Laurie Essig Ph.D.

Love, Inc

The princess-industrial complex

The princess industrial complex ate our culture.

Posted Jan 27, 2011

Anyone who has raised a girl child (and perhaps some boy children) in the past couple of decades knows that "pink" is now a more or less official stage of childhood development.  Somewhere around two or three, a huge number of girls (and some boys) suddenly insist that EVERYTHING be pink.  My oldest daughter's fourth birthday was all pink:  all the guests had to wear pink, the food and cake were all pink, and even the presents were pink.  Both my daughters wore pink tutus every day, no matter what else they wore, including snowpants.  The tutus were so worn and dirty that they looked more like Cinderella before the Prince rescued her, but they seemed to care less about the overall fashion statement and more about the color.  

The obsession of young girls with pink is not really a universal stage of childhood development, but a commercially produced one.  It is part of what Peggy Orenstein, in her new book How Cinderella Ate My Daughter, calls the princess-industrial complex.  According to Orenstein, it is precisely because advertisers, especially Disney, decided to sell pink princess dresses and tiaras and fairy wands to our children that our children are so obsessed with having them. Orenstein argues that because these products are the most extreme signifiers of being a girl and because young children are still unsure whether their sex will stay the same thoughout their lives, they latch onto these items like magic talismans.  "This pink tutu will make sure I stay a girl (or perhaps turn me into a girl)" is the magical thinking of young children.

I think Orenstein is spot on, but also misses the larger insecurity of the parents, who are, after all, the ones that give into all this fetishization of pink.  It's not that advertisers don't target younger and younger children.  They do.  And of course there is a princess-industrial complex.  Go to a toy store if you don't believe me, not to mention children's clothing stores, movies with merchandise, fast food restaurants with princess toy give-aways, etc.  But ultimately the hyper-femininity of children's clothing and the insecurity it represents is a product of adults. In other words, this is not just a case of corporations exploiting gender insecurity in young children, but a larger American culture where the gender binary is increasingly both under attack and at the same time increasingly real.

Let me give an example:  adult clothing.  Why is every single item of adult clothing now gendered, from tee shirts to blue jeans to sneakers?  Does my tee shirt really need a gender?  Another example:  public bathrooms.  Even as a growing transgender movement demands access to gender neutral bathrooms, more and more commercial spaces are gendering single stall bathrooms.  Whether you think multi-stall bathrooms should be gendered or not, there is no logical explanation for the gendering of a room with one toilet and one sink in it.  It would be like gendering the bathrooms in your home.  And yet how many times do public bathrooms have a gender for no logical reason?  Just because they have cutesy names- like Dude and Dudettes or Cowboys and Cowgirls- the obsessive gendering of adult clothing and urinary space indicates a larger anxiety about "knowing" gender.  

As adult Americans are increasingly exposed to what children seem to know naturally- that our gender assignment is just that, an assignment and it really can change with different outfits- they respond by insisting all their girl children be princesses and their boys soldiers, athletes, or firefighters.  As more knowledge about the prevalence of intersexed bodies spreads to the general public; as transgender movements and individuals are increasingly a part of our public sphere, adult Americans respond by playing out their insecurities on the bodies of young children.   The princess industrial complex didn't just eat our daughters' brains, it ate ours.