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20111026-princesses-all-by-caroline-langstonEven as I made the desperate, early September phone call to sign up for Mommy and Me ballet, I was watching myself, with more than a little bit of amusement. I’d been monitoring the website for weeks, trying to wait until the last possible minute when available class space would coincide with my ability to spend the exorbitant amount of money for a semester’s tuition.

I was at work, of all things. As though I were planning to buy drugs or engage in illegal betting, I shut the door to the all-staff conference room, dialed the number, and in muted tones read out my debit card number to pay $368 for one semester of Mommy and Me ballet. Then I hung up the receiver, flushed and exhilarated, and even more wryly amused about how ridiculous the whole thing was.

For $368 is not an inconsequential sum in our household—in this case, it represented funds siphoned off from an extra work project I’d done (and which, I know, should have gone into savings). If I’d tried, I could have easily found a perfectly fine and far more economical dance class closer to my house, rather than the expensive studio in the grand neighborhood forty-five minutes away.

But dance, you see, was only part of the attraction here. The attraction was the concept, and our arrival on the first day after the mad drive across town only confirmed my hopes: a sprawling studio painted meticulously with murals of fairy-tale scenes, gaggles of toddler and elementary-age ballerinas in their pink leotards and tightly-pulled-back braids, and an in-house boutique selling dance “accessories” that included doll outfits, tea sets, and glittering, star-shaped pastel lollipops—which, I learned, were the after-class treat that nearly all the young girls there wrangled out of their parents.

It was, in sum, an ontology of sparkling pinkness.

The whole scene was like a Christopher Guest movie: There was the forty-eight year-old dad with the two year-old daughter, barking commands at her loudly, the (white) gay dad in the slick leather jacket with the adopted African-American daughter, the well-kept moms in their yoga pants hoisting venti lattes from the Starbucks down the block.

In the middle of it all, the princesses were enraptured. In the two-year old Mommy and Me ballet, they spun and bowed and curtseyed, and at the end of the hour, received a kiss of “fairy dust” (otherwise known as glitter) on the backs of their palms. They wore crowns and costumes, and got to portray Clara from The Nutcracker and Angelina Ballerina in our own in-class reenactment.

More than once, the mothers in the room watered at the eyes, sniffed, and sighed. For in the end, Mommy and Me ballet was as much about the mothers as it was about the little girls. But as I blinked back the tears and looked longingly at Anna Maria, who was standing more tall, throwing back her shoulders with a regal bearing, I wondered exactly what was in it for all of us.

Cue the Marxists now, to tell us that the princess phenomenon is all about fostering slavery through brand loyalty. (As a side note, one of my brothers remarked with cynical surprise about my desire to take my daughter to the new American Girl store in town: “I thought you of all people would be against the corporate co-opting of children.”)

There’s also been a standard feminist meme that’s circulated through the internet in the last few years about how the abundance of princess themes and pink and fairy tales, etc., represents the infantilization of young women, undercutting their potential dreams and ambition, and contributing to their future obsessions with perceived “hotness” amid today’s hookup culture.

That’s the thrust, as I understand it, of this year’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter, by Peggy Orenstein, who’s a compatriot of Naomi Wolf and who made the rounds of public radio talk shows earlier this year. Do a Google search on “sick of princesses” and you wouldn’t believe how many results you’ll turn up.

Well, fine. I can tell you, however, that I would have been absolutely delighted had there been princess costumes and princess teas and cute little ruffled outfits and Pottery Barn Kids flowered bedroom ensembles way back in 1976.

But there are, I think, deeper reasons. Chief among these is an innate desire to feel and embrace an innate, distinctly female nobility—that each young girl, and woman, expresses an outward bearing of an internal grace.

How important this is in an era in which women have made such important educational and socioeconomic gains, but who increasingly find themselves beleaguered, abused, or alone. Where once they might have been infantilized (it’s almost the fiftieth anniversary of The Feminine Mystique and its “problem that has no name”), they are now required to be the shoulderers of responsibility, the single mothers, ever-ready and receptive “servicers” of desire in an increasingly pornographic culture.

But maybe they just want to be treated as precious. Maybe there were no princesses in 1976 because we didn’t need them. I stood at a newsstand in downtown D.C. the other day looking at Kim Kardashian’s wedding pictures in Hello magazine, and I couldn’t help but think that despite the ironies and the crass commercialism, despite the sex tape and the first marriage and the awful mother—she, too, wanted the white dress and the roses.

I was reminded of my old colleague Vincent Rossi’s claim about Valentine’s Day that even in all its materialism, that there is a true desire underneath the crass display, that people are loving with the only tools that they’ve got.

I’d like to give my daughter a deeper set of reasons for her princess love—that she, too—like the image of our queen that the Virgin Mary represents—can embody the perfect image of Creation, radiating the shimmer of Eternity.

That the light touches her, and Kim Kardashian, and—male and female both—all of us.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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