Disney-style princesses show staying power

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

Still, watching the actress skate with that large Muppet of a hideously deformed man, I wondered how she was able to make eye contact with whoever was inside that costume. In fact, I was still wondering, even though I had asked skater Maria Starr about it a few days earlier. It was her third year with Disney on Ice, she said, "but the first time I am playing a princess. And I can relate, actually! I might not be from France, I might not read or have a provincial life, but my friends knew I wasn't going to stay in Minnesota!" Belle/Maria is 20 and was arguably groomed to be a real-life princess — she was Disney Princess-obsessed as a child.

How do you make eye contact with Beast, I asked.

"I look into his big eyes!"

His eye-eyes? Or the costume eyes?

"His eyes! That's the magic!"

Disney on Ice people talk like this. When I asked Gig Siruno, the performance director (and a 16-year veteran of Disney on Ice), about the endurance of the Princess Bubble, he said, "Everyone is looking for a happy ending!" When I asked him to explain how a princess skates with someone wearing a costume head, he changed subjects. Acknowledging that an actual person is inside that Disney costume is sacrilege. Gig was on-message. I said, "Gig, you can't discuss this …" He sighed, "I have done so many Disney on Ice interviews …"

Walking around the arena before Disney on Ice and admiring the costumes is the most charming part of Disney on Ice. Maybe half the kids — two-thirds seem to be girls — come in princess attire, the bottoms of their hooped dresses spilling out beneath their winter coats. I spotted many Princess Meridas — unruly explosions of red curls teetering comically on 6-year-old heads — and more than a few Rapunzels, a frequent reminder of the hit "Tangled." (Tip: If your young Rapunzel cannot pull off the blond, Joni Mitchell hippy hair of Rapunzel, an odd, circular Disney-branded hair extension can be found for $20 at the merchandise booths.)

Curiously, it's in this costuming that the Disney Princess empire was born. At a Disney on Ice show in Phoenix, no less. Princesses have been a part of Disney since 1937's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," but the Disney Princess line, started in 2000 and now boasting thousands of products, was the brainchild of former Disney executive Andy Mooney. He attended Disney on Ice and was startled by how many girls wore cobbled-together princess costumes. A marketing opportunity was born. It was the first time Disney marketed characters outside of a movie release, Peggy Orenstein writes in her 2011 study "Cinderella Ate My Daughter," the definitive Disney Princess explainer.

I spoke to her last week.

Truth is, she said, even she is less militantly opposed to Disney Princess than she might seem. "I don't have a problem with girls playing princess, which is as old as time," she said. "But when one play-script cannibalizes all other forms of play, I have a problem." When her own daughter attended Disney on Ice, she scored a kind of cultural pyrrhic victory: Her daughter wore a Pocahontas dress in an arena of Cinderellas.

As I walked around the Allstate, I spotted Rapunzels linking hands with Meridas, Jasmines and Belles, and Sleeping Beauties joined arm-in-arm at the insistence of their parents, so they wouldn't lose each other in a crowd. Which got me thinking about something Orenstein reported: These princesses acknowledged each other, looked each other in the eye. But an actual Disney princess will not acknowledge another princess.

It's a Disney thing.

Aside from the comical iconic mainstays — Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, et al. — Roy Disney didn't want Disney characters to recognize that other Disney characters existed. He wanted them to stay in their own magical worlds. Which is why you do not see sisterly solidarity among Disney princesses. Until recently, a skater who played a princess in Disney on Ice could not even say in interviews that she played a princess. (Even now, the program book sold at the show lists a skater's hometown but does not identify her role.)

Just watch: At the end of Disney on Ice, when all of the princesses congregate on a faux-stone staircase and shimmy, they never touch or recognize one another's presence. The Avengers, they are not. In fact, Merida — not yet an official part of the Disney Princess posse — doesn't even make it to the stairs.

She skates alone. She is the sole prince-free princess.

Rapunzel, the show's lamest princess, displays annoyance at her plight but acceptance. She gets a 2.4. But Merida, the liveliest and feistiest princess in Disney on Ice, is the only princess who shows real gumption. I give her a 9.3. Merida is played by 21-year-old Taylor Firth, a former competitive skater who told me that at "princess boot camp" in Florida — where Virginia-based Feld Entertainment, the company that co-created Disney on Ice in the late 1970s (and which, incidentally, also produces the touring Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus), keeps a training facility — she learned to play "more of a hands-on-the-hips kind of princess."

My guess is, if the Disney Princess Bubble continues, you will see more Meridas — more vaguely gender-neutral warrior princesses with a big weapon and a stomp. Merida was the fresh air at Disney on Ice, the clear audience favorite: If Mickey actually named a winner in his talent show (he never does), she would be the Kelly Clarkson. On the other hand, surrounded by much meeker princesses, some messages tend to get lost.

I met Julie Arens, of Chicago. She was working a Merida dress over the head of her 5-year-old daughter, Brinley. "My sister and I had a conversation about princesses," she said, "how they suggest a girl needs a Prince Charming. I don't know — I just want her to go to college. But my daughter? She can't wait to get married."


Twitter @borrelli

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