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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

Abbas / Magnum Photos
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Portrait of a religion: Hindu rituals and celebrations across Asia

The Iranian photographer Abbas spent three years journeying through the Hindu religion capturing a wealth of sacred ceremonies.

 

My relationship with God,” Abbas says, “has always been strictly professional.”

The French-Iranian photographer has spent his life photographing every major religion on earth. But, be it the God of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Sikhs, he has always retained a degree of distance. He doesn’t tell me what to do,” Abbas says. “And I don’t tell Him what to do with his believers. It’s nothing personal.”

Abbas, 72, was born in Iran and raised in Algeria during that country’s fight for independence. As a young man, he made his name photographing the Iranian Revolution of the late 70s, including a now iconic image of an old, veiled woman dragged to her death by a lynch mob.

It’s not faith I’m interested in,” he says. “It’s what men make of their faith. I’m not interested in God, I’m interested in what people do in His name — the great things, and the stupid things.”

Now he has photographed the Hindu faith. And this, Abbas realised, was to be a bit more complicated than usual. Every major religion tell us to worship one God. They have one sacred text, one central religious authority, one idyll of a returning prophet. Apart from Hinduism.

A baba sanyassi by the altar he has erected to his god in Pushkar, Rajasthan, India. Credit: Abbas / Magnum Photos 

Hinduism is a religion of more than 330 million Gods and Goddesses,”Abbas says. “They change name, nature and sex. They marry and divorce and ask for alimony. They are strangely familiar to us in their doubts and weaknesses. They are, all in all, very human gods. Like us, they are capable of the best and the worst.”

There are more than a billion Hindus in the world, making it the world's — and the UK’s — third largest religion. It's also the world's oldest religion, with key texts dating back to 1500 BC. But what do we know of this faith, one followed by around a million British citizens?

Hindus believe in Karma — a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. And so their faith is expressed through a dizzying variety of sacred rituals and celebrations, animals and insects, places and texts.

For his most recent photobook Gods I’ve Seen: Travels Among Hindus, published in October, Abbas travelled for three years through India, Bali, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

"Hinduism may be the least egalitarian of the great religions,” Abbas says. “But what diversity exists in its expression. All I had to do was go down to the street, and the religion unfolded before me. I would walk to the river and see a God thrown into the sea.” (This was the river Hoogly in Kolkata, India, where devotees drown a statue of Durga, the Bengali avatar of goddess Kali).

This series began on 1 January, 2011, in The Hanuman Temple of New Delhi. There he discovered a monkey deity all of 15 meters tall. The city’s aerial metro trundles past at the height of the monkey’s waist, and devotees enter through an opening between its legs. “I was seized with laughter,” Abbas says. “I could tell I was going to like this religion, after more than 35 years of photographing the Sons of Abraham.”

 

In the Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ most sacred place, a pilgrim holds a leaf to receive the morning food offering, Amritsar, India. 
Credit: Abbas / Magnum Photos 

Abbas’ photographs are remarkable in their scope, from a Tantric Sannyasi in Tarapith, India, who uses the skull of his dead guru to enhance his spiritual powers during meditation, to naked devotees in Allahabad, in the north of the country, who rush to the holy waters for a ritual bath, to a man in Colombo, Sri Lanka, suspended high in the air from hooks inserted into his flesh, to Jain devotees in Mumbai, wearing masks to avoid harming insects by swallowing them.

On his penultimate journey, Abbas found himself in Junjungan, a village near Ubud in the uplands of Bali. Every 30 years, the village has a festival of sacrifice.

For a week, praying, dancing and offerings to the deities, mostly of live animals, succeed one another,” Abbas says. “All domestic animals, or those easily caught and unfortunate enough to be alive on this friendly island, are sacrificed, from the largest buffalo to the very smallest chicks, a tortoise, a newly born piglet.”

Students from the Indonesia Institute of Arts dress up for a rejong traditional dance in the Batur temple, Kinmantan, Bali. Credit: Abbas / Magnum Photos 

Abbas saw a pair of dogs, muzzled, tied to a pole and exposed to the sun. “The devotees prayed around them, sitting on the ground with their hands folded above their head. As the two dogs became more agitated, so a devotee tried to calm their distress by stroking them. Soon after they were massacred, and not eaten. It was such an innocent form of sadism.”

Remembering the sight of the dying dogs, Abbas says: “Abrahamic religions try to suppress the dark side of mankind by encouraging the struggle towards its annihilation. Hinduism recognises our dark sides, but urges their coexistence with the good and the light, in order to reach a sense of personal harmony. It’s a philosophy, I admit, with which I am more in tune.”

Gods I’ve Seen: Travels Among Hindus is available from Phaidon.

Tom Seymour is a freelance journalist.