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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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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.