When a princess costume becomes a culture
A faltering economy? Don’t blame Cinderella, says Dan Cook, a professor of childhood studies in Camden.
Disney princesses merchandise is a $4 billion industry, according to Cook, who studies children’s role in the marketplace. The royal crew – Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan – joined forces in 2000 when a Disney representative realized the mega cross-marketing opportunities at an ice show where girls came dressed as their favorite beauties.
Dress-up and make-believe are far from new to childhood play, and Disney isn’t the sole cause for the princesses’ popularity; Cook, in fact, credits the company for providing girls with a world in which they can be as fair as Snow White and as fortuitous as Cinderella. What’s troubling to Cook is when the costume isn’t just a costume anymore, but a deep identification with a corporate-created and owned brand.
“Some aspect of learning always goes on in play,” says Cook, who recently shared his insights on the impact of Disney princesses on girls during Cappuccino Academy, a monthly lecture series at the Barnes and Nobles bookstore in Marlton. “This puts Disney in a powerful place because they have become part of a child’s learning environment.”
Princess stories – primarily narratives of transformation from rags to riches, unknown to known, and disempowered to empowered – have appeared for centuries in Western history and often appeal to both children and adults.
“To be a princess is to be special, to be above and beyond the ordinary, but sometimes the ‘specialness’ of a princess isn’t always evident,” Cook says. “The princess needs to be discovered by someone else to have a fully realized identity.”
The strongest underlying message in the princess tales has to do with the power of beauty, which both celebrates girls and confines them to an ultra-feminine role and identity. So even though princesses have their triumphant adventures and are not portrayed as passive wall flowers, their stories and identities are only complete when a man or prince is secured.
To a group of more than 30 attendees at the public lecture, Cook questioned why Disney princesses have struck such a chord at this moment in history.
“There is a connection between princess culture and lavishness and ultra-femininity, occurring around the same time as the rise of the lavish wedding,” Cook remarked. In fact, an actual princess-themed wedding can be held at Cinderella’s castle in Walt Disney World. “Today we also are seeing the lavish prom, the lavish child’s birthday party,” Cook adds. The lavishness also might be indicative of fantasies of adults dealing with a down economy. “We shouldn’t forget the greatest princess tale in our lifetimes, even though tragic.” The wedding of Diana and Prince Charles, Cook suggests, may have been a formative image for many of today’s mothers.
Merchandizing for children, especially girls, changed in the 1980s with the marketing for the red-headed doll Strawberry Shortcake. Owned by the American Card Company, she appeared on backpacks, underwear, pens, and other items that didn’t necessarily have a story to be sold. At that point, companies began acquiring character licenses, which could be sold and attached to goods unrelated to the character’s identity. The emphasis no longer rested on a story, but a product to be merchandised. Disney took “the Shortcake Strategy” to new heights because the company, which already owned the characters, combined them into one “super-identity.”
Cook visited the Disney Store recently to find the latest available in princess merchandise. From an “enchanted” hamper, to a hooded towel with an embroidered crown for a soggy princess, to a sportier princess’s baseball bat and mitt, Cook saw the princess empire expanding well past the characters’ stories.
“If Disney princesses celebrate girlhood, we need to find other ways to celebrate girls in ways that emphasize their abilities rather than their looks,” says Cook, the author of The Commodification of Childhood: the Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer (Duke University Press, 2004), which provides a historical approach to the birth of the child market and the status of the industry today.
He is busy researching another charged area for girls and women: how mothers and children interact with food.