The Telegraph
Sunday , June 22 , 2014
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Princess paraphernalia

Cinderella’s gown has changed colour many times to settle into a dazzling blue.

A long, long time ago, two centuries ago to be precise, in the story of the Grimm Brothers, Cinderella, miserable as she was, didn’t have a fairy godmother, but a little white bird on a hazel tree. The tree grew on the grave of her mother and the little white bird always threw down to Cinderella whatever she wished for.

The bird, which looks suspiciously like her mother’s spirit, gave Cinderella three magnificent dresses for three magnificent balls at the palace, but no midnight deadline. The first evening Cinderella got a gold and silver gown; the other shades were not mentioned. The last evening Cinderella did lose her slipper — a golden one — and the rest is pretty bloody. When the prince came looking for her, one of the stepsisters cut off her toe to fit her foot into the slipper; the other cut off her heel. All the while two white doves kept informing the prince that the bleeding women were imposters, and when Cinderella was found, the two birds pecked out the eyes of the wicked, ambitious sisters. The original angry birds.

More than a century later, when Disney made its animation version of Cinderella in 1950, making her a slim, beautiful figure with blue eyes and golden (originally strawberry-blonde) hair, it did not look at the Grimm story. It chose Frenchman Charles Perrault’s story, which was written a century before the Grimms and is the gentler version that also comes with the fairy godmother and her entire magic sequence — of rags turning into a glamorous gown, a pumpkin turning into a golden carriage and mice into horses.

Disney made the gown blue and Cinderella beautiful and bland. The film did not do very well; but it didn’t matter. Disney would make her step out of the fairy tale and the film.

Now she is rampant in little girls’ dreams everywhere.

(From top left) Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Ariel come alive on stage at princess workshops hosted by Disney

Literally. A six-year-old girl from Calcutta, owner of a Disney Cinderella doll and a few other Disney princesses, has recently dreamt that she and two of her girl friends are driving through the city, when, surprise, surprise, the car changes into a golden carriage, and the three, more surprise, turn into Cinderellas. They grow up, grow long blonde tresses, crowns, and blue gowns, and look set to live happily ever after in a journey towards the eternal ball.

When not dreaming, the six-year-old is dressing up her Disney Cinderella doll. She also owns a miniature pink castle and a wardrobe for her princesses — Cinderella has several other Disney princesses in attendance, some invented, some reinvented. Cinderella probably rules because her magic moment is also about couture.

The little girl has a collection of lunch boxes, water bottles, pencil cases, crayons, DVDs, umbrellas, not to mention princess dresses and princess jewellery, some Disney, some cheaper brands, some made in China. Whenever she feels like it she dresses up like a princess, mostly in pink. It is a state of being.

It has also been called the “princess industrial complex”. It is the outcome of a brainwave a Disney chief had at the turn of the last century.

Endless possibilities

It happened when Andy Mooney, appointed chairman of The Walt Disney Company’s Disney Consumer Products division in the late 1990s, observed that little girls attending a Disney event were dressed in imperfect princess costumes. “And the light bulb went off,” Mooney told The New York Times.

He spoke to his team the next morning. “OK, let’s... get as much product out there as we possibly can that allows these girls to do what they’re doing anyway: projecting themselves into the characters from the classic movies,” he said.

The result was the Disney Princess franchise from around 2000. Disney has acquired all the classic princesses, turned them into heroines in their animation films who more or less fit into a mould (with a few conscious departures) and then turned them into dolls and merchandise. They rock.

The line-up (in order of their appearance in Disney films) has Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora (Disney’s name for the Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose), Ariel (Disney had given the Little Mermaid a name and happy ending in its 1989 film), Belle (of Beauty and the Beast), Jasmine (Aladdin’s girlfriend), Pocahontas, Mulan (Disney’s version of an ancient Chinese princess), Tiana (the Frog Prince’s trendy Black-American girlfriend, originally a commoner, another Disney invention), Rapunzel (after Tangled, the Disney film) and Merida. Merida (of Brave), like Elsa in Frozen later, come without princes.

In 2013 Disney even extended to the princesses a line of Palace Pets: Cinderella has a puppy called Pumpkin, Snow White has a bunny called Berry, Rapunzel has a pony called Blondie, and so on.

The possibilities are endless in this princess world.

(From top) Cinderella from the 1950 Disney film, in Princess avatar and in a film to be released next year

When the princesses were first marketed in 2000, Disney did a business of $300 million. By 2010 it was a $4 billion dollar a year industry with over 26,000 products, reports Peggy Orenstein, who coined the phrase “princess industrial complex” in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (Harpercollins; 2011), which she wrote after observing her daughter. Another parent writes in a blog that his battle against his “princessing” daughters has been ill-fated.

It would reassure them, or probably not, to know that the same is happening in other places like Calcutta.

The six-year-old from Calcutta has attended several princess parties in Calcutta. In any case, any birthday is an occasion to dress up as a princess, where artists hired to paint “tattoos” are familiar with the colour code of all princesses. One of her friends attended a birthday recently where there was “bouncy” — an inflatable structure on which children can bounce — in the shape of a princess castle.

She loves to go to Starmark stores, where several princesses are on display, along with Barbies, but then all Barbies are the same really; the princesses look more individuated through dress, hair colour and complexion (and Barbies tend to cost less).

Disney even organised a princess workshop in Calcutta in January, which had live adult princesses on stage, including Cinderella, and numerous little princesses from the city, dressed in princess costumes Mooney would approve of, looking up.

Add to these the Disney movies, Disney channels, and YouTube, on which princess dolls have their costumes made with Disney Play Doh. The YouTube videos are endless and so is the princess line-up.

There is no respite from princesses. You can’t stop their proliferation.

A little ‘princess’ shows off her crown


Disney stresses that Disney Princesses are evolving. But the princess culture remains stuck where it was. Orenstein is scared of the early sexualisation that this culture can induce. “I didn’t know whether Disney Princesses would be the first salvo in a Hundred Years’ War of dieting, plucking, painting (and perpetual dissatisfaction with the results),” she writes.

Ratnaboli Ray, founder of Anjali, a mental health rights organisation in the city, says she feels greatly disturbed by the power of the princesses. She too stresses her fear that this can “prematurely sexualise little girls and give them a negative self-image”.

The more such images girls consume, the more vulnerable they are to sexualising and self-objectifying themselves, she stresses.

“This leads little girls to grow up with the knowledge that sexuality is something to be performed, not experienced,” Ray feels. The princesses remind her of the small children who take part in dance shows, wearing highly sexualised costumes and performing in a highly sexualised manner. “The market is encouraging young girls to become ‘sexy’. A chasm is developing within them as they are being asked to develop physically when mentally they are not,” says Ray.

She adds that in an age when women’s empowerment is always a part of the discourse, the regressive princesses are sending a problematic, mixed message. “Aspirations for our girls are changing. The princess culture makes for contradiction. Parents should be extremely careful,” she says.

Ray suggests alternative dolls. Anjali had held a show of Ugly Bugly rag dolls made by mental health patients. Some of them were quite adorable.

Girls’ dolls have traditionally been about “the eternal feminine”, but never were they so ubiquitous or so uniform, which has only been possible in today’s global consumerist world.

Others caution parents too. Sharanya Banerjee, who runs Work Wonders, an educational centre on Lansdowne Road, interacts with small children in the activity and study classes she organises. She thinks that if a little girl is being obsessive about being a princess, then there is cause for concern, but otherwise Banerjee is not too scared.

Princess water bottles and watches. Pictures by Arnab Mondal, courtesy Starmark

“They will outgrow it. But it is important to expose them to other things. The princess should not be a stereotype,” she says. She is planning a class on princesses, but with a different take.

Banerjee also points out that most Disney Princess products cost more than many other branded products.

All are not hopeful about girls outgrowing the stage easily, however. The next step is a kind of hotter pink and the sexualisation of girls, which is just rampant, warns Orenstein. Parents should be aware of that.

Meanwhile, there are reports that Anna and Elsa from the Disney film Frozen will be inducted as the 12th and 13th Disney Princesses in 2014. In glittering ceremonies, one assumes. A film called Maleficent, a character Disney created for the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty, has recently shown in Calcutta theatres. Next year, Disney is launching yet another Cinderella film, but with live human characters.

And a local shoe store has recently reported a brawl between a mother and her young daughter, and the latter would not stop screaming till she was bought a pair of shoes emblazoned with Sofia, the youngest princess from Disney who actually goes to school.

The princesses look set to Live Happily Ever After (LHEA). Which could be the name of another Disney Princess?

What do princesses do?

It is not very clear, but a few activities have been identified. It is mostly on YouTube, where princess dolls are used uninhibitedly to demonstrate dress-making with Play Doh or make cake designs.

Blondie, Rapunzel’s pet pony

From these videos, one can assume:

• Princesses eat cupcakes

• Princesses address each other, and others, as “sweetheart”, “cutie-pie”, “sweetie”

• Princesses can’t stand. Like Barbie, princess dolls come with dainty, small feet, and while the prince dolls and even pets can stand on their own two or four feet, princesses fail. In YouTube videos they often rest against princess furniture

• Princesses can mingle. They have their separate “mythologies”, rarely making eye contact with each other, but on unofficial YouTube videos have princesses hobnobbing with each other

• They go pet-shopping

Makeover Magic

What Disney did to some princesses (and princes)

The Little Mermaid: Disney takes the little mermaid out from Hans Christian Andersen’s story, makes her a red-haired beauty, gives her the name Ariel, two permanent legs and a happy ending. Heartbreaking.

Sleeping Beauty: In the Grimm version, she was called Briar Rose. In the Disney version, she is called Aurora and is only distinguished from the other Caucasian Disney princesses by the cut of her pink gown. The wicked fairy is given the name Maleficent, subject of another recent film staring Angelina Jolie.

Rapunzel: The Disney version is called Tangled and is free of complications like Rapunzel’s pregnancy, there in the Grimm story .

The Frog Prince: Was given a commoner girlfriend, a svelte Black American, called Tiana (picture below)