We are one week away from a huge cultural event…the inauguration of a new princess. The major news networks have a countdown to the royal wedding and are gleefully reporting any trivial detail they can get their hands on. It is estimated that two billion people worldwide will tune in to see Will and Kate take their vows. And there is no doubt that every aspect of the celebration will be dissected, analyzed and copied. As a Mormon aside, royal wedding dresses tend to be modest so be prepared to see replicas of Kate’s dress on temple grounds around the world.
The interest in Kate Middleton borders on the hysterical. She is watched and judged for every clothing choice, every word uttered, every movement she makes. The reviews of the new princess have been overwhelmingly positive but we also see exhibits of the worst aspects of our voyeuristic and sexist culture on display. For example, the media has begun to speculate that Middleton has developed “brideorexia” which, if true, is not surprising considering the amount of public scrutiny she is dealing with. Her decision not to engage with the media has been explained not as a desire to keep some modicum of normalcy or privacy but as a ploy on her part to capture Prince William.
I have mostly rolled my eyes at this mania, this is so far away from the day to day reality of my life that it seems silly to get caught up in it. But it is an appealing story, a commoner catches the eye of a prince and they fall deeply in love. Sigh. Who among us didn’t have that daydream as a little girl?
I was eight the year Disney’s Little Mermaid came out and I spent hours and hours pretending to be Ariel. This horrifies the feminist in me now, here’s a story of a woman who literally gives up her voice in order to catch a man, but as a young girl I found it comforting. Well, not the story so much but the fact that Ariel was a redhead. Having red hair made me a target for teasing, seeing it represented as beautiful helped me become more confident about this particular feature.
My own experience with princesses as a girl were positive which makes how I feel about them now complicated. I cannot deny that princesses, specifically Disney’s version of Ariel, helped me develop confidence and identity as a redhead and eventually a woman. And there is evidence that girls are drawn to all thing pink, sparkly and princess-y as a way to assert their girlness. I would argue that this, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. But the princess landscape is so different than it was when I was a girl twenty years ago. Princess culture is everywhere, from pull-ups to bed sheets. If you are a girl, you cannot escape it. And as the Kate Middleton phenomenon shows, this culture doesn’t just affect little girls.
As far as princesses go, Kate Middleton seems to be as good as it gets. She’s beautiful, thin, dignified and looks great in a hat. But all we know about her is the way she looks and behaves in public. And this is the problem with the princess narrative, it strips the individual woman of her individuality and makes her instead an object to be consumed and looked at. Not to mention that princess narratives also dictate how all women should look and behave.
Princesses are not a benign image. Indeed, they present a very certain and not unattractive view of femininity and the role of women. But make no mistake, this image contributes to a culture that separates men and women and makes it harder for women to participate on equal terms in systems still designed for and by men.