CHICAGO — An intelligently written — and roundly criticized — column by Hannah Weinberger caught my attention the other day.
Posted on CNN.com, “Where are all the millennial feminists?” delved into the question of why so many women — even ones outside the author’s stated age range of 18-29 — cringe at the mention of feminism and its polar-opposite connotations of militancy and over-sexualization.
I’m going to go out on a limb here to state the obvious: Women who would be feminists are probably too busy buying into — or trying to fend off — our society’s singular obsession with what is becoming a “princess” culture to give much thought to what “women’s liberation” might mean to them in today’s generally degrading-to-women environment.
The preponderance of princesses goes far beyond the seemingly never-ending, movie-promoted (think “Snow White and the Huntsman”) feminist consumerism that princess-culture observer Peggy Orenstein so often spotlights on her blog and mainstream publications.
Orenstein rightly notes that the notion of “girl power” has devolved in a few short years. Once, Nike was helping promote women’s sports and Title IX. Now, she wonders in a recent post (“If You Let Me Be a Princess …”) if Disney can rebrand its pink-hued franchise into “being about strength of character and self-efficacy … while also peddling tens of thousands of products to our daughters that emphasize beauty and consumerism.”
And it’s not just Disney, everyone seems to be in on the act — there’s a princess for every taste: There are multicultural ones, goth ones, tomboy princesses and even boy princesses. The bordering-on-sick fascination shows itself in nearly every aspect of life from the pink and royal purple princessification of Lego brick sets to the way we exalt or condemn people in the news.
Take the scandal involving David Petraeus and his comely biographer, Paula Broadwell. In the news coverage following his resignation, her princess bona fides — beauty, charm and popularity — have been front and center in seemingly every breathless story.
She has toned arms! She wears slick sleeveless shirts! She does pushups! Reportedly, her resume lists her as both the valedictorian and homecoming queen of her high school, which I fully admit is newsworthy in its weirdness — who itemizes their high school popularity on their professional resume?
A particularly catty piece in MediaPost titled “The General and the Showgirl” went on for nearly 1,000 words about Broadwell’s vampy outfits, “triathlon-toned guns [biceps] and shoulders,” and, in reference to a publicity shot of the biographer and the general, described “Broadwell in a tight, shiny blouse, with a tight, shiny forehead.” Writing like this conjures up images of the less-glamorous sister who alternately venerates and jealously hates her Cinderella-ish sibling.
And lest you miss it, the princess narrative is all about glamour — whether it’s about rich pomp and circumstance or the magnetism of a tough-talking, unruly red-headed spitfire who wields a mean bow and arrow like Disney’s Princess Merida in the movie “Brave.”
What else could explain the multibillion-dollar beauty pageant, quinceañera, homecoming, prom, bridal apparel and naughty “shero” (like Marvel Comics’ Black Widow) fantasy clothing industry? To hijack the post-election meme criticizing the outrageous amount of super PAC spending on campaign advertisements: Just imagine how many poor women and children all that money would feed.
Focusing on what our society’s princesses do — and either glorifying or tearing them down — is a national pastime that clearly leaves scant time for women to take stock of who our gender role models are these days and whether they serve or degrade us.
Or maybe there are too many conflicting visions of female empowerment to support a singular definition of feminism. For every woman whose stomach turned while watching TV star Lena “Voice of Her Generation” Dunham equate casting a vote for Barack Obama with losing one’s virginity, there are plenty of others for whom she’s a new feminist icon.
It’s been less than a month since the Hispanic community was riven by the controversy over “Sofia,” Disney’s “first Latina princess.” Not only were some upset because Sofia was light-skinned, light-eyed and light-haired, but others were upset because they didn’t see this to be a problem. Then Disney went and upset nearly everyone by backtracking on the cartoon’s ethnicity and clarifying that “Princess Sofia is a mixed-heritage princess in a fairy-tale world.”
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the closest Hispanics have to royalty, participated in a segment on Sesame Street last week and passed definitive judgment on the matter. She told a princess-aspiring Muppet, “Abby, pretending to be a princess is fun, but it is definitely not a career.”
Amen to that.