Still Gripped by the Ideal of the Princess

The endless fascination with the tiara, real and toy

The Wall Street Journal, "Commerce & Culture" , December 18, 2010

I admit it. When I was growing up, my father called me "Princess." Routinely. Even when I was in high school.

This was strange, I now realize, and not just because I was more nerd than girly-girl. The United States has been a republic for more than two centuries. We aren't supposed to have princesses. Yet the archetype remains both persistent and profitable.

Princesses are everywhere: under the tree at Christmas and on the sidewalks at Halloween, atop birthday cakes and in videogames, on bedspreads and in perfume ads. They provide themes for baby showers, quinceañeras, even weddings. The phrase "every little girl dreams of being a princess" generates more than 300,000 Google matches, only a few of which concern Kate Middleton's impending marriage to Britain's Prince William.

"Princess" is not just a royal title. It's a powerful, and popular, ideal.

When the Los Angeles Times recently reported that Disney was swearing off new animated princess films, the fan outcry was so great that Pixar Animation chief Ed Catmull quickly issued a retraction on Facebook, vaguely promising great stuff to come. Whether it turns out to be the last or merely the latest Disney princess movie, "Tangled," which opened Nov. 24, is an indisputable hit. Going into this weekend, the retelling of "Rapunzel" had rung up nearly $194 million in world-wide ticket sales.

Yet among today's educated urbanites, "princess culture" is the subject of raging debate. What some parents consider innocent make-believe, others deem character-eroding indoctrination. Calling your daughter a princess fosters "a sense of entitlement and undeserved superiority," declares one mother, commenting on a CafeMom post called, "Is the Princess Fantasy Dangerous?" Others fear that princess stories teach girls to be pretty and helpless, waiting for a prince to rescue them instead of acting on their own behalf. Should liberated women let their daughters play Cinderella? It's a topic with which mommy blogs never seem to tire.

"Enough is enough," writes an exasperated Sasha Brown-Worsham, a self-described "feminist with a master's degree," on CafeMom. Dissenting from her peers, Ms. Brown-Worsham doesn't believe her daughter will be marred for life if she wears a princess dress or insists on being addressed as Cinderella. "'Princess culture," she declares, "is what you make it."

Given my history, I have to agree. And Ms. Brown-Worsham's response addresses the big cultural puzzle: Why, in a society without princesses, does this archetype remain so intensely glamorous to girls with all sorts of backgrounds and personalities?

A princess is pretty, rich, beautifully dressed, loved, happy and, above all, special. She represents escape from the constraints of even the most bountiful childhood. Erstwhile princess Sarah Constantin, now working toward her Ph.D. in mathematics at Yale University (a classic girly pursuit), recalls the joys of imagining a "'dream dress' that was every color of the rainbow and had opals in the shape of morning glories" and reigning over Sarahland. There, she says, "I was a benevolent ruler, but here on earth I had to do what I was told, and (worse?) wear overalls." The princess archetype embodies a feminine version of the appeal Michael Chabon in his novel "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" ascribes to superheroes. They express the "lust for power and the gaudy sartorial taste of a race of powerless people with no leave to dress themselves." (Wonder Woman is both superhero and princess.)

Beyond that, a princess is what you make of her. She may be wise-cracking or demure, a blue-eyed blonde or a tawny brunette, goth or Gothic, a domestic goddess like Snow White or a warrior like Xena. The princess archetype is powerful because it is adaptable. It changes with time and circumstance, while retaining its emotional core. To play princess is to embrace two promises: "You are special" and "Life can be wonderful."

Neither of these need entail narcissistic entitlement or female passivity. Even that old-fashioned children's classic, Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1904 novel "A Little Princess," portrays an imaginative, individualistic young heroine. Suddenly orphaned and destitute, Sara Crewe imagines herself a princess not only to escape her miserable circumstances but to maintain her good manners and self-control. "If you were a princess," she reminds herself, "you did not fly into rages." When unfairly abused, "you can't sneer back at people like that—if you are a princess."

For all its Victorian stoicism and sense of duty, this princess dream shares the mixture of openness and elitism that gives princesses their contemporary appeal. Like the superhero, the princess has a special identity and destiny. She is more than an ordinary girl. But her value is not determined by playground hierarchies. You don't have to be popular to be a princess. You can be an iconoclast, even an outcast, but you must be worthy. You must be good. In this version, as my then-5-year-old niece once wrote me, "Anyone can be a PRINCESS."