A year or two, I was taking Julie shopping for new shoes. I thought we’d get a nice solid color, or maybe a character she would recognize like Elmo. Then she saw the Disney princess sneakers: three princesses stuffed together (I don’t remember which), silver glittery swaths, and the word “princess” on the side. First she insisted on trying them. Then she wouldn’t take them off. Then we bought them. Two things struck me. First, the group princess merchandizing strategy was new to me. I had imagined that one could get Snow White shoes or Beauty and the Beast shoes, but combining them? Very smart. Second, it was interesting that princesses had such an allure for a girl who hadn’t seen any of the movies yet.
Writes Elizabeth Sweet at The Atlantic:
Toys for girls from the 1920s to the 1960s focused heavily on domesticity and nurturing. For example, a 1925 Sears ad for a toy broom-and-mop set proclaimed: “Mothers! Here is a real practical toy for little girls. Every little girl likes to play house, to sweep, and to do mother’s work for her”. Such toys were clearly designed to prepare young girls to a life of homemaking, and domestic tasks were portrayed as innately enjoyable for women.
However, gender-coded toy advertisements like these declined markedly in the early 1970s. By then, there were many more women in the labor force and, after the Baby Boom, marriage and fertility rates had dropped. In the wake of those demographic shifts and at the height of feminism’s second-wave, playing upon gender stereotypes to selltoys had become a risky strategy. In the Sears catalog ads from 1975, less than 2 percent of toys were explicitly marketed to either boys or girls. More importantly, there were many ads in the ‘70s that actively challenged gender stereotypes—boys were shown playing with domestic toys and girls were shown building and enacting stereotypically masculine roles such as doctor, carpenter, and scientist:
(As Steve Sailer puts it “Feminists: making children cry on Christmas morning since 1969“.)
Although gender inequality in the adult world continued to diminish between the 1970s and 1990s, the de-gendering trend in toys was short-lived. In 1984, the deregulation of children’s television programming suddenly freed toy companies to create program-length advertisements for their products, and gender became an increasingly important differentiator of these shows and the toys advertised alongside them…
However, late-century marketing relied less on explicit sexism and more on implicit gender cues, such as color, and new fantasy-based gender roles like the beautiful princess or the muscle-bound action hero. These roles were still built upon regressive gender stereotypes—they portrayed a powerful, skill-oriented masculinity and a passive, relational femininity—that were obscured with bright new packaging. In essence, the “little homemaker” of the 1950s had become the “little princess” we see today.
Disney was actually slow on the uptake. Writes Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times:
Disney really began to focus on princesses in 2000, after a new executive went to see a “Disney on Ice” show and was struck by how many of the girls in the audience were wearing homemade princess costumes. “They weren’t even Disney products,” the executive, Andy Mooney, told the writer Peggy Orenstein for her book about the rise of princesses, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter.” The Disney Princess line now makes about $4 billion a year, on par with the earning power of Mickey Mouse himself.
Feminists lament it, but the Disney corporation keeps catering to human nature–bless their greedy little hearts!
There you have it. The princess is a placeholder for the lost social validation of femininity. It is necessarily more abstract than the image of the housewife. The latter sort of play valorized a specific role that many girls could aspire to fill; the former contains in itself only the idea of femininity in Platonic abstraction. It is good as far as it goes. A healthy people celebrate and delight in sex differences, even accentuate them in dress and mannerisms, and provide rules and myths to help boys and girls understand their sex in pro-social ways. So far as I can tell, girls don’t walk away from their princess phase discouraged that they will never marry a prince but still happy that they will someday become women.
Think about how things must seem to a little girl. Yes, she may hear that boys and girls are the same, but consider what she sees. It is visually obvious that as boys and girls grow, they become more different. Baby girls and boys look the same, and in small children the differences are still pretty small. Men and women, however, are very different: different size, different shape, different voice. And even children will sense that adults interact with those of opposite sex differently than they do with those of their own. Children aspire to be adults. This is good and healthy. It’s the reason they end up wanting Superman or Rapunzel toys, as the case may be.
By the way, I don’t know if it’s the Disney and Star Wars movies and Super Mario Brothers playing of my youth or the monarchism of my middle age, but I do kind of get a kick out of the thought that there really are princesses (even if I will never rescue one). I’m quite sure I’ve seen pictures of them at The Mad Monarchist.