Fugitive at the fantasy faire

The first thing that catches my eye is everything. Sparkles, shiny silks, textured tulle and ribbons swirling from skirts, tiaras, scepters, it is a castle of dolls and clothing and pretty. We are in the Princess souvenir store at Disneyland. There are girls clustered around displays like brown rabbits in a flower garden, scruffy and ordinary amid the shimmer pastels. I try and pin down ages but they range from infant to grandma. My two teenage boys react not with mortification but incredulity and high camp. They shift into Saturday Night Live mode. Although no one seems to notice them, I hiss, “be quiet.” But the antics are just beginning. One son picks up two figurine sets: a box of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Belle in one hand and Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan and Ariel in the other. “Look Mom,” he waves the second set in front of me, “Here are the melting pot princesses!” The other son examines what appears to be a tiny headless dress. “What the . . .?” “It is a ball gown on a hanger, a Christmas ornament,” I explain. He shivers and puts it back. Now the other son has a “baby” mermaid princess. “How come she has to wear sea shells when she . . . you know.” He points to the doll’s flat chest. I back into a corner behind a display of yellow pillows featuring Belle from Beauty and the Beast.

We are trying to find tokens for the various “friends who are girls” back home. I suggest sparkly pink pencils with feathers around the eraser, a stretchy bracelet with pink and blue charms or a mouse pad with three princess torsos peeking around a gilded heart that says “Disneyland.” They reject all my ideas and go back to mocking the plush princess babies. “These are so wrong, they are dressed like grown-ups but they have baby faces, creepy.” Then suddenly they are bored. “Let’s go, Mom, there is nothing here.” Now I am incredulous. “Are you kidding me? There are a million things here that any girl would find cute, ironic or iconic. This place is a gold mine.” “Nope, we are out of here.” I feebly argue. They are dragging me by the arm.

I run my fingers along the glittery edge of Snow White’s wedding crown. I turn over the Sleeping Beauty snow globe and watch twinkle flakes fall gently on her hand, stretched upward, reaching for the source of the magic. I can almost hear her voice warble. I don’t want to leave. Stupid Space Mountain, why do I live with so many boys?

I remind myself that this marketing brainstorm – linking a group of characters who alone might inspire one or two products, but together support an industry – is evil. The protagonists are damsels in distress, waiting for handsome princes, conjured gowns, high heels and ermine capes. The villainesses tend to have better lines and more fire (sometimes literally breathing it). Where are the theme parks dedicated to Clara Barton, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Virginia Woofe, Mae Jamison, women who have contributed to our real world and not an imagined one? They show up in dusty museums, we never blazon their impact on frilly pajamas. Surely I, who dressed my male children in gender free colors like green and purple, should be indignant. What feminist would ogle a satin and sequin Jasmine coin purse?    

That morning I had wandered away from crowds at Splash Thunder Adventure whatever and visited the Disney Princess Fantasy Faire. This is where children and parents line up to meet and collect autographs from live “princesses.” The costumed women are stunning three dimensional reproductions of the animated originals. The Disney personnel office matches general features and then heavy make-up can smooth any variation into exactness. Yet their faces are still expressive. Warmth radiates from these human rock stars and they do seem more compelling than their cartoons counterparts. Each child is greeted, embraced and gifted with undivided eye contact. As cameras flash and parents rush to capture a picture of a picture come to life, the children are part of the story. For an instant they share the stage in a narrative they can often recite frame by frame.

It is bizarre to imagine the history that spools out behind this scene. 500 year old cautionary tales: some meant to make sense of social disintegration in the wake of the plague; others to close the gap between commoner and royalty; most to scare listeners into obedient behavior. Shared, retold to fit time and culture, softened to exclude the more gruesome details (no more blindness or foot mutilations, minimal sexual tension) and then ultimately reworked entirely by an idealistic, vaguely misogynistic, visionary, artist-entrepreneur into adorable illustrations of mid-20th century morality. Then the theme park, the ups and downs of popular animation and a promotional reinvention geared to a new generation of little girls quite content to prance in pinkness. Poof, here we are at the Fantasy Faire.

Once again I wait for the revulsion. Intellectually I know that for every girl in acrylic “glass” slippers, there is a girl climbing trees in sneakers. This faire scene would mean nothing to most of my more educated friends. I am sure there are multiple dissertations currently being written on the sociological issues roiling beneath the surface of the princess phenomena. But for all this enlightenment, I feel an odd sense of . . . longing.

I was neither a tree climber nor pretty in pink. I was a reader, an oldest, a dreamer and a bit of a martyr. I related to Cinderella, Beauty and Snow White before their transformations; we were sisters out of place and misunderstood. I too wondered of possibilities other than cleaning up after dwarves. My child self hoped that whatever the present situation, there had to be a better, happily-ever-after life just beyond the babbling brook. I could survive any wicked witch if the tale led to an entitled birthright. I recognize my memories as part of a collective romance. Each participant in the Fantasy Faire feels the lure of desire: to save and be saved, their beauty hidden and found, surrendering to the power of fate, redemption and love. We respond to our most primitive mythologies projected from speech to page to screen in strokes of vivid color. I see the expressions on the little faces as they look into the adult faces of what has to be the best job in the world: hope, adoration, even camaraderie. Their eyes say: I want to be just like you. I want to know there is something – a fairy Godmother, a magic talisman, a searching lover – out there, just for me.

“Mom, come on, bored now!” Back in the souvenir shop, they are still tugging. I follow them reluctantly, touching baubles and toys as I walk away. The store becomes a mirror. “Who is the fairest of them all?” I wonder what I would hear reflected back, what each girl in the shop would hear. Are we just preening with socialized vanity, hollow dresses waiting for easy identification? Or do we glimpse in the archetypal stories an enduring potential, a plucky majesty deep inside each princess? Does the mirror show the true woman or simply the change, jingling like jewels in our pockets?



9 responses to “Fugitive at the fantasy faire”

  1. Marleyfan says:

    I always love Pandora Friday’s, it makes for the start of a good day.

    CNN just reported that it’s good luck with today’s date- 8-8-08. It made me think of an unlucky date coming up in a little over three years 9/11 (2011). Just the similarity makes my stomach uneasy…

  2. Pandora, this is a lovely essay. (I find that I’m a sucker for women writing about issues relating to the Disney Princess phenomenon, I’m not sure exactly why this is or how I identify with it.) I’m having trouble putting my response to it into words, but well, that central paragraph (“It is bizarre to imagine…”) seems like it identifies a core paradox about modern American consciousness. I gotta run now but will come back later and see if I can get any more coherent.

  3. Dave says:

    Clara Barton has a rest stop on the Jersey Turnpike.

    This princess thing: complicated. Loved the post.

  4. Kate the Great says:

    I agree with Marleyfan. I love Pandora’s work. I want to write like her.

  5. Annie says:

    #5: we all want to write like Pandora(!).

    And yes, this is a lovely, and thought-provoking post. As much as the feminist in me ranckles at princess cliches and tropes, I can get sucked into a good Cinderella story embarassingly quickly. I tell myself that this is because the stories are relying on the universal themes and mythologic constructs that you describe, but then I have to wonder if I am just plain (always, already) constructed to buy into the misogynist nonsense hook, line and sinker.

  6. swells says:

    If it demystifies it at all for you, most of those princesses at the Fantasy Faire were probably Jeremy’s and my students.

  7. Adriana says:

    Your post had me thinking all weekend about how women who grew up with fairy tales end up thinking about their future — well, depending on which versions of the fairy tales. The idea of transformation as one steps into adulthood, whether or not that transformation is initiated by oneself or by an outside force, the imperative that the transformation be magical and lead to some sort of fulfillment of fantasy… Depending on how much agency you claim in your life this is either a recipe for devastating disappointment or an opportunity for exciting empowerment. Interesting that it can go either way.

  8. Kirsten says:

    Pandora, You would be pleased to know that on our vacation back east this summer, the main stop on Katie’s list was Glen Echo, the home of Clara Barton and one-time headquarters of the Red Cross. You’ve never seen a 12 year old more in heaven than she, when she had detailed discussions with the National Park Service guide about Clara’s life and mission. So remember, there is more out there than a rest stop.