Disney-style princesses show staying power

Princesses

Photo illustration of a princess tiara. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune / January 25, 2013)

Before I explain what it was like to be a childless man surrounded by Disney princesses and the parents who love (and bankroll) them, seated by himself at Disney on Ice and soaking in princess culture — a story:

Once upon a time …

There was a professor of gender studies at Northwestern University. Her name was Jillana Enteen. She was in her 40s, divorced and living in Rogers Park. She had twin 7-year-old daughters. One day, when her girls were younger, Jillana came home to find that the baby sitter had put Disney Princess diapers on her girls. Jillana became furious! She knew she had bought the diapers — bulk Costco prices break even the most hardened critic of consumer culture — but she had set them aside for later. Her objections went beyond the usual arguments about Disney princesses reinforcing cultural stereotypes and suggesting every girl should value bling and a Prince Charming over self-esteem. She objected to the Disney Machine. "The Disney Princess line will eventually be part of my life," she remembered yelling. "We don't need to hand it to them now!"

Then last winter she went to Disney on Ice. And there was magical free parking. She received a coupon for discounted tickets through Chicago Public Schools. Several months later, she took her kids to see "Brave."

Bit by bit, she transformed!

"I am no longer a princess hater," she told me. "At Disney on Ice, I saw my daughters navigating cultural images in sophisticated ways. They knew how to manage it, explain how plot worked. And they could do it without forgetting to play 'Star Wars' later, or play lesbian moms, or speed-skate. They had been closed off from princesses in my home but not from the larger world. Letting them interact didn't mean limiting them!"

Wow, I said, the Disney Body Snatchers got you too.

She said, "I want them to learn how to navigate this stuff."

I said, but because you're the one introducing doesn't mean —

She said, "I'm not! You don't introduce Disney princesses. Disney princesses find you."

I attended Disney on Ice last week at Allstate Arena in Rosemont — where it runs through Sunday; starting Wednesday, it plays at the United Center through Feb. 10 — because, not being a parent myself but knowing the life span of most pop culture trends, I assumed the Disney Princess Bubble had popped. Disney put a moratorium on developing new princess movies just before the 2010 release of "Tangled"; plus, the product-palooza Disney Princess line was more than a decade old.

What I didn't know was that Fantasyland, at Walt Disney World in Orlando, was just re-christened New Fantasyland, now with more princesses. What I hadn't factored in was the popularity of Princess Merida from "Brave"; though made by Pixar, it's a Disney property (the Mouse knows his loopholes). What I didn't know was that the Disney Princess line remained a $4 billion business. And so I was naively surprised that Disney on Ice, a four-decade-old institution, had been more or less hijacked by the Princess Industrial Complex.

I missed out on "Disney on Ice: Princess Wishes" and "Disney on Ice: Princess Classics."

"In my mind, the Disney Princess has not waned, not even a little," Jeanette Horng told me during intermission of "Disney on Ice: Rockin' Ever," which is what the new show is called. She was composed and stunning and dressed as Cinderella. "But then, I am a high school math teacher (from Naperville), and I'm 29, and the Disney Princess thing is still happening for me."

And this, a few veterans whispered, was the least princessy Disney on Ice show in years.

At first, I saw evidence: Merchandise tables had plenty of princess items — princess slippers ($12), light-up tiaras ($16), plush kissable frogs ($14) — but there was far more princess-less swag. Also, several hours before the show, as the skaters warmed up, it was hard to ignore a few of the princes liberally spitting on the ice. And even when the show began, the entire first segment was not remotely princess-dependent: It begins with an "America's Got Talent"-like competition. Mickey Mouse comes out and sings, wearing what looks like a white sequined pimp suit — picture the Rick James Collection. Pinocchio does a dance. Ugly stepsisters (ugly people are dumb or evil in Disney on Ice) provide the requisite freak-auditioner moment. Then some mermaids appear, gyrating to "Vogue."

Which segues into the first princess, Ariel from "The Little Mermaid," who claims she doesn't know what feet are, although the skating Ariel clearly has two of them. Breaking up the talent competition are four princess segments, each of which basically condenses a familiar story. In Ariel's, she decides to give up her voice to be with a man. As she was swarmed by cheerful skating starfish, I considered leaning over to the mother on my right — her daughter was dressed as Mulan — and mentioning how ironic it was that Ariel needed a man before she could truly break through the aquatic ceiling and find herself, this being the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan's landmark "The Feminine Mystique" and all. But her daughter was mouthing, "Wow," so I shut up.

I give Ariel a 4.5 out of 10.

More empowering was Belle from "Beauty and the Beast," whose segment comes at the end of the show. Belle ignores the pretentious, skips about France speed-reading and is kind to morons. Also, I had forgotten that the Beast's great gift to his fledgling girlfriend was an enormous library, not a Kindle gift card.

So thoughtful. Belle gets an 8.2.

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