Saturday, June 27, 2009

Princess Culture Marches On

There was a great article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago re-examining the whole girls' "Princess Culture" phenomenon, which I think strikes a particular cord right now (economic recession, the start of wedding season, etc., etc.). Written by Megan Basham, the article explores both the puffy gowns and tiaras princess culture, as well as the many luxury items and merchandise that have attached themselves to the princess phenomenon in title only (think Paris Hilton versus Cinderella, but as nodes along the same bubblegum pink continuum). As Basham writes:
Call it trickle-down narcissism. Today, even as the economic crisis continues, many middle-class parents aspire to give their daughters the best of everything, "the best" meaning the most expensive. A quick tour around suburbia will show princess-themed bedrooms (the rhinestoned-and-feathered kind, not the cartoon-character kind) and ostentatious birthday parties, as well as pedigreed dogs being toted in designer bags by 10-year-olds. Maintaining a diva daughter has become one more way to one-up the Joneses.

The article goes on to describe recent research and a new book by Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, which tracks the rising egotism among college students...particularly among young women. Twenge's research found that "college-age women are developing narcissistic traits at four times the rate of college-age men", a trend she attributes at least in part to the many ways in which the "princess phenomenon" surfaces within girls' lives. Here, she seems to be referring to a sort of "trickle down" effect of princess culture into parenting practices which Twenge says can be described as "princess parenting"...the over-indulgence of daughters who are lavished with luxury goods and "unrealistic praise. Parents not only tell girls they are the prettiest and smartest but also train them to see themselves as the center of their worlds through clothes and accessories."

It's an interesting study, though it's a bit hard to swallow when contrasted with all the research and stats showing the continued prevalence of body image issues and low self esteem among young women and girls (I suppose the phenomenon she describes involves only a very particular subset of young women). Still, the connections between princess-style narcissism and subjectivities of consumption is fascinating, by which I am referring to the bit about girls being taught that they are the "centre of the world" but also that their position as such is mediated through (or even dependent on) the consumption and display of commodity goods (clothes, accessories, etc.). This whole idea of expressing "uniqueness" and worth through the display of luxury goods certainly does seem to tie in with the whole ideology behind "princess culture", which even in its more "traditional" form of dressing up in Disney store-bought princess gowns has become deeply intertwined with conspicuous consumption.

Dan Cook talked a bit about this last year (for e.g., check out this interview with Cook in follow up to a talk he gave on the subject), and it looks like his current research might be focused on unpacking the Disney Princess phenomenon specifically. According to Cook, the rampant popularity (and $$ success) of the Disney Princesses line is still growing, and Disney Princess merchandise is now a $4 billion industry, much of it focused around “lavishness and ultra-femininity". I've written a bit about the criticisms around the hyper-feminine ideals promoted by the Disney Princesses before, which you can read more about by following the links provided in this post from last year. You should also read this excellent piece written by Shannon Prince for Racialicious, which discusses Tiana, from the upcoming The Princess and the Frog, who is both the newest addition to the Disney Princesses line and the first African-American Princess. Prince's essay provides a thoughtful, critical analysis of both Tiana and the Princesses in general, and addresses many of the issues that have been raised around the Disney Princesses by both academics and feminist activists.

OR, for a completely different perspective, check out this article from Australian news source The Age.

I like that princess culture is starting to get some good critical inquiry from the likes of Cook and Twenge. The initial reactions were, well, a bit reactionary, and seeing as the phenomenon doesn't seem to be going anywhere any time soon, some good unpacking of what it means and how it functions within girls' lives is really key. Another great example of this emerging academic trend is Miriam Forman-Brunel's (who wrote Made to Play House, a fantastic history of the commercialization of girls' doll play) recent historical overview and critical analysis of princesses in girls' culture, co-authored with Julie Eaton and entitled "The Graceful and Gritty Princess", which appeared in a recent issue of the American Journal of Play.

Other sources of interest include a "Disney Princess Watch" initiated by Parents for Ethical Marketing, through which you might want to check out this recent photo exhibit by Dina Goldstein entitled Fallen Princesses. The project, as Goldstein describes, aims to "place Fairy Tale characters in modern day scenarios. In all of the images the Princess is placed in an environment that articulates her conflict. The '...happily ever after' is replaced with a realistic outcome and addresses current issues." Her work (as you will see) is directly inspired by the Disney Princess line, and engages directly with both the imagery and themes promoted by the Disney Princess' films and associated cultural/consumer products. It pushes the envelope a bit, but that's a good thing, isn't it? Goldstein writes that in coming up with the scenarios for her photos, she "began to imagine Disney's perfect Princesses juxtaposed with real issues that were affecting women around me, such as illness, addiction and self-image issues." I find the Belle and Jasmin photos particularly once shocking and cliche, which is a difficult mix of feelings to evoke.

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