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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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.