If you’re a mommy blogger and one of the people who calls you ‘Mommy’ is a girl, it’s apparently your sworn duty to take to your blog and agonize over what’s been called the Princess Industrial Complex — the profit-sucking vortex of tiaras and pink tulle, of fairy-tale tea sets, glittery wands and folding deluxe castles. Show me a toddler in pink and I’ll show you a modern mother in crisis: Should I ban Cinderella for Halloween? Can I be a feminist and read Snow White at bedtime? My daughter’s obsessed with the handsome prince: Where did I go wrong??? Girl-culture expert Peggy Orenstein pretty much summed up the state of gender panic with her new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Girlie-Girl Culture. (You gotta love a title that conjures up Disney and military combat in one breath.)
So far I haven’t signed up for grenade duty in this particular culture war. Yes, I cringe at Rose’s tassled princess bike, which looks like cotton candy on training wheels. But she’s just as likely to be outside catching tree frogs as she is to be riding her pink chariot (or stealing my green eyeshadow, which she applies to her cheeks). What I am stressed about — what’s got me in a sick funk, like a sleepless beauty stalked by a beast across a dance floor — is the knowledge that when it comes to color in fairy tales, pink is the least of my problems.
Recently, I found myself at a princess birthday party in our neighborhood. I haven’t been to many of these, but when I got there, it felt like I had walked into a princess locker room at half-time, with all the princesses shooting up steroids. There was a princess bouncy castle, princess makeup sets, princess plastic rhinestone party favors, two princess cakes and, naturally, a princess performer who sparkled as she walked. Rose was the only preschooler there who came dressed in a tshirt and pants, which should have been a sign the day wouldn’t end well.
When the time came to sing Happy Birthday, out came the princess cake supplies: the pink-handled cake cutter, the pink-striped candles and a big old stack of princess napkins. There was one napkin for each Disney princess: Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel, Jasmine, Belle and Tiana — Tiana, of course being the sassy round-the-way black princess from New Orleans in the 2009 film The Princess and the Frog.
As the line of 3-year-olds formed and the cake-cutting assembly line began, something unbelievable happened. I watched in silence, and what I witnessed chilled me to the bone: Every time the Tiana napkin came up, the mommy napkin distributor laid it aside and picked up the napkin underneath. She laid it aside, and took the napkin underneath. Aside, underneath. Aside, underneath.
Do you know those scenes in Hollywood movies when a character in a crowded room has a moment of Disillusionment, when all ambient noise falls away and the action shifts to slow motion? I always roll my eyes when movies do that. But as the pile of discarded Tiana napkins materialized on the Corian counter, I fell into my own movie. Everybody else was fine – better than fine, actually. Kids were singing Ring Around the Rosie or waving wands made from pink and purple balloons. Frosting covered my daughter’s mouth. The only dark skin in the room belonged to Tiana and me. And like her, I was gagged. Smiling, unable to speak, wishing my quiet, murderous wish upon a shooting star.