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 filings 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.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Finally this hour, a magic word for lots of girls under the age of 6: princess. Princess mania is getting a boost - as if it needed one - with a new movie from Pixar called "Brave." It opens this weekend. NPR's Neda Ulaby takes the occasion to explore the cultural value of princesses.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: For a keyhole glimpse into the pink and glittery world of pre-K princess culture, let's visit a princess themed birthday party in a Washington, D.C. suburb.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Look at everybody's beautiful dresses.
ULABY: A gaggle of 4-year-old girls are drawn like filings to a magnet when a lady dressed as a princess shows up in a costumey blonde wig and iridescent gown.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: There you are.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I heard it was your birthday today.
ULABY: The little girls romping in crowns and gowns are ridiculously cute, and they are obsessed, says mom Kami Ragsdale, to the point where she says adults routinely use princesses as leverage. For example, when they went to a Korean restaurant, her daughter did not want to eat the unfamiliar food.
KAMI RAGSDALE: And they brought out at the Korean restaurant a princess plate to try to entice her to eat, which I thought, I was like, wow, it's everywhere, you know?
ULABY: From candy to toothbrushes, if you want to sell something to little girls, chances are you'll slap a princess on it. And it's Disney princesses that are the engine of a massive marketing campaign that fuels a $4 billion industry. Peggy Orenstein wrote a book about it called "Cinderella Ate My Daughter." She says it's not even just for little girls anymore.
PEGGY ORENSTEIN: Christian Louboutin just came out with a glass slipper shoe for grownups. I'm waiting for the Snow White coffin, so we can go womb to tomb.
ULABY: Orenstein says some parents encourage this princessy stuff because it feels safe.
ORENSTEIN: 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.
ULABY: But Orenstein says the emphasis on beauty in princess culture is not protecting little girls. It's priming them.
ORENSTEIN: And putting them on this sort of trajectory that went from Disney princesses at 3 and a full complement of lip smackers at 4 and, you know, "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" at 7 and "America's Top Model" at 11.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICA'S NEXT TOP MODEL")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) You want to be on top?
ULABY: Still, it's possible the Disney princess brand may have painted the company in a corner. The movie "The Princess and the Frog" was a relative box-office disappointment, perhaps because princesses are now associated with a niche audience, says Orenstein.
ORENSTEIN: It used to be when these movies came out - like "Cinderella"...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
ORENSTEIN: ...like "Snow White," like "Little Mermaid," like "Mulan" - they were family movies, and everybody went to see them. They weren't branded as for little girls.
ULABY: Princesses used to be for everyone. Now that they're seen as so specific to little girls, that's been a bit of a problem for "Brave," says Pixar producer Katherine Sarafian.
KATHERINE SARAFIAN: We've had to fight, like, the princess thing, like, oh, well, she's the princess, a princess movie because we've seen the princess thing done so many times.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BRAVE")
KELLY MACDONALD: (as the voice of Merida) I am Merida, firstborn descendant of Clan DunBroch.
ULABY: Sarafian says they actually experimented with making Merida not a princess.
SARAFIAN: We tried making her like the blacksmith's daughter and the milkmaid and various things. There's no stakes in the story for us that way.
ULABY: Some people might be able to find stakes in the story of a blacksmith's daughter or a milkmaid, but apparently not Pixar, owned, of course, by Disney.
SARAFIAN: We wanted to show real stakes in the story where, you know, the peace of the kingdom and, you know, the traditions are all at stake.
ULABY: That was not a problem with the regular boy heroes in the earlier Pixar movies, such as "Up." Right now, Hollywood's solution to broadening princesses' appeal seems to be by giving them swords or arrows.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BRAVE")
EMMA THOMPSON: (as the voice of Elinor) A princess does not place her weapons on the table.
MACDONALD: (as the voice of Merida) Mom.
ULABY: From "Brave" to "Snow White and the Huntsman," warrior princesses are having a moment. But unlike their predecessor, the girl power Xena of the 1990s, none have female friends. And the bad guys are often older women.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN")
CHARLIZE THERON: (as Ravenna) Mirror, mirror on the wall...
ULABY: It's possible the princess preoccupation reflects 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RUPAUL'S DRAG RACE")
ADAM BIGA: (as himself) Hi. I'm the princess, and I'm America's next drag superstar.
ULABY: The performer whose real name is Adam Biga competed on the TV show "RuPaul's Drag Race." He's been busy with pride events this month, so he called from the road to discuss how he became a princess.
BIGA: I was a prissy little gay boy, and my roommate would call me princess.
ULABY: Biga says he's living, strutting proof that princesses have not been completely reduced to a marketing tool for Disney.
BIGA: I think we only get to see one side of them.
ULABY: Biga says there's still plenty of room in the culture for people to create and become whatever they think a princess should be.
BIGA: And it doesn't take much. It's just how you hold yourself and carry yourself. I definitely am a type of person who holds my head up high and carries my shoulders back.
ULABY: By loving something as aspirational and transformative as a princess, says Biga, it's possible those little girls are on to something. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.