The Pink Princess

So we (whether ‘we’ are British, or Australians, apparently) have a new princess. Only the most curmudgeonly among us can resist a small smile at the news, right? A small minority holds themselves aloof, dismissing the whole circus as an anachronism, but no one actually thinks there is a downside. Well, I do. I think in a small way (through no fault of her own, obviously) baby Charlotte will contribute to making the world a little worse.

It will be worse for little girls, again in a small way. It will contribute to the pinkification of their lives: the imposition of constraining models of femininity. The Sunday Telegraph writes that the birth signals “a new era of girl power”, but the effect will be disempowering, for the princess and for other girls who are, inevitably, shaped by the culture in which they live.

How will the new princess serve as a model for girls, and for those who mould their lives? The Telegraph predicts, all too accurately I fear, that “her every dress and every hairstyle is certain to be scrutinized”. We live in a world in which when a female secretary of state is involved in an official meeting, her dress and hairstyle is reported more extensively than what she said and did, but where so long as men conform to a narrow range of models, they need not fear such scrutiny. The princess – or more accurately the media fuss around her – is going to reinforce this culture.

Her role is circumscribed already: “she is going to bring so much glamour”. She’s going to “endear” herself to the nation, “in a way boys don’t” (again, the Telegraph). She is to be a fashion plate, thereby reinforcing the message that whatever else women do, they must devote a lot of attention to how they look and dress, and attend in the right, socially approved, way.

Charlotte is born to a highly constrained life; one I wouldn’t wish for any girl. But she is also born to privilege and millions of children can expect very much worse lives than hers. Pity for her seems misplaced. But the way I expect her life to be shaped and moulded, and, especially, the way in which the media will cover it, lauding her successes in living up Disney princess fantasies and holding her up as a model for every girl, ensures that, like it or not, she will contribute to making our culture a little shallower, and women’s lives a little more constrained.

Princess Charlotte, the Telegraph notes, “will grow up to be the most famous princess in the world”. It claims that “every little girl starts out life wanting that”. Nonsense, of course: no one starts out wanting that. Girls may quickly start to want that, but that’s an effect of the cultural messages to which they’re exposed, which shape all our wants, for better and for worse. The message that they should want to be princesses is about to become a little more pervasive and a little more powerful, and the desires of little girls will be shaped accordingly. Real girl power would come from a message that girls can aspire to a full range of activities, and pay no higher a cost for their aspirations than boys. I’m afraid that that message will be increasingly faint.

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6 Responses to The Pink Princess

  • Andrews says:

    So at the end of the day what you mean is that the media sometimes use actual individuals as props on which they project stereotypical ideas and values? Perhaps so as to present themselves as in a privileged position to disclose and reveal those values to the audience — eventually improving their sales?

    If yes, then when you write that

    I think in a small way (through no fault of her own, obviously) baby Charlotte will contribute to making the world a little worse.

    , you are using a very British form of understatement. Not only isn’t this problem the fault of Charlotte, but the phenomenon depends in no way on her identity or existence. Anybody can be used as a prop to project one’s ideas — some props are just more vulnerable and more efficient for the purposes of one’s projections than others. This means that you could have made the same point with no reference whatsover to any actually living individual; you could have talked of a fictional character or a historical figure used as a prop.

    Now going back to sexism, I think even non-UK citizens how bad (read: shitty) UK newspapers can be, and any citizen of an industrialized country is aware of this little game that medias use from time to time when they feel an urge to increase their sales. What this suggests is that instead of calling for a very abstract de-pinkification or whatnot of women, we should begin by empowering citizens against industries that try to bend the minds of people so as to sell them potentially toxic products (read: to sell them shit).

    • Neil Levy says:

      While its certainly true that the British media is singularly awful, I don’t think the phenomenon is either confined to the UK or to the red tops. I see it in the quality press too. And I don’t think its directly in the service of marketing. One thing that I find depressing is that it seems to me that this kind of thing was in full retreat 20 years ago, while it is back with a vengeance now. Capitalism wasn’t in retreat 20 years. It is endlessly creative and would have no trouble adapting to a more gender equal world.

      I don’t entirely agree that Charlotte is just a convenient hook for pinkification; not if that means that it would happen to exactly the same extent without her. She is going to be focus of intense scrutiny, as the result of the confluence of celebrity culture and royal watching. So I think the following is true: if we have had a new prince instead, pinkification would have lacked a particularly intense focus. I do agree that the marginal difference she will make is small, but I think it is likely to be genuine.

  • Dave Frame says:

    Geez, Neil… making inferences about how this is going to pan out on the basis of material in the Telegraph seems an especially pessimistic way to start. (1) There’s no guarantee she’ll conform to the stereotype – in fact there’s precedent she’ll rebel (exhibit A: Uncle Harry); (2) her parent’s and her parents’ advisers may be smarter than you give them credit for – some shrewd degree of institutional adaptability seems to have been a hallmark of the UK Monarchy (exhibit B: Burkean evolutionary conservatism); (c) in my particular corner of the world the fact she’s been called Charlotte has led to an outbreak (occasionally tempestuous) of Republicanism as our toddler – who two months ago wanted to insist she was a Princess – is now completely adamant that she is not to be referred to as Princess Charlotte. So that’s a good thing, already. (Noting that this particular gain to net human welfare is small.)

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    I am surprised, Neil, that you’re surprised.
    It seems to me to be perfectly normal that one outdated concept, hereditary monarchy, should sustain the equally outdated concept of gender stereotypes.

  • Anke Snoek says:

    I read the same article Neil, and I thought: the Dutch have 3 princesses, and I bet 90% of the Dutch people have no idea what they are wearing or doing. But I guess it is different in the UK.

    • Neil Levy says:

      Not just in the UK, Anke – in part because it is possible to cut and paste articles from the UK press to the Australian, we get much of the same focus here. In fact, that Telegraph article appeared unchanged in one of Australia’s ‘quality’ papers.

      Is there the same problem with pinkification in the Netherlands – stupidly gendered toys (and other products), for instance?

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