We tried, like most parents we know, to steer our three-year-old away from “girly girl” culture, but even so, she has spent the past year flouncing around in princess dresses and asking everyone to marry her. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised; princesses are, after all, beautiful, noble and, even when they are complete drips or comatose and waiting for a man to kiss them back to life, they are at the centre of the story. Besides, it’s not clear what my daughter takes princesses to be. She is just as likely to be busting crime in a crayon-stained gown as begging me for lipstick. But I sometimes wonder if this is how it all begins, if this is how girls learn that they can do whatever they want, provided they are attractive and desirable. I wonder if one day soon she’ll look in the mirror and instead of examining herself with unselfconscious admiration, she’ll begin thinking about the ways she might not measure up and why this matters to her future.
I’m aware that how I feel about princesses makes little difference, since I have no power to defuse the glitter-bomb of princess-related marketing aimed at young girls. One might have imagined that, by the early Noughties, princesses would have fallen out of fashion – girls had so much else to aspire to – but instead, that’s when Disney launched a new princess merchandise line that boosted its consumer products sales from $300m in 2001 to $3bn by 2006. Peggy Orenstein’s 2006 essay “What’s wrong with Cinderella?”, an influential critique of the princess industrial complex, could have been written yesterday – except, perhaps, for the fact the most recent Disney princesses are different from their predecessors in potentially meaningful ways.
This, at least, is the argument put forward by the social historian Carol Dyhouse in her new book Love Lives: From Cinderella to Frozen, which uses fairy tales to explore how women’s personal aspirations and family lives have changed over the past 70 years. Princess stories both reflect women’s dreams and help shape them, Dyhouse argues in this subtle, thoughtful book, which means they offer a useful lens through which to examine how romantic and personal ideals have been renegotiated in recent decades. Her book covers a tumultuous era: the historian Stephanie Coontz has argued the changes in romantic and family life over the last half-century have transformed all our personal lives as radically as the Industrial Revolution transformed working lives two centuries earlier. By alluding to fairy tales, Dyhouse gives a sense of narrative cohesion to this fitful, complex, uneven revolution, even if, as she acknowledges, this means her focus is primarily on the experience of white, British, middle-class women.
[see also: The new age of misogyny]
Dyhouse begins with the postwar popularity of Cinderella stories. Disney’s Cinderella was released in 1950, and when Julie Andrews played Cinderella on the TV network CBS seven years later, it was watched by 100 million people, one of the largest TV audiences in history. It’s understandable that in austere, postwar Britain women might fantasise about being liberated from domestic drudgery by Prince Charming. Without rewarding career prospects or other freedoms, many women felt, as Dyhouse puts it, that “a man was an ending”. Marriage was your happily ever after.
This was the decade that created the modern housewife, this tribe of middle-class women who were affluent enough to interest the admen but too poor to have servants, and it represented a peak for the familial ideal of the husband as protector and provider and the wife as devoted mother and housekeeper. Already, though, this domestic model was showing cracks. By the 1950s, marriage was seen primarily as a romantic union rather than a business arrangement, and love is disruptive. As Coontz wrote: “As soon as love became the driving force behind marriage, people began to demand the right to remain single if they had not found love or to divorce if they fell out of love.”
At the same time, more women were getting married younger: in 1921 14.9 per cent of brides in the UK were under 21; by 1965 40 per cent were. After women had raised their children, they might still have had most of their adult lives ahead of them, decades filled with dull domesticity. People began to recognise that full-time housework could be intellectually stifling for women; cultural anxiety and political discontent about unhappy housewives was rising.
Betty Friedan dismantled the prevailing domestic ideal in her seminal book of 1963, The Feminine Mystique. Dyhouse includes a bleak 1967 advert for the anti-anxiety drug Serax depicting a glum woman caged in by her cleaning products, accompanied by the tag line: “You can’t set her free. But you can help her feel less anxious.” Another revealing, and darkly comic, piece of evidence Dyhouse marshals is a 1956 survey of teenage girls that found, while they were almost all keen to marry soon, more than a third also fantasised about the premature, often violent death of their husband. Marriage was both a golden ticket and a new form of confinement. No wonder the Cinderella story ends at the wedding.
In the following decades, as education, contraception and anti-discrimination legislation expanded women’s opportunities and their ability to make their own futures, the Cinderella story continued to shape public conversation. Conservatives painted feminists as the “ugly stepsisters”, Dyhouse writes – bitter, jealous and unwanted. In her bestselling book The Cinderella Complex (1981), Colette Dowling accused women of being fearful of independence and cast housewives as “clingers”.
Twenty years after the release of Dowling’s book, the sociology professor Jonathan Gershuny invented the term “Allerednic syndrome” (“Cinderella” backwards). Describing the predicament of professional women who’d dropped out of work after becoming mothers or who felt crushed by the double shift of jobs and care, Gershuny reflected that, in a reverse fairy tale, a prince might marry a princess and turn her into a scullery maid. This observation might strike a chord with the many women in Britain taking on the lion’s share of lockdown childcare, home-schooling and chores. In fact, reading Love Lives, I was struck less by the speed of change than by how difficult women still find it to reconcile their professional, romantic, political and domestic lives.
[see also: The limits of “consent culture”]
Dyhouse places significance on the runaway success of the 2013 Disney film Frozen. She notes its appeal may be due to its deviation from the traditional romance plot, being instead a celebration of “girl power and sisterly love”. Elsa is not like those earlier “milk-and-water” princesses; she’s “somewhat screwed up as well as gorgeous”, she’s “moody” and “she struggles with her own magical powers”, Dyhouse writes. My daughter’s current favourite Disney film is Moana (2016). Moana is the rebellious and intrepid daughter of the chief of a Hawaiian island; she has no use for a man and instead almost single handedly saves the world from environmental catastrophe.
These modern princesses certainly have better feminist credentials. But I wonder if, just as the Cinderella story skirts the whole problem of what married life is actually like, the modern princess as go-it-alone superhero reflects a wider failure of imagination about how feminist family life should look. Like most mothers, I imagine, I want my daughters to feel inspired by these stories of courage, independence and self-mastery, but I also hope they will have romantic and family lives that feel world-expanding rather than oppressive or diminishing.
More broadly, the problem with conceptualising women’s empowerment through stories of personal choice and liberation is that it neglects social and class relations, and the ways in which our choices affect others. After marrying, Cinderella presumably relied on a small army of uglier, bigger-footed maids to do her domestic dirty work. Someone always has to change the nappies and do the dishes. You don’t get to choose whether you’re a princess. You’re either born one or you strike lucky in love. In the end, the dresses won’t make much difference.
Love Lives: From Cinderella to Frozen
Oxford University Press, 288pp, £20
This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus