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Disney-style princesses show staying power

Christopher Borrelli

4:21 PM EST, January 25, 2013

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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.

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."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli