by Laura Vanderkam
Austere times bring austere fashions to the runways but not, it seems, to toy stores. Hunting for birthday presents lately, I've waded through sequined princess costumes at FAO Schwartz, the opulent Princess Barbie section of Toys "R" Us, and sparkly shelves of Disney Princess gear at retailers.
Yes, princesses are everywhere, and they seem to be recession-proof. Disney racked up $4 billion last year marketing the heroines of films from Snow White to Aladdin to preschoolers. It is expanding the franchise with its first black princess, Tiana, star of The Princess and the Frog, later this year.
I suppose Tiana's debut is worth celebrating, but still, the princess phenomenon has been bothering me as I read business headlines these days. Though Disney's line-up includes warriors such as Mulan, I can never find her merchandise amid the more traditional princesses such as Cinderella. When my son ran out of diapers at preschool the other day, he was sent home in a pair of pink Cinderella Pull-Ups, and indeed hers is the archetypal princess narrative: Be charming and patient enough, and the right man will rescue you from your labors.
Given recent shifts in the economy, this is an unfortunate message to be sending to the potty-training set, or any girl. Not for political reasons, but practical ones. Some economists have predicted that women could surpass men as a proportion of payroll employment this year. A growing proportion of young women entering the workforce will need to support their whole families at some point. Yet there's evidence that young women don't think about this as they plan their careers — because hey, someday that prince might come.
Much has been written about the gendered nature of this downturn; cumulatively, men have held three-quarters of jobs lost. Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for American Progress, calculates that the percentage of working wives with unemployed husbands rose from 2.4% to 5.4% from 2007 to 2009, and another 15.6% (up from 12.1%) have husbands who are out of the labor force. By contrast, the percentage of men whose wives have opted out barely budged.
Some pundits have cheered these changing roles, but many moms don't feel empowered. Market research firm SheSpeaks surveyed female breadwinners and found that 47% feel stressed about the economy vs. 34% of homemakers. "I don't think a lot of them intended to be breadwinners," says SheSpeaks CEO Aliza Freud. In two-income couples, the mom tends to work fewer hours and provides about a third of family income. Families are more likely to get health insurance through the husband's job. One woman now supporting her family told Freud's surveyor that "she feels like she's bringing home croutons," not bread.
There are many reasons women earn less than men. Discrimination is one, but expectations matter, too. Young men are four times more likely to negotiate their first salary than young women, according to Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever's 2003 book Women Don't Ask, resulting in $500,000 more in earnings by age 60. Sure, it's tough to ask for things, but as Claire Shipman and Katty Kay's best-seller Womenomics documents, professional women increasingly negotiate for flexibility and part-time positions. Money appears to be the exception. Since women will do things for their children that they'd never do for themselves, the likely explanation is that young women do not see supporting their future children financially as a crucial part of mothering.
Locus of control
This brings us to the princess problem. Some moms worry that princesses make girls obsessed with beauty. But I think the problem is that the popular princesses lack what psychologists call an "internal locus of control." This is the belief that you are responsible for making your way in the world. The Cinderella story, notes Laschever, is that "Prince Charming is going to save you." Best to marry a high-earning man, because your husband will determine the standard of living for you and your children. Indeed, if you do well, you won't deal with this at all. In the non-Disney, Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, the stepsisters cut off their heels and toes to fit into the glass slipper because, as their mother points out, when you marry a prince, you don't have to walk (i.e. work). While the majority of married women these days expect to contribute, financially, to their families, the key word is "contribute." That is, provide extras that can be trimmed if we need work-life balance. Newly minted breadwinner moms feels stressed because suddenly it's not about vacations or violin lessons. Their children's standard of living is up to them.
Few grow up thinking this way. Laschever notes that in one study of negotiations, 85% of men had an internal locus of control. They determined their worth and said it was their responsibility to ensure their companies paid up. Only 17% of women felt that way. More than 80% of women felt that their worth was determined by what their companies chose to pay them, just as Cinderella is chosen by her prince.
Perhaps this is changing. Women are pouring into professional schools, and Boushey reports that they're more likely to take out loans — a bet on later earnings. But in this economy, Cinderella Pull-Ups aren't helping matters. As Laschever says, "the noise of the culture is very loud" — as loud as a 3-year-old in a toy store.
photo courtesy flickr user Robynlou8