Little girls carried away on a pink wave of princess products

Little girls carried away on a pink wave of princess products

Web Posted: 03/10/2007 10:15 PM CST

(Edward A. Ornelas/Express-News)

Colleen Dickey, 4, is among the ‘princesses’ having tea at a birthday party at Royalty Parties by D in Artisans’ Alley.

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje
Express-News Staff Writer

The china teacups stand at the ready. The cucumber-and-cream-cheese sandwiches have been daintily sliced. The makeover chairs perch empty and waiting. And precisely at 3, the princesses arrive.

They’re really just a dozen hyper-excited 4- and 5-year-old girls. But for an afternoon, they will be transported to a magical kingdom, where fur-covered fans flutter, regal wands conjure charming princes and dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.

Welcome to the modern-day princess party.

Miss Kathy, a preschool teacher, helps the girls into a variety of princess get-ups from a hanging rack — frothy eruptions of lace, tulle, netting and chiffon and an assortment of shiny princess shoes or slippers. Then the girls line up to get their faces done — eye shadow, rouge and lipstick. Next, teenager Abigail coats their tiny fingernails in sparkling polish. Then, one by one, they clamber into salon owner Dorothy Steger’s chair to have their locks upswept into elaborate and lacquered princess hairdos, accentuated at the end by their choice of glittering tiara.

Soon the air is thick with hairspray.

Megan Troyer, 4, turns before the full-length mirror, showing off her new princess persona.

Ohhh! Ahhh! exclaim the mothers, assembled with cameras and camcorders. You are so beautiful!

The scene inside Steger’s loft is being played out on manifold fronts across the nation, as a veritable princess mania takes hold among the preschool and elementary-age set. Yes, little girls have loved princesses for eons, ever since Cinderella lost that fabled slipper on the castle steps. But in recent times, shrewd marketing by retailers has pushed preadolescent princess worship into the stratosphere.

If you’re the parent of a young girl, chances are good there’s a tiara in your present or future.

Kristy Waltman, whose daughter, Rachel, was recently feted with the princess party in honor of her fifth birthday, is one of the parents who view the princess phenomenon as a healthy bulwark against unsavory aspects of the common culture.

"In today’s society, a lot of role models aren’t so positive," Waltman says. "Princesses are still about fairy tales. They dress nice, they talk nice and they act nice. It’s all about imagination, where anything can happen, anything is possible."

Rachel tromped around her birthday party in Cinderella slippers, grinning and looking for all the world like a princess who’s just been invited to the ball.

In a world where Britney goes pantyless in public and Nicole drives drunk, a little princess idolatry seems a harmless thing indeed. And retailers are only too happy to indulge parents’ desire to keep their young girls safely ensconced in fantasyland. But some argue that merchandisers have in fact created the craving in girls to ride in magic carriages and await their perfect heroes.

Cynics note that today’s princess phenomenon got its start about six years ago, when Disney Consumer Products decided to gather seven of its female heroines — from Cinderella and Snow White to more can-do gals like Mulan and Pocahontas — and package them as a separate line called Disney Princess. The brand proved incredibly successful. Sales rose to $3 billion globally last year, from $300 million in 2001. Recognizing a winner, Disney now produces a mind-boggling 25,000 Disney Princess items, from lip balm to totes to DVDs.

In a story that has attained mythic status, Disney honcho Andy Mooney reportedly got the idea for the princess line while attending a Disney ice show in Phoenix when he noticed the little girls standing in line had devised their own makeshift princess outfits.

"We believe it is an innate desire in the vast majority of young girls to play out the fantasy of being a princess," says Disney spokesman Gary Foster. "They like to dress up, they like to role-play. It’s just a genetic desire to like pink, to like the castle, to turn their dads into the prince."

In other words, Disney is simply capitalizing on an urge that’s already there, he argues. Jumping into the princess fray, Mattel brought out its own princess line in 2001, including Barbie princess dolls, DVDs and clothing, all of which have been hugely popular. As a result, venturing into the toy aisle for girls these days means entering a royal realm of pink.

Jane Porto-Turner, mother of 6-year-old Carisa, didn’t set out to surround her daughter with all things princess. It just happened that way. She leads a tour of her daughter’s bedroom. Castle bed. Pink and purple princess TV. Princess throw rug, princess clock on the wall. Princess toys and DVDs. In the closet, an explosion of princess dresses. In the kitchen, princess mugs and cups. This is only the half of it. Grandma’s house holds more.

"I’m sure there are other people who really go overboard," says Porto-Turner.

Ask little Carisa why she likes princesses and she says, "Because they’re pretty."

Carisa could double for a junior Snow White, with her dark, curling locks and flawless complexion. She crawls in and out of her princess playhouse like true royalty-in-waiting. Never mind that she’s excited about getting a pet frog this afternoon. She promises not to kiss it.

About the princess invasion in her home, Porto-Turner holds mixed feelings. She loves that Carisa is "so girlie," loves that she is enamored with the same stories Porto-Turner read as a girl. But she admits it bothered her when Carisa turned 4 and refused to wear pants. She’s not too keen on the fact that Carisa’s fantasy play inevitably revolves around finding a prince and seeking "true love’s first kiss." It bugs her that Snow White is such a wimp.

"I want Carisa to believe in love and romance, I want her to grow up and have a family of her own, but I also want her to believe in herself," says Porto-Turner, who is communications director for the March of Dimes. Hence, she talks to Carisa repeatedly about her college fund. But the lure of the tiara is strong. For her seventh birthday, Carisa will receive a carriage bed, modeled on Cinderella’s ride.

Some mothers harbor even stronger feelings about the pink revolution. Keri Kinsey, a stay-at-home mother, watched as her 6-year-old daughter Elaine became transfixed by Ariel in "The Little Mermaid." It wasn’t long before this preoccupation transformed into something worrisome.

"She would say things like, ‘My voice isn’t pretty like Ariel’s,’" Kinsey says. "The same thing happened later with Snow White. She would say, ‘I want my hair to be dark like Snow White; I want my skin to be white like Snow White.’ I’d never heard her say anything to the effect of ‘I don’t measure up’ before, and it really bothered me. For some reason, with these princesses it became about her self-image, and that was really disturbing to me."

Does princess worship hurt a girl’s self-image? Are we training a generation of damsels in distress? The jury is out on that, but some experts say the princess marketing overload is actually limiting girls’ choices about what it means to be, well, a girl.

"You had Dora the Explorer, who was a wonderful role model for girls because she was an explorer whose only accessories were a compass and a map, but then even she gets transformed into a princess because of this stereotypical belief that all little girls love princesses," says Sharon Lamb, co-author of "Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes" (St. Martin’s Press; $24.95).

Lamb, who thinks the princess craze is in part a backlash against the women’s movement, says the problem with princess worship is that it tells girls that they — like their princess heroines — are chiefly to be valued for how they look. It’s all about being special, the one who gets all the attention and, of course, the boy. And when girls are focusing on that goal, they can’t focus on the myriad other wonderful ways to be a girl in their world.

"It’s not that you’re harming your daughter by buying one princess doll," she says. "It’s that there are 25,000 princess products out there and princess messages around her every day. It’s not the one tiara or the one princess party, it’s the multimillion-dollar industry that is trying to convince her that to be a girl, you have to invest in being pretty and special and magical. That’s the harm."

And it’s a slippery slope, argues Lamb’s co-author, Lyn Mikel Brown. Parents may see the princess craze as a antidote against such questionable cultural artifacts as thongs for pre-teens or the ubiquitous Bratz dolls — with their "passion for fashion," sexy, flashy clothes, pouty lips and overly-made-up eyes — but it’s not that simple. Just go, she says, to a place like Club Libby Lu, a chain store found in many suburban malls that is all the rage among girls, and you’ll find princess paraphernalia alongside "sexualized" items that strive to make little girls into "sexy divas" or "catwalking models."

"Princess pink is in that way intimately connected to other, more sexual choices," she says. "It’s leading into it and almost parallel with it. 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?"

On a recent afternoon at Club Libby Lu (which targets "tween" girls ages 6 to 12) at the Shops at La Cantera, the vibe seems less overtly sexual than an overripe girlishness on steroids. The store is a riot of pink and purple, and pink and black — as if there were no other colors. The walls hold every girlie get-up imaginable: princess T-shirts, boas, shoes, purses, jewelry. The "Pooch Parlor" offers small plush dogs and totes to carry them in, a la Paris Hilton. An entire wall is devoted to the "Sparkle Spa," where girls can create their own makeup, lotions and masks in yummy, candy and fruit flavors like peach and mango.


At the "Style Studio" ("Unlock Your Inner Princess"), a group of tween girls sat before a mirror getting their hair done. Style choices are priceless princess, tween idol, pop star and rock star. Another group sat at a tiara-shaped booth and had makeup and fingernail polish applied. They were all of 8 years old. Madonna wailed over the sound system.

Steger, the salon owner who says her princess party business has increased 40 percent since last May, attributes the rise of the princess to "nostalgia" among today’s mothers, weary after decades of arid feminism. Others credit the stories’ timeless themes. Noreen Fowler, whose twin girls, 5, love princesses, finds in the respective narratives real strength and grit, as the princesses overcome obstacles, traits she hopes her daughters pick up on. "Cinderella was the original Oprah," she quips.

Some go so far as to say princess culture tends to arise in societies in the midst of upheaval and change. Historian Miriam Forman-Brunell of the University of Missouri-Kansas City has tracked the appearances of princess worship through history. She says the turmoil of 9-11 "gave people the sense there is evil in the world and they want innocence. And what makes a better happy ending than a fairy tale?"

But she is reluctant to theorize on what lies in store for today’s princesses-in-training. Law school? Or a Mrs. degree?

"I will be curious to see this generation of preschoolers and how all this pans out for them in the future," she says.

San Antonio Express-News publish date March 11, 2007


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