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Laurie Penny on why princess craze is no fairy tale

Young women need different models of femininity.

There is a princess in all our heads. She must be destroyed. As the press continues to glut itself on the Cult of Kate Middleton, businesses are cashing in on young women's insatiable lust for princess paraphernalia: fake tiaras and fashion handbooks play into the collective fantasy that one day, if you are beautiful and good enough, you too can marry a prince.

This saccharine tide of glittery pink kitsch began in the mid-1980s, amplifying a harmless daydream into a terrifying collective hallucination of good behaviour rewarded with royal privilege. Since Disney launched its Princess product line in 2000, aiming to get "three or four" pieces of spangly tat into every girl's bedroom, the tide has become a tsunami. Disney Princess is now worth £4bn, the largest girl's franchise in the world, and the fairytale doesn't stop with little girls: adult women, too, are playing dress-up, holding princess makeover parties and flocking to see Diana's wedding gown as it tours America, as serious female writers devote endless speculative column inches to the minutiae of Middleton's post-nuptial experience. Have we all gone mad?

Kate Middleton is the perfect modern-day princess, in that she appears essentially void of personality; a dress-up dolly for the age of austerity. The new royal facial muscles seem to be fixed with such permanence into that lipglossed rictus of demure compliance that when she opened her mouth to speak during the televised ceremony, I actually jumped. As it transpired, all she eventually said was "I will," as if someone had tugged a cord through the back of that custom McQueen gown to activate a voicebox of ritual acquiescence.

For a fairytale, it's startlingly unimaginative. Middleton's short journey from millionaire's daughter to Duchess of Cambridge has been awkwardly rammed into the rags-to-riches framework, with gushing commentators envisioning her as an everywoman who, by virtue of being pretty, unobtrusive and fashionably underweight, won the loan of a priceless tiara and a lifetime of comparisons to William's dead mother.

Middleton is hardly the girl next door, but the cult of princesshood is, at root, a cult of social mobility, a fantasy of class treachery whereby good little girls grow up to have their own maids and a butler. Popular children's books like Usborne's Princess Handbook have whole chapters on how to deal with the servants. This is the ultimate makeover fantasy, a fairytale of frilly, sequin-encrusted self-improvement that just happens to involve rigid conformity to the rules of contemporary femininity: smile and be silent, be beautiful and rise through the ranks, and you will be rewarded.

The handsome prince himself, as Peggy Orenstein observes in her excellent book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, is "incidental to that fantasy, a regrettable necessity at best". Once the royal ring is on the royal finger, once you've "nabbed" your royal, in the worlds of Sky's unmitigatedly disturbing reality gigglefest How to Marry a Prince his part in the story is over, and the reality of married life figures not at all. This ruthless, mercenary understanding of relationships is hardly a positive model for young people.

Orenstein notes that princess-mania is understood by some parents as a safe haven from 'premature sexualisation': the playboy bunny pencil cases and lolita tshirts for which other children clamour. Princesses are seen as the more innocent fantasy, holding a virtuous edge over lollipop-licking, pole-twirling teeny-whoredom. Am I alone in finding the choice less than inspiring?

Young women are offered two polarised models of submissive, pseudo-empowered femininity: the princess and the pornstar. This is a binary that has existed for centuries: virgin or whore, handsome prince or handsome pimp, which one will you grow up to fuck for fame and fortune?

Today's spectrum of feminine aspiration is a short colour run from sickly, pastel pink to hot, sexy pink, with the occasional detour into bridal white. But there is a whole rainbow of experience out there for girls to choose from.

The princess craze is not just a failure of feminism, but a failure of society as a whole to respect and treasure its young women enough to offer them more than a frothy pink fantasy of Happy Every After. There's nothing wrong with a bit of make-believe, but for little girls everywhere, there are better dreams out there than just wanting to be as pretty as a princess.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.