My First Princess Party

What gets me riled about the whole princess situation is less the feminist dilemma over iffy role models (though feminist I am), and more the concerted sales effort of the princess marketing machine.
03/31/2008 12:20pm ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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So, my not-quite-three year old and I just attended our first princess party, courtesy of my closest friend from childhood and her four-year-old daughter. And thus, once upon a time, it began.

Any parent of a girl under age eight (yes, this begins in the crib now), is familiar with the princess onslaught. Princesses appear on baby onesies, toddler cutlery, and school backpacks. I had to search far and wide to find princess-free underpants for my newly potty-trained daughter. (And somehow she ended up wearing a pair of Sleeping Beauties last week, I know not whence it came.) Fears about The Princess Hegemony have been running rampant among parents of a certain feminist set for several years now. Peggy Orenstein wrote a brilliant piece for The New York Times magazine a couple of years ago about her daughter's incipient Cinderella obsession:

I finally came unhinged in the dentist's office...where I'd taken my 3-year-old daughter for her first exam. Until then, I'd held my tongue. I'd smiled politely every time the supermarket-checkout clerk greeted her with "Hi, Princess"; ignored the waitress at our local breakfast joint who called the funny-face pancakes she ordered her "princess meal"; made no comment when the lady at Longs Drugs said, "I bet I know your favorite color" and handed her a pink balloon rather than letting her choose for herself. Maybe it was the dentist's Betty Boop inflection that got to me, but when she pointed to the exam chair and said, "Would you like to sit in my special princess throne so I can sparkle your teeth?" I lost it.

Sparkle toothpaste must be included in the 21st century pediatric dentist manual as my daughter was offered a similar treatment in a dentist's office all the way across the country just last month. That said, my daughter loved it. And she positively glowed with pleasure at the Princess Party. She eagerly donned a gold-encrusted costume with billows of tulle when we walked in the door, then requested a wand, fairy wings, and a tiara. She sat demurely as the party hostess (the event took place at an Upper East Side store dedicated to such extravaganzas, complete with enthusiastic princess-enabling staff) dusted her eyelids with shadow, and painted her tiny fingernails with silvery polish. I stood there torn between being horror-struck at my three-year-old wearing makeup and kvelling at the studious manner in which she inspected her chubby face in the mirror.

Rachel Kramer Bussel pointed me to this damning article last week, about the rampant use of salon services among tween girls. I'd like to say I was surprised and appalled, but I can only claim the latter. After all, my seven-year-old niece in Los Angeles recently attended a sleepover party in which all the girls were given facials by a facialist hired out for the occasion. And now, I wonder, am I one of those moms who professes to be outraged but then shrugs her shoulders when it's her own daughter falling sway?

Part of me, let's be honest, is supportive of the princess concept. I'm a big believer in fairy tales, Grimm and all, with their evil queens, Black Forests, and grisly endings. I'd rather my daughter be wrapped up in Hans Christian Anderson than dedicated to the Backyardigans.

What gets me riled about the whole princess situation is less the feminist dilemma over iffy role models (though feminist I am), and more the concerted sales effort of the princess marketing machine. As I wrote in Time this week, the cost of having kids these days has skyrocketed. (The story, Million Dollar Babies, breaks down the ludicrously low estimates proposed by the government.) There's plenty of stuff parents feel compelled to buy, without having to deal with our kids -- even two- or three-year-olds, lobbying for Dora this and Princess Barbie that. The best princesses, after all, have come from humble origins or rise to distinction grace of their humility. Sure there are some negative implications in that message, but I'll focus on the positive side of the princess empire. Even as I try to stave it off.