THANKS TO THE devotion of women's magazines and television cameras, the Mary Donaldson fairytale is well known: Tassie girl meets spunky prince in a Sydney bar, falls in love, has a makeover, becomes a princess and gives birth to the future king of Denmark. Australians are fascinated with Mary, yet the woman herself – or the version of the woman known to the public – does nothing that could be described as fascinating. She wears nice clothes, smiles, waves and gives stage-managed interviews. And this is perfectly alright with her many fans, who want nothing more than to read about a life and a world far removed from their own suburban, workaday existences.
That grown women like hearing, talking and dreaming about the lives of princesses is nothing new. However, that grown women would strive to be princesses is, if not new, then radically retro. Yet here we are in 2006 and Princess Culture is on the rise.
Rave Model & Casting Agency in South Australia recently introduced its Australian Princess Development Program, an eight-week course teaching deportment, etiquette and makeup techniques. Meanwhile, Jane Ferguson, sister of royal ex Sarah Ferguson, has opened the Ferguson Academy in Sydney to teach girls how to act "like ladies". Ferguson's other gig is as an "etiquette expert" on Channel 10's Australian Princess, a reality program for which over 4,000 Australian women auditioned.
Australian Princess follows in the cringe-worthy footsteps of Cinderella TV classics such as Extreme Makeoverand The Swan (in which women are subjected to cosmetic surgery and bullying from various 'experts' until their perceived imperfections are eliminated), and The Bachelor and Joe Millionaire (a harem of pretty young women compete for the 'honour' of being chosen by a single man). The specifics of Princess are that "a team of international experts in etiquette and the royal pursuits" – led by Princess Di's former butler Paul Burrell – teach average Aussie girls "all the skills required in order to fit into proper society".
Putting aside the question of whether anyone actually thinks that inbreeding, obscene wealth and an obsession with hats and table manners constitute "proper society", the question of why on earth anyone would want to be part of that society is a stumper. Receiving a royal title is hardly a recipe for self-esteem, personal success or happiness. Does no one remember needy, tragic Diana or never quite thin or elegant enough Fergie? Even the recently crowned and still beaming Princess Mary had to work awfully hard to obtain her title: she lost weight, took deportment and elocution lessons, and had media training. She also became a Lutheran, relinquished her nationality and agreed to surrender custody of any future children in the case of divorce.
Despite the unpleasant realities of princesshood, and despite the fact that the show itself is very silly – full of lessons in how to make tea and eat a banana without looking like a porn star – Granada has been inundated by applications for the second series. Australian Princess contestants will never be called up for royal service. The training they receive is about creating and maintaining a personality, not a principality. The ultimate aim is to fool people – especially men – into thinking they are elegant, polite and submissive. This is where the transformation narrative of Cinderella TV, Princess Mary and a thousand Hollywood movies comes in. The ugly duckling (who is never actually ugly, only unglamorous or uncouth) is delivered into the hands of a fairy godmother (or team of experts), who scrubs and polishes her until she is shiny and new. The prince (or generic rich handsome bachelor) can only gape at the created vision in awe.
On the surface, this narrative is woman-centred – after all, the focus throughout is on the woman: herclothes, her hair and her manners. But look a little deeper and it is evident that the transformation – not the woman – is the real story. The agents of transformation, whether fairy godmothers or expensive stylists, are the ones driving the action. Before she has even captured her prince, the princess has abdicated responsibility for herself. She wears what she is told and imitates her mentors in speech and behaviour. And, although the story ends with the princess triumphantly rolling man-putty in her French-manicured hands, her power is as ephemeral as a pumpkin coach. It has been granted by others, and can easily be taken away by them.
IF THIS SEQUENCE of events were found only on TV and movie screens, it wouldn't matter; however, popular culture both reflects and influences real life. Although the "Bow to the Princess" t-shirts seen all over uni campuses and the gold-painted tin tiaras seen in nightclubs are worn with a heavy dose of irony, many of the girls wearing them display the same pampered personas as the reality TV girls.
"My boyfriend treats me like a princess," says a twenty-year-old student of mine who, like her friends, is always immaculately made-up and expensively dressed. I ask her to elaborate.
"He buys me little presents, pays when we go out. He paid my car rego for me."
"Only because you spent the rego money on shoes," her friend interjects.
"He pretended to be annoyed," says the Suburban Princess, "but I know he liked doing it. He likes taking care of me."
With this boast, she demonstrated what lies at the root of princess culture: the desire for protection. A princess wants, or believes she needs, a man to protect her – not just from physical harm, but from hard work, drudgery and responsibility. Many young women truly seem to believe that if they follow the rules laid out in glossy magazines and makeover programs, they will catch a man who will shield them from life's discomforts.
I know women in their thirties who are bitter that they followed all the rules, yet failed to receive the promised prize. I feel sorry for them, but not nearly as sorry as I feel for those who did catch a prince/protector. It's a too-familiar story: the fairytale bride thinks that her worries are over, that she is free from responsibility and fear. She doesn't realise that passing the audition means having to keep playing the part.
To be clear, I am not having a go at femininity, beauty or marriage. Nor am I arguing that a woman should not want a partner who makes her feel safe or that there is something wrong with a man who feels protective of his lover. I'm talking about grown women volunteering to be treated like children: fussed over but never really seen, cooed at but never really heard, protected but not at all free. Why would any woman think this is the best she can hope for from life?
AS A MIDDLE-CLASS, educated feminist just shy of thirty, I am, demographically speaking, part of feminism's third wave. Older feminists have characterised third-wave feminism as a laissez-faire, do-what-feels-good, girl-power philosophy. To them, third-wavers, by focusing more on individual empowerment and less on gender equity, are responsible for the phenomenon I am describing. By telling girls that each and every one of them is a precious jewel, the argument goes, young feminists have created a generation of women who are more concerned with being treated right as a unique individual than with the position of women as a group.
There's some truth in the accusations of individualism, but to blame Princess Culture on feminism of any wave, stripe or flavour is wrong. The young feminists I know are deeply distressed that so many of their friends and peers are disappearing into princesshood. They support the right of women to make their own life choices, but despair as much as any second-waver about the fact that so many are choosing a life which precludes them from ever having to make another decision apart from curtains or blinds, cash or credit.
Neither is this, I would add, a strictly generational phenomenon. Wannabe princesses span the generations: X, Y and whatever they're calling the one after that. Princess Culture is enthusiastically spruiked by Baby Boomer parents and Silent Generation grandparents.
Some would say that what I call a scary cultural trend is simply women acting naturally after the brief aberration of women's liberation. To argue against Cinderella dreams is to argue against nature; every little girl wants to be a princess and the desire only grows stronger as girl becomes woman and needs a provider and protector for the children to which she will give birth.
In response to this, I can only relate my own experience. As a child, I did want to be a princess. I fantasised – in detail – about frothy dresses, priceless jewels and enormous castles. But, as often as not, I would picture the fantabulous gown as torn and filthy and my princess-self flushed and sweaty from a bareback horse ride through a dark forest. And yes, as a teenager I imagined elaborate scenarios in which a handsome and very wealthy man would sweep into the classroom and carry me away from dowdiness and tedium.
I wanted to be wooed and adored – sometimes. The rest of the time I wanted to be the one sweeping, wooing and adoring. I wanted to seduce boys I desired and then smash their hearts to smithereens. I wanted to fuck and be fucked, to fight and to win.
Theories of "natural" female behaviour aside, it is simply untrue that women are returning to a traditional model of womanhood. Modern princesses with their crippling shoes and delicate French manicures are not baking pies and scrubbing floors. What we are seeing is not a return to the past, but a gender movement uniquely of our time. For my grandmother, a career was an impossible dream; for my mother, it was a privilege; for me, it is an expectation. It is simply not possible for women to return to the old model even if we want to. Our economy is based on the assumption that adults of both genders will work for most of their lives – our social structure supports this.
But when it comes to marriage and motherhood, the expectations have hardly changed at all. The pressure to marry and breed may not be quite as intense as it was fifty years ago, but it is far from gone. Indeed, marriage is on the rise among twenty-somethings, and no young woman in the nation can be unaware of the official government line on childbearing (Do it. A lot.)
Despite awareness of "superwoman syndrome", all the educated, professional women I know over the age of thirty-five still do most of the childcare and housework, organise the dinner parties and family barbecues, and spend a monstrous amount of time and money trying to reach some arbitrary state of perfect womanhood. Few living this frantic existence wish the same on their daughters, yet girls are still told they can do anything, have it all.
But these girls have seen their mothers and older sisters work themselves to the ground only to be confronted by the disheartening reality that men still hold most senior positions in the corporate world and, at every level, are better paid. They must acknowledge that prostitution and modelling are still the only professions in which women earn more than men; that men still dominate the parliaments and courts; and that the few women who reach the halls of power are judged on the condition of their kitchen and the cut of their hair, as much as on their ideas.
Girls do not choose princesshood because they doubt their capabilities, but because they have observed that being capable is not nearly enough if they are not also attractive, sweet and a good mother and wife. The reverse is not true.
It's no good telling girls they can do anything – they know this means everything and they've seen where this will get them. Until we can tell girls – honestly – that what they put in to life will be equal to what they get out, we will continue to lose them to princesshood where the rewards, although shallow, are at least commensurate with effort, the daydream is endless.