“She Might Like to be a Veterinarian”: Parents, Parent Companies, and the Princess Movement

Curator's Note

When I caught this segment on Good Morning America last spring, it struck me as an example of how media conglomeration might inhibit the free flow of information, as media outlets are motivated to regulate themselves in the interests of their parent companies. ABC News raises the issue of social fears surrounding princess toy culture and then concludes that these royal fascinations are harmless child’s play, well within the purview of capable parents. Although Mattel, Viacom, and Club Libby Lu all participate in marketing princess fantasies to girls, only Disney’s Princess brand products are named and displayed in this piece. The question of where this trend originates goes relatively unexamined, beyond the basic story that Disney launched a Princess brand and consumers lined up to buy its products. Opponents of the princess “movement” (meaning popular consumer trend) argue that it serves the interests of patriarchal capitalism by providing endless varieties of toys, clothes and accessories that validate a passive feminine ideal. This piece concludes that it is the responsibility of parents, and not parent companies, to monitor and guide their children’s cultural consumption. The creative parent who provides a negotiated reading of Snow White for her daughter by inserting, “She’d like to be a veterinarian,” is depicted as a reasonable gatekeeper for Disney’s fastest-growing vertically integrated consumer products brand. Experts emphasize that princess culture is less about forming lifelong habits and more about encouraging children’s natural experimentation with identity and role models, but what goes unreported is that Disney also markets Princess lifestyle products (including a line of wedding dresses) to adult women. Whether or not princesses serve as positive role models, a central concern that is not addressed in ABC’s coverage is why these figures of wealthy, entitled beauty have become the focus of young girls’ play in recent years.


The creation and regulation of the franchise are interesting in terms of which characters have been promoted to Princess and which have been given probation, then fired. Alice seems to be a borderline guest star, the Princesses' gal-pal, despite having no claims at all to royal status; while Tinkerbell, apparently, was tested out but then sacked because she doesn't have the right attitude to fit the "mythology". Interesting to consider what makes a good Disney Princess, then, and what role models they're presenting. I have always found Tink one of the funniest, friskiest, feistiest young women in Disney, but maybe she'd encourage little princess-consumers to be too assertive. What are little girls in 2008 going to learn from Snow White, whose character seems to have been preserved in suspended animation from 1937 -- a role model for today's kids, from before WW2? -- and Sleeping Beauty, who was always a totally bland also-ran in my opinion and has no discernable character traits at all. Pochahontas and Mulan have clearly been included mainly to tap a culturally-diverse consumer base, and you have to wonder whether the introduction of Disney's first African-American movie heroine in 2009 isn't a canny, cynical move to fill in the last slot in the princess line.

as an afterthought, the Princess franchise is also an interesting example of transworld, cross-universe fiction -- if you include the marginal princess characters, it assumes a world where (Baum's) Tinkerbell and (Carroll's) Alice co-exist alongside (Andersen's?) Little Mermaid... like Alan Moore's LoEG diegesis where the Invisible Man can be murdered by Mr Hyde... or the similar Wold-Newton mythos, or Kim Newman's "Dracula" series. So by incorporating the characters from various authored fictions into its own (perhaps bland and homogenized) universe, Disney is eroding the boundaries between the original works of fiction (and between fiction and fictionalised history, by including their versions of Hua Mulan and Pocahontas) in a process whose interesting connotations are probably entirely accidental.

Hi Caryn, I definitely agree that this puff piece blurs potentially credible ideas about play and experimentation with unspoken assumptions about the normative performance of stereotypically passive gender roles by young girls. Where are the boys experimenting with being princesses? Where is the encouragement for girls to experiment with other identities? Marketing requires a clear cut correlation between pre-established consumer identities and predetermined functions for play. What fascinates me about the report is the throw away bit at the end on how the princess line is providing such good role models that marginalized groups are clamoring for princesses of their own. While I agree with Will that there are incredible possibilities opened up by having these different princesses occupy the same universe that might in turn promote a diversity of playful experiences and story possibilities, the discursive articulation in this report seems to suture notions of ex-nominated whiteness with minority uplift, so that Pocahontas and Mulan are meant to be understood (and clearly marked) as Native American and Asian variations of Disney's other (white, European) princesses and not as producing alternative versions/experiences of femininity.

I think you're right, Will - within the design of the Princess brand itself there are are awkward delineations of which Disney protagonists "count" as princesses. While Tinkerbell was not originally included, Disney markets her products through a separate Fairy brand for older girls (with "sass"). Avi, I think that you and Will both hit the nail on the head regarding Mulan and Pocahontas. Their inclusion in the Princess brand seems engineered to provide some semblance of diversity in options for a global customer base. Peggy Orenstein, the vocal critic in this piece, has written elsewhere that although Mulan and Pocahantas feature in the marketing of the brand as a whole, significantly fewer products are associated with these characters. From a child's perspective, it probably becomes clear that Mulan and Pocahantas are not "real" princesses - they don't dress or act like the other princesses, and they don't have an enormous range of pink and sparkly toys that little girls can use for role play. One interesting note on the implications of the cross-universe possibilities that the brand creates - apparently, the original marketing design was very careful to display all of the princesses (including Tinkerbell) together, but kept all of the characters from meeting each other's eyeline. Mooney, interviewed in this piece, said that it helped to maintain each of the character's separate space/separate stories. Thank you both for your comments!

This is a great clip, Caryn—the report seems invested in the idea that there is some kind of “Princess Effect” (burning that phrase onto every second of footage), even at the same time as it downplays concerns about longtime consumer habits and self-images in favor of childhood experimentation. It’s as if someone at Disney realized that marginal acknowledgment of social fears about the Princess franchise would only speak to the brand’s cultural resonance, and thus build it up. So even though it speaks to the success of the brand, why do you think they stopped short of addressing the marketing of Disney Princesses to adult women? Why not mention the way that the brand continues to resonate with audiences after childhood, if this piece is all about promoting that franchise? Is the real princess effect just too unsavory to be adequately manipulated (like they do with their claims about Princesses’ box office dominance, despite this being a line based on the existing Disney library)? I’d really like to see the Princesses in this adult market addressed in this (ahem) news story, because my imagination is running wild. And what I’m picturing isn’t the passive feminine ideal feared by this clip’s lone detractor, but unruly women, demanding Bridezillas, and other would-be Princesses too far out of the norms of femininity preferred by commercial television. I’m just imagining crazy scenarios (and I don’t mean to speak ill of any adult consumers of Disney Princesses; action figure collectors shouldn’t throw stones), but that’s because despite positing a Princess Effect down the road for these children, this clip sure seems scared to talk about what it might be.

Isn't the franchise just incorporating and branding something that was already there? Mooney explains the origins of the Disney Princess line in terms of making money out of an existing trend: he saw loads of little girls dressed as generic little princesses at Disney on Ice, and realised that his company wasn't making any money out of this. Disney Princesses are about looking pretty and having lots of stuff (and, supposedly, also being assertive and independent) -- is this very different to the Barbie brand, which has been providing little girls with the same ideals and accessories for decades (until Bratz came along... I wonder if the Princesses line is holding its own against Bratz, perhaps taking the "good girl" toy market away from Barbie?) I'm not sure that simply by bringing existing Disney heroines into a kind of transworld (where they can't look at each other) and putting a Disney brand on the sort of toys that already existed (surely glittery party dresses, wands, tiaras and tea-sets were already on the market) constitutes any kind of trend or "effect". The princess stuff has just all been brought into one place and given a brand focus. Interesting in terms of the discourse about good parenting that they have to admit, at the end, that Disney is actually the parent of ABC.

Exactly, Will--this is a repackaging job in many ways. Not just repackaging princess play in general as a Disney thing, but repackaging toy lines that used to be separate as a unified line. But it seems that the idea there is some kind of new effect emerging out of this is being used in this report to shore up the claim that this stuff isn't new, and that Disney has created the interest of little girls in princesses. The idea of an effect helps sell the branding and repackaging of princess play.

So, the idea of a (mild) moral panic, or a form of light controversy, creates a "story" that's basically a revisionist history along the lines of "Disney has inspired little girls to play princesses (TM)", and a convenient reminder about the merchandise. Next: some educational experts have expressed concern that the new Iron Man range of toys from Mattel, starting at only £4.99 and including an exciting light-up mask plus rocket-pack accessories, could potentially encourage what is being dubbed the "Iron Man" craze among little boys.

Will and Derek, I think you're both making key points that get to the heart of what isn't covered in this news piece. Since Disney launched this repackaging effort, the girls' toy market has been dominated by various types of princess play. In 2006, Disney reported global sales of $3 billion, and that jumped to $4 billion in 2007. Mattel's Barbie sales have been in a relative slump over the past decade or so, but Barbie "Princess" gear, introduced a couple of years ago, outsells other Barbie products (by about 4 to 1, according to some estimates). Club Libby Lu, where little girls get princess makeovers, launched in 2000 and now operates more than 80 stores. Princesses have always been popular, and princess-related toys have always been on the market - but is it possible to say that the current consumer trend is driven solely by corporate branding efforts? I'm not saying that there's a legitimate "princess effect," but I think that some other factors must be driving consumer demand besides product availability.

To me, the most interesting phrase in this piece hasn't been commented on yet -- the opening suggestion that if fantasy is not correctly managed, children will be "forever stuck in fantasyland." And note that the piece ends with the advice of child psychologists on how to avoid having children fixated on a particular mode of fantasy for two long. (This advice that adults may prolong the duration of a fantasy if they interfere runs in the face of the suggestion that saavy parents should help children negotiate between the marketed fantasies and their own family values). This underlying fear of arrested development surely explains why the piece must avoid at all costs referencing any Disney Princess products aimed at adult women. Despite the persistence of toys, fantasy, and play into adult life as a normal aspect of contemporary culture, there is still a residual pathologization of such behavior. This is the same pathologizing language which impacts the public perception of adult fans of all kinds -- that they never moved beyond the things they did on the floor of their playrooms, that they have been unable to adopt proper adult roles and responsibility, that they still live in their parent's basements. Yet, I am struck by the use of the phrase, "fantasyland," to refer to this space of the imagination, given how successfully Disney has elsewhere branded the Disney theme parks as a place where adults -- well, children of all ages -- can return to the vividness and comforts of their childhood imagination, frolicking with Mickey Mouse, riding in flying pirate ships and the like. And of course, we can't help but not that the fear of being fixed onto one fantasy is part of a culture of rapid turnover of media franchises and planned obsolescence as much as it is part of the discourse of child development. By the way, Will is right that Alice has no legitimate claim to be a Princess; she's a Queen in the original novel!

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