Stranded in Neverland
Princesses scare me. It isn't their volatile behavior, creepy step-mothers, or the ferocious fire-breathing beasts that often accompany them that worry me. Rather, it's the mind control they have over my daughter. When she sees a princess, her pupils dilate and her head cocks. It's like invisible fairies are whispering spells in her ear. Then she turns to me and says, "Daddy, can we buy that?"
Disney's "Princess" brand campaign was launched in 2000, when the company's new chairman of consumer goods brought together Disney's favorite heroines under one banner. Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Jasmine, and Ariel became a marketing dream team generating billions of dollars. They appeared on everything from DVDs to Band-Aids. The Disney spell was cast upon my daughter literally minutes after she entered the world. The hospital diapers were imprinted with Disney's princesses, and they have been a part of her life (and mine) happily ever after.
But the company is no longer content having only girls fawning over their animated royals. They are unrolling a new lineup of products aimed at grown ups, including a princess Visa card, princess sheets and towels, princess pajamas, and even princess wedding gowns that cost thousands of dollars. The head of Disney's apparel line says, "We want women to have a little bit of princess every day."
You may be asking why any adult would want to get married in a yellow wedding dress resembling Belle's from Beauty and the Beast. The answer is found in a consumer culture designed to keep adults thinking, and buying, like children. Maturity and rationality are the enemies of our desire-based economy. As Benjamin Barber says, "For consumer capitalism to prevail, you must make kids consumers and make consumers kids."
Of course Disney is not the only company seeking to delay or even destroy adulthood. The marketing efforts of most corporations don't want adults thinking rationally about their purchases, but emotionally spending their income to satisfy immediate desires. According to The New York Times, each American is exposed to 3,500 desire-inducing advertisements every day.
Author J.M. Barrie began his classic book, Peter Pan, with the line: "All children, except one, grow up." Our consumer culture is trying hard to prove him wrong. A century of manufacturing insatiable desires has created a culture of immaturity and overindulgence—obesity, sexual promiscuity, and skyrocketing consumer debt are just a few signs. Although lack of self-control has always plagued humanity, for the first time in history an economic system has been created that relies on it, as our current recession and attempts at stimulus reveal. Responsible behaviors, like saving money and spending within our means, are actively being discouraged by both government and businesses in order to reignite the soft economy.
Our consumer society's exaltation of immaturity goes beyond finances. Joseph Epstein acknowledges that today more adults are "locked in a high school of the mind, eating dry cereal, watching a vast quantity of television, hoping to make sexual scores," and generally enjoying "perpetual adolescence, cut loose, free of responsibility, without the real pressures that life, that messy business, always exerts." Statistics reveal that more adult children, formed to avoid responsibility and satisfy desires, are living with their parents well into their 30s; the average age for marriage has risen steadily among both men and women since 1980; and the age of cosmetic surgery patients is rapidly declining. Consumerism has made maturity an exception rather than the rule.
Skye Jethani is the executive editor of Leadership Journal, an ordained pastor, and the author of numerous books. He co-hosts the weekly Phil Vischer Podcast and speaks regularly at churches, conferences, and colleges. He makes his home with his wife and three children in Wheaton, Illinois.