Why Britain is going crazy for little princesses

Britain is awash with little girls in ballgowns and tiaras. Sales of Disney's Princess range are up 1,000 per cent. What's going on? And what happened to feminism? Katy Guest investigates a billion-pound business
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The Independent Online

In a quiet corner of Toys R Us in south London, two little girls have found what they are looking for. It is 4.30pm on a schoolday afternoon, but at the back of the shop there is a church-like calm as one picks up a pink box-set. "Do you know what this is?" she asks, her four-year-old's voice hushed with reverence. Her friend inexplicably puts on an American accent: "Sparkles," she whispers, awed. "No ... it is tassels," replies the former, grandly. They hold up the object of their desire, turning it in their little hands as if it were a jewel.

It is hard to determine the exact nature or potential use of the thing inside the plastic box. What it is, and what it does, is almost irrelevant. What matters is the single word inscribed in pink italics across the case: Princess.

Look around the shop, and you realise that little princesses are big business. The Disney corporation is far too grown-up now to get overexcited about just any old massive seller, but even they describe their Princess range as a phenomenon. It is the fastest-growing Disney Consumer Products brand in the world, having made $3bn (£1.52bn) for the company in 2006. Launched in 1999, the range includes eight of Disney's most successful princesses: Pocahontas, Jasmine, Belle, Aurora, Snow White, Cinderella, Mulan and Ariel. More than this, it consists of tens of thousands of Princess-branded items: there are cosmetics, jewellery, cologne, clothing, home furnishings, magazines, even bicycles. The company launched 2,000 brand new items last autumn for Ariel (aka the Little Mermaid) alone.

Disney may have cracked the formula, but they are not the only ones in a pink froth recently about female junior royals. Toys R Us also offers hundreds of items on a princess theme and says that there has "absolutely" been a rise in sales in recent years. Hamleys is selling its own-brand princess tiaras and gowns. The Baby Born princess "de luxe" set is rapidly selling out. Even Barbie has been elevated: she now has her own princess horse and carriage, possibly to be towed by one of three Princess Rapunzel horses. Since Disney's Andy Mooney had the bright idea of marketing eight of the company's princesses in a single mega-brand in 1999, sales related to those figures have increased by 1,000 per cent. But what makes them so cool?

This is rather a silly question, thinks Princess Priya, who is three. Priya likes princesses "because they have crowns and pretty dresses and wear diamond shoes," she explains. "Princesses have to like people and they have to wear nice clothes and have a wand. They are very busy because they have to keep getting dressed. They have houses and a prince and sometimes they have a baby and sometimes they don't." Priya would like to be a princess, but she thinks that she might have to look after her baby brother instead. It sounds like a f princess is a marvellous thing to be.

But not according to everybody. Professor Helen Haste is a professor of psychology at the University of Bath, and the author of the book The Sexual Metaphor. She has some reservations about the princess-isation of little girls which seems to be sweeping the nation. "There are worse things you could aspire to than being a good, kind person," she says. "But it would be nice to see somewhat more robust heroines for girls than princesses in pink dresses. It is complicated. Being a princess is not tied to reasonable expectations for kids." She refers back to Sleeping Beauty, or Princess Aurora as she is called in the Disney film, whose aspirations were few. "She just lay there, asleep or dead, until the handsome prince came to kiss her: that's a very interesting sexual metaphor." Professor Haste wonders how much the myth of Princess Diana has influenced the mythology of the archetypal fairytale princess for this latest generation of little girls.

In examining women's roles in folklore and fairytale, Professor Haste is in good company. In her book From the Beast to the Blonde, the acclaimed author and academic Marina Warner examines the roots of many princess stories and finds them much darker than the Disney fantasy. Sleeping Beauty, for example, defines "the slow incubation of selfhood, of consciousness of the Other and of eventual sexual fulfilment". In Disney's version, Aurora is "transformed from a sheltered girl into a mature young woman ready to become a bride". Hmm. Warner worried that in Disney, women's voices are "absorbed into the corporate body of male-dominated decision-makers". It is an accusation that has been levelled before - at storymakers such as Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.

Talking to people at Disney, there is little indication that these complaints trouble them. Kirsten De Groot is the director of Disney Princess and girls' brands across Europe, and as such is very popular with her younger female relatives. She is passionate about the magic of Disney. "The core age for the Princess range is two to six years old," she explains. "Girls at that age tend to be spending a lot of time at home and are influenced by mum and family. Key themes in the princess stories tend to resonate with their experiences. Snow White is a nurturing character: she cooks and cleans and looks after the Seven Dwarfs. Belle is very compassionate..." Nowhere does ambition or bravery seem to be relevant for Disney's girls. Angela Carter, the late author of fairytales for grown-ups, must be spinning in her grave.

Incidentally, Disney does have a director of boys' brands, but the title is "director of franchises" (and she is currently away on maternity leave). "Girls' brands," according to Disney, include Tinkerbell and Fairies. "Boys' brands" include Pirates and Cars. While nobody I spoke to would admit that toys are marketed towards girls or boys separately, it is a split that is quite evident. In the aisles of Toys R Us, a brand called "Girlz" fills an aisle that looks like Barbara Cartland's bedroom. The frills and frou-frous are a safe distance from the light sabres and Pirates of the Caribbean costumes further down the store. While the guns and blasters in the one section are no more appealing to me than the tiaras and fluffy slippers in the other, they do at least seem to do something. The pink toys seem to consist of handbags too small to hold things and notebooks too teeny to write things in. Do the boys have all the fun?

Georgina, who is a four-year-old princess living in west London, thinks not. "Boys don't like princesses," she says. "They play princes and kings instead. They try to snatch our crowns and break them." Some things, Georgina, never change.

But Georgina is a princess who is pretty without the pink. "I like the Cinderella dress because it is blue and so it matches my eyes," she says. She obviously hasn't seen the Disney range of paint colours, in which pinks are called things like "Blushing Princess", "Pretty as a Princess" and "Kissed Awake". Blues include "Galactic Sky". There is a red called "Gamma Rays". Blushing princesses and gamma rays do not seem to go.

But not everybody is concerned about the prince/princess gender divide. Dr Jack Boyle, a leading Scottish psychologist with expertise in children and gender differences, thinks that none of this does "the slightest harm". "Pink is a colour that girls identify with," he says - although nobody, but nobody, can explain why. "In all cultures pink is a girl's colour. Some parents might not want their boys to wear it. None of my male friends goes out wearing a lavender suit. Maybe you southern softies do."

Nor, he says, is the emphasis on beauty and blondeness a problem.

"The truth is that in our culture certain things are valued. Pretty women are more likely to be offered jobs than ugly ones. There is no harm in teaching people to grow up to make the best of their looks. It's a fact of life." He adds: "The feminists object strongly to this kind of thing. But they object to anything that differentiates men and women. By and large women are more responsive and mature than men. It's a fact of life."

Others are certain that the princess/ frog divide is not strictly along gender lines. Tim is the father of five-year-old twin girls. One is a total princess, who dresses in sparkles and says that her favourite toy is "pink. Anything pink." The other prefers to play with fire engines. "Now that one daughter has claimed the princess role, the other would do anything not to be like her," he reckons. "The princess thing is just an easy thing for people to pick up on when they want to buy things for children. They think, 'She's the princess, we'll buy her this.' It's like when an adult confesses to collecting something, and they'll never receive an unrelated present again."

Elsewhere, parents are more confused about where it all came from. Georgina's mum, Joy, was one of twin girls: both tomboys. Her super-girly daughter is a revelation.

"Mine is a total princess, aged two and a half," says Elizabeth, the mother of Franny. "She has three brothers so she didn't have much exposure to such things for a while. But when we spent some time with a friend and her 'pink' daughter, Franny threw herself into it. She is now rarely to be parted from her fairy dress or her dressing-up box of pink fripperies. At her age, her older brother was obsessed with lining up cars. But now the boys like dressing up in her Cinderella slippers - it cuts both ways."

Some mothers I spoke to were worried about the messages that pink princesses have been whispering in their tiny children's ears. One little girl had said: "You couldn't be a princess, mummy, you're not the right sort of person. You're not beautiful." Another child, half-Indian, believed that princesses wear white because they have white faces, not brown. Although, the same child is also the proud owner of a Disney Jasmine doll - one of three ethnically diverse Disney Princesses - and she added that if princesses did have brown faces they would just have to wear blue instead. One mother told me, "When I was her age, my parents were buying me stethoscopes and space Lego, but my daughter is only interested in tiaras and make-up. What have I done wrong?" She fears letting her daughter out in public in case she is castigated for letting down The Cause.

Do princesses' career choices limit young girls' horizons? If so, we had better be worried. A current advert for a new magazine from the fairy princess Felicity Wishes encourages little girls to dream about their future lives. "Every issue I try out a new job, from cake-maker to nurse, to popstar!" Felicity squeals. "Part 1 comes with a cute Felicity Wishes doll and with every issue there's a sparkly new outfit to dress her in!" Felicity does not come with an astronaut's costume or a train driver's hat, and seems to want little girls to grow up to be homemakers and pop tarts and use too many exclamation marks. And this was a character invented by Emma Thompson, the actress and Oscar-winning screenwriter of Sense and Sensibility. What happened to the Sense part?

Feminist parents should also watch out for a recent phenomenon known to its initiates as Club Libby Lu. The American chain is a pink paradise, a place where tiny daughters can dress up as princesses, have their ears pierced and shop for purses stamped "Girlie Girl". In The New York Times recently, one concerned mother confided: "Some of this stuff is innocuous, but a lot of it is horrible. It makes them look like little prostitutes. They're babies!"

A spokesperson for Libby Lu said last week: "We believe the Club Libby Lu brand has significant growth opportunities internationally and we have recently begun ... prioritising international target markets and determining optimum franchisee/ business partner profiles. I anticipate that we will be in a position to begin development discussions with prospective franchisees in targeted markets by the fall timeframe. Additionally, my expectation is that the UK will be on our initial international target market list." Which I think means that Libby Lu is coming to town.

Spokespersons for Toys R Us and Disney both put their fingers on an interesting point. These days, children get older younger, they said. For Ms De Groot, "Disney is a safe environment. It's really about letting little girls be little girls." But if little girls soon grow into Libby girls, with pierced ears and bare tummies, what is the next step? Growing up to become a real princess is not a viable option for most children. And look what happened to Princess Diana when she did.

Dr Boyle believes that the princess phenomenon is nothing new, and nothing harmful. "You can take it back centuries," he says. "They're just marketing it very successfully now. But you can't sell children something that they don't want - even if you market till you're blue in the face."

Not everyone is so sure. Disney will not reveal the marketing budget behind its Princess range, but with annual sales of $3bn, you can bet that they're not leaving anything to chance.

Professor Haste is concerned. "Despite all the efforts of a generation of people to blur the gender boundaries of toys, it is quite impossible to fight the manufacturers," she says. "They say that kids choose. That's not entirely true. On the other hand, while girls do seem to gravitate towards these things, they also seem to grow out of it at puberty."

There is truth in this. The eight- and nine-year-olds I spoke to were well out of the princess years, with no visible damage to their personalities. One preferred Bratz dolls because the boys' and girls' clothes are interchangeable. Another cut off all her princesses' hair. A year ago, a study by the University of Bath showed that seven- to 11-year-olds played with their Barbies by decapitating them, branding them and putting them in the microwave. And to think that the feminists of the 1970s stopped at burning their bras.

"Being a princess now is not quite so foot-binding as it was," says Professor Haste, ultimately. "Besides, lots of girls go through the pink phase and then at puberty they suddenly go black." Perhaps little girls will find a way to make princesshood their own, after all. Or, as Georgina says, "Being a princess is good because a princess gets to eat sausages whenever she likes." Now that's Girl Power.

By royal appointment: The Top Five Disney princesses

The domestic princess

Accompanied by cheery birdsong as she goes about her chores, Snow White is the godmother of princess culture. With her incessant and uncomplaining mopping, sweeping and cleaning for her seven little men, she has inspired generations of young girls and aspiring housewives - as well as irritating feminists and lazyboneses. The fact that so many laundrettes, drycleaners, carpet cleaners and stain removers are named after the heroine is a testament to the influence of the 1937 Disney film.

The PC princess

OK, so the native-American princess Pocahontas didn't get to wear the prettiest ballgowns, but her dark hair and ethnic costumes helped make her one of the most popular Disney princesses - and she does make a refreshing change from the blonde, ringletty norm. Based loosely on real-life events in colonial Virginia, the 1995 film charts the "interracial" relationship between Capt John Smith and the native-American-princess. Shock horror - Pocahontas was able to paddle her own canoe, too.

The tomboy princess

Mulan turned out to be one of a new breed of Disney heroines who emerged in the Nineties. Like Pocahontas, her character is successful and brave, and winning a husband isn't part of her agenda. Her character is based on an ancient Chinese legend about the exploits of a girl warrior who joins the army under the guise of a boy to protect her father from death. The film generated huge profits for Disney's Princess range - which incidentally focuses more on "Blossom Beauty Dolls" rather than swords.

The Yuppie princess

Poor old Cinderella never intended to be a social climber - but her rags-to-riches tale has given hope to countless upwardly mobile little girls over the years. They should be careful, however, not to fall prey to the "Cinderella Complex" - the term used to describe beautiful and polite women who are unable to become independent characters and who can only be rescued by a man. The blue ballgown Cinders wore in the 1950s film is still a best-seller and a favourite with mothers who crave a change from pink.

The passive princess

Disney's 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty harks back to Hollywood's golden age, and many argue that Aurora is the loveliest princess of all. But though she is blessed with beauty, courtesy of her fairy godmother, and she gets to wear some lovely frocks as she waits helplessly to be rescued by her prince, she does seem a little short in the brains dept. It is this passivity, as well as the undertones of sexuality, which have caught the imaginations of Freudian analysts. Aurora isn't much of a hit with feminists, either.