When my daughter turned 2, among the gifts she received were a doll and a fire truck. It was the bright red plastic emergency vehicle that captured her attention for days on end, while the doll, for the most part, languished atop a pile of untouched stuffed animals -- except for the rare occasions when its plush body was squished into the back of the fire truck. Progressive parents that we are, my wife and I saw this as vindication of the decision we'd made, while Bryn was still in utero, that we would not outfit our child's world in the trappings of traditional girldom.
A year later, that truck is gathering dust in the closet and Bryn has openly expressed her desire to live in a pink castle. It all began when Dora the Explorer betrayed us.
I'd always been somewhat pleased that the cartoon character my daughter latched onto was the intelligent, intrepid Dora. This school-age Latina role model eschewed nearly every girly-girl gender stereotype, the pink T-shirt that hangs loosely over her realistically rounded 8-year-old belly being the only token element of her nascent femininity. Dora's brain is touted as her main asset (she's bilingual; she solves jungle-based brainteasers), but she's also ruggedly athletic.
Then last month came Dora's Fairytale Adventure, a feature-length Nickelodeon special (now on DVD) in which our heroine visits Fairytale Land and goes on a quest to become a "True Princess." By the end, her tomboy bob has been magically transformed into flowing Rapunzel-length locks and she's suddenly clad in a shimmery, puffed-out yellow ball gown. Dora is showered with "oohs" and "ahhs" from her talking animal friends who proclaim things like, "Look at Dora's shoes -- they're so sparkly!" Then she flies off on a unicorn with a rainbow-striped mane. Seriously. It was at this point in the program that my daughter -- who I don't believe had any prior concept of royalty -- placed a pink shoe-box crown on her head and started twirling around, saying, "I'm a princess!"
The princess has been ubiquitous in pop culture in recent years. Not that she'd ever gone away. The archetype is one of the longest-lived in all of literary history. Leading the charge in this princess revolution is Disney -- no surprise, really, as this is the company that has had bustled skirts and puffy sleeves at the core of its business for well over half a century. The idea for a Disney Princess brand was born four years ago, when Disney Consumer Products President Andy Mooney went to see one of the company's famous ice shows and spotted a number of young female audience members dressed like little doppelg & auml;ngers of their favorite characters. The Princess brand, which groups together eight of the studio's animated film heroines -- Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty -- into one big tea party posse, was an instant success. It started with some dress-up costumes sold at the Disney Store, and after those initial test products vanished from the shelves faster than Cinderella's coach at midnight, Disney knew it had a major hit on its satin-gloved hands. Sales of the Princess line were an astounding $2.5 billion last year, up from $300 million in 2001.
"We've gone beyond the dress-up and toys, and begun to look at the brand as a lifestyle, filling out all the other things girls need in life," says Mary Beech, director of franchise management for Disney Consumer Products.
The ease and rapidity with which a princess obsession can take hold of a young girl's psyche is mind-blowing. Josh Levine, a Brooklyn, N.Y., writer and photographer, says he and his wife made a decisive effort to keep their daughter, Sasha, away from anything Disney. But when she was a little over 2 she watched a video of Sleeping Beauty at a friend's house and was immediately hooked. Soon the accoutrements of princess-hood started to fill the Levine home, and Sasha began to insist upon wearing ball gowns as her everyday wardrobe. While decked out in her full Snow White regalia in early October, a woman on the street asked the 3-year-old if she was going to dress as a princess for Halloween, to which she said, "No, I am a princess."
"I became more and more conscious of the fact that she was always in character," says Levine.
But he also realized that, as the parent of a princess, he was not alone. The widespread nature of the princess phenomenon made itself known to Levine one day at a local playground. "There was my daughter, traipsing through the park dressed like a princess, when I looked around and I started noticing others," he explains. "I assumed their parents were undoubtedly tripping out like I was."
In an experimental attempt to bring these royal families together, Levine decided to throw a princess party -- for anyone who wanted to come. He posted a sign announcing that the very next day would be the First Annual Prospect Park Princess Picnic. And with less than 24 hours' notice, 25 little girls -- each in full costume -- showed up for a party.
So why are young girls so enthralled by princesses? "Transformation is at the core of all the princess fairy tales," says Maria Tatar, a Harvard folklorist and editor of The Annotated Brothers Grimm. "Young women, often poor, sometimes even almost animal-like, end up with all the power in the end. Little kids, even very young ones, can understand who has the power, and that has always been part of the attraction."
In a world where women struggle for power, isn't anything that gives my daughter a sense of strength a good thing, even if it leaves a trail of glitter on the carpet? For Tatar, the answer is, "Not necessarily." Disney, she believes, "capitalizes on the worst parts of the fairy tales." By celebrating the ugly duckling scenario of overnight transformation, she says, most of Disney's princess tales reinforce the idea of achieving power through fabulous clothing and great wealth. The problem as she sums it up: "They don't work for it."
While Dora winds up looking like someone who should be in the audience at a joust, she actually does earn that magical transformation through quick thinking and resourcefulness. To gain the mystical items that will eventually earn her a tall pointy hat, she braves a smoke-snorting dragon, tames a cranky giant and outwits a witch.
So for a parent like myself, who can sometimes admittedly be overly sensitive, is it even worth fighting the Disney princess paradigm? Josh Levine says no. "Being a princess makes Sasha so incredibly happy," he says. "At least it's not Barney."
Christopher Healy is writing a book on modern fatherhood. This article first appeared on Salon.com.