever notice how, in group photos, the Disney princesses never, ever meet each other's eyes? Why won't they look at each other? Why do they still pretend they don't know each other? Is something troubling their consciences?

Mothers of America, watch your backs.

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