Feb 25, 2011
Once Upon a Time
Abby Heugel, Managing Editor

Have we seen the end of the princess?

Once upon a time, a princess was just a princess.

Little girls would read about them in fairy tales and watch them on the screen, slipping on their very own tutu and tiara on occasion. So why princesses? Because they’re special. They wear nice things in fun, bright colors; they have talking animals and inanimate objects as friends; and, most importantly, they end up happily ever after with their handsome prince.

It wasn’t a matter of perceived gender roles assigned to a costume or politically correct media representations that have made princesses an enduring costume choice. Some trends are repeated for a simple reason – people like them.

“Princesses and pirates are a Halloween classic, as well as an integral part of childhood storybooks and role play,” said Sergio Lemus, marketing coordinator for Disguise Inc. “As a Disney licensee, we specialize in offering retailers modern and fashionable renditions of these classic characters focusing on graphic detail and fashion construction that are appealing to children and parents alike.”

A lot of little girls want to be princesses; a lot of little boys want to be policemen or firemen. These fantasies are appropriate for children. So when did a princess become more than just a princess?

Princess Popularity
Princess costumes have topped NRF’s children’s top costume list for six consecutive years, due in large part to the princess presence on the big screen. But there has been talk of retiring the popular Disney Princess line in favor of a more modern interpretation and more gender-neutral appeal. According to sources from Disney, the 2010 release of “Tangled” may be the last princess-inspired film to hit the big screens for a while.

“Films and genres do run a course,” said Pixar Animation Studios chief Ed Catmull, who oversees Disney Animation with director John Lasseter. “They may come back later because someone has a fresh take on it, but we don’t have any other musicals or fairy tales lined up.”

Why forsake such a popular theme? According to some, princesses and the romanticized ideal they represent appears to have a limited shelf life. An article in the Los Angeles Times offered that the wants and needs of society have changed, that most pre-teen and teen girls aren’t interested in being a princess anymore – at least not in the way they were back in the days of Snow White and Cinderella.

The article quoted Dafna Lemish, chairwoman of the radio and TV department at Southern Illinois University and an expert in the role of the media in children’s lives: “By the time they’re 5 or 6, they’re not interested in being princesses. They’re interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values.”

Catmull found the article a bit harsh and quickly took to the Disney Facebook page to explain his comments, writing that the paper’s headline, “Disney Animation is closing the book on fairy tales” was wrong.

“A headline in today’s LA Times erroneously reported that the Disney fairy tale is a thing of the past, but I feel it is important to set the record straight that they are alive and well at Disney and continue this week with ‘Tangled,’ a contemporary retelling of a much loved story. We have a number of projects in development with new twists that audiences will be able to enjoy for many years to come.” – Ed Catmull

Because profitable princess merchandise is worth about $4 billion a year to the company, and 4.3 million children dressed as a princess of some fashion for Halloween in 2010, it’s hard to imagine princess product being thrown into boxes with Bubble Boy accessories. But it does raise an interesting question that retailers might have to consider: Is the princess still just a princess, or has it become something more?

Happily Ever After?
Because movies and products need to appeal to a broad audience to remain viable and profitable, it’s understandable that Disney has tinkered with the princess formula to chase a broader audience. The studio changed the name of its “Rapunzel” movie to the gender-neutral “Tangled” and instead of a typical prince, the film’s male costar, Flynn Rider, was a wise-cracking thief who mixes it up with beer-swilling bandits.

“Over the years Disney has developed princess and female characters that are stronger and more independent than their predecessors-making each new character more in keeping with the modern women/girls of today,” said Amanda Marples, marketing specialist at Disguise. “The most recent addition to the Princess line-up is Rapunzel, who made her debut in Tangled. Changing the title of this movie to “Tangled” (instead of Rapunzel) to encompass a wider audience was a brilliant move on Disney’s part. The movie was action packed and had a great male character. This strategy tells us that Disney is aware of its audience and will continue to develop and market characters and stories that consumers what to see and be.”

Disney’s hope was that this would draw boys, teenagers and adults back to the theater, whereas a film such as “The Princess and the Frog” only appealed to a small audience – young girls. Different kinds of Disney characters have created a strong presence on screen and on retail shelves as well – including Buzz Lightyear and Woody from Pixar’s “Toy Story,” Capt. Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean” and a variety of Marvel Entertainment superheroes.

But aside from attracting a more varied audience, the real issue is the fact that some people feel that being a princess sends out some sort of politically incorrect statement about a child.

Perhaps as a direct result of media influence, characters and trends evolve and transform with time. The classic superhero or pirate of today isn’t that different than it was years ago, but the popularity of other female characters such as Hannah Montana and Bratz dolls reflect the changing interests of the girls. Like it or not, some children don’t want to just be a princess, but rather the modern interpretation of what they view as special – wearing fun things in bright colors, being popular and fitting a certain image.

Which brings us back to Lemish’s comment that 5- and 6-year-olds are not interested in being princesses, but instead “interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values.”

This could be disturbing to not only parents, but also to retailers, as there are strong opinions about the role that “sexier” costumes play in any party store. Questions of what is appropriate are weighed against questions of what is most profitable. Costume offerings have to meet the demands of the customers, and retailers may be faced with deciding exactly what it is they want to offer.

So which way will it go? Is it that princesses are simply being replaced with new female characters the same way that pirates and Transformers have taken over for boys, or is it a deeper issue of princesses not being as “valued” because of some perceived gender role assigned to the tiara?

At Disguise, they feel that the Disney Princess mega-franchise is very much alive and will continue to flourish as the trend over recent years has shown. Marples said that Disney knows what is has – numerous classic, timeless properties that will continue to live on, and bring joy to new generations.

It will be interesting to see how things develop in the coming months, as tiaras and tutus are unlikely to gather dust any time soon.

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