It's mid-morning on a weekday early in January, and 11 aspiring princesses are
about to have their dreams come true.
Sitting on the floor of My Girly Party in Farmington Hills, Mich., they're wearing pastel gowns adorned with sparkles, ruffles and tulle over their jeans and sweaters.
Out walks 19-year-old Danae Picklo, a vocal performance student at Western Michigan University. She's barefoot, wearing a bright red wig and a mermaid tail.
"Look at this stuff? Isn't it neat?" Picklo sings, her voice light and sweet. "Wouldn't you think my collection's complete?"
The girls, ranging in age from 3 to 8, stare in awe.
To them, Picklo is Ariel, the mermaid-turned-human princess from the Disney movie "The Little Mermaid."
And to them, this experience, which includes a make-up application, story, pink-frosted cupcakes, tiaras and pink princess tea, is bliss.
The princess craze is major, from parties, dolls, play castles and books to tiaras, play gowns, play slippers, princess wigs and everything in between. But what message does this booming culture -- which centers on pristine appearances, happy endings and finding a prince to love -- have for little girls?
Most experts and parents agree that the princess culture can be a minefield of good and bad.
"The age girls are expected to be conscious of their appearance has gotten younger and younger," says Peggy Orenstein, author of "Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture" (Harper Paperbacks, $14.99).
"Girls putting on a crown? Big deal," she says. "But she's going from her Disney princess (doll) to her Disney princess lipstick to her Bratz doll to the Kardashians."
Orenstein says it's not that she believes all girls who play princess at a young age will grow up to have issues. But she is concerned that princesses are "the only game in town" for girls.
Today's little girls don't just love princesses, they go through a noticeable developmental "princess phase," says Orenstein, who first wrote about the princess phenomena for the New York Times Magazine in late 2006. While kids have always engaged in "royal play," she contends, something has changed.
"It's 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," Orenstein says. "It's not just play princess but be a princess. It's often scripted play, based on the Disney movies. And it's playing with the 26,000 princess products, most of which are really geared toward appearance and an emphasis on defining the self outside-in rather than inside-out."
Al Neal, of Romulus says it just comes down to good parenting.
Neal took his two daughters, 7-year-old Sydney and 5-year-old Kelsey, to the My Girly Party playdate earlier this month. They also have each had a birthday party there, and often dress up like princesses at home.
"As long as they have proper direction at home and keep it in perspective, I'm fine with it," he says.
In 2000, Disney lumped all its princesses together into a brand called "the Disney Princess," which has accounted for more than $4 billion in retail sales, according to a 2011 Disney release.
And several local business people have discovered that even in tough economic times, anything you touch with a princess wand can turn to gold.
My Girly Party, which opened four years ago, is just one area business that caters to budding princesses. Sweet and Sassy in Novi, a chain with locations in 13 states, offers princess pampering services like manicures and pedicures as well as themed parties. At Tea Party Castle in Shelby Township, princesses lead birthday girls through a closet of more than 300 gowns.
Or if you'd rather the princess come to you, hire the Singing Princess, based in Bloomfield Township. Owner Mikki Frank says that one month after opening in late spring 2010, business exploded. Now, she says, she books between 15 and 20 parties a month.
Frank employs seven princesses, and their friend Tinkerbell, who show up at parties dressed to wow and ready to sing, dance and teach young girls simple lessons -- and not just about etiquette.
"One of the things I'm most proud of is that we throw a little girl power into the party," says Frank, whose prices start at $235. "Since I have two girls, that's important to me. So our princesses ask the girls, 'Who knows what it takes to become a princess?' They'll get answers like, 'She wears makeup and a dress,' but we'll say, 'Do you need to be strong and brave and kind?' And we get that idea out there."
Many princess lovers note that the princess culture has adopted a more modern posture. The newer princesses boast stories that are not much like Cinderella, who only got her wishes fulfilled because of a fairy godmother.
"I have to say, if you look at the princess brand, it has modernized a bit," Frank says. "If you look now to Rapunzel and Tiana, they are becoming little more feminist; they have their own voice.
"Certainly at the end, a man came and rescued them. But I think it helps. I want my daughters to believe both are true -- you can be beautiful and you can be strong. That is a message that doesn't hurt."
But what message are kids absorbing? At My Girly Party, when asked after storytime what was their favorite part, nearly all of the girls answered that they liked the wedding scene best. It was all about the fairy tale.
But after the party, with her purple eye shadow sparkling in the afternoon sun, 8-year-old Mykha Thomas from Detroit said she most admires what's on the inside: "They have lots of manners and like to share."
Gibraltar mom Patricia Contos Daniele is a princess lover herself; she had a Cinderella-themed wedding complete with a horse-drawn carriage and roses hand-dipped in glitter. Few of her friends were surprised when she booked her daughter's fifth birthday party at the Tea Party Castle.
It was a magical afternoon, Daniele says.
The girls took the nearly hourlong drive from Daniele's home in a pink limo. Once at the castle, they met a princess and her assistants. Then they looked through a Princess Parlor to pick the perfect dress. They had their hair done. They sipped tea from real china.
"It was just amazing," Daniele says. "Someone told me, 'This is just totally you.' And it was. I loved it."
Sherrie Clark, 47, owner of the Tea Party Castle since April, says her reaction is common. The beauty of the castle, with its tapestries, vibrant colors and chandeliers, lets women of all ages access a feminine side of themselves that even a trip to the spa can't match, she says.
"Sometimes it's the moms who are more excited about the party than little girls," Clark says. "I wish I had this when I was a little girl. One woman said to me, 'I want to have my 40th birthday party here!' "
The princess movement might get another boost this month. Beginning Jan. 31, "Sophie the First" will debut on Disney Jr., a channel aimed at preschoolers and young elementary kids.
Sophie is a child princess, which Disney points out makes her different from its lineup of princess superstars, who are teens or older.
But the notion that Disney can reach an ever-younger crop of girls worries Orenstein.
"Kids' brains are at their most rigid on gender stereotypes at this age, but their brains are also most flexible overall," says Orenstein, who has written other books about childhood culture. "And they're forming ideas and standards about how to treat themselves and the other sex. These are tracks they're laying that will stay with them the rest of their lives. It's stratified when all girls are princesses and all boys are superheroes. That is going to have implications for them down the line."
Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, says the idea of dressing up little girls like princesses would have been politically incorrect in the late '60s and the 1970s. But adults who grew up in the past three decades, when gender equality was more assumed, lack the same urgency in pointing out their flaws.
Thompson points to the reality show "The Bachelor" as a cautionary tale: modern women believing they'll enter into a continent-hopping catfight and emerge with the glass slipper of love.
"You can't go very long on the show without hearing someone say, 'It was like a fairy tale,' or, 'I felt like I was Cinderella,' or 'I think I will find Prince Charming.' Then ABC sends them out on dates with a horse-drawn carriage. The whole show is created under the idea that there is a Prince Charming who will try a slipper on 25 women and it will fit one."
Until the bubble bursts. The ABC franchise doesn't have a great track record for producing lasting relationships.
Still, Thompson says he doesn't think playing princess is a sure precursor to problematic behaviors in adulthood. It's just a confusing ideal that parents are going to have to combat sooner or later.
"There is value to fairy tales and a value to fantasy," he says. "It is not all completely a bad thing. But there is a cloud hanging over this idea of princesses. We're conflicted about it."
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