The Princess Problem

(Laura’s note: This column originally ran in USA Today on Aug 12, 2009. It’s somehow disappeared from the archives, and since I’ve been getting requests for it lately, I’m reprinting it here).

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.

The ‘He-cession’

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

16 thoughts on “The Princess Problem

  1. This is an interesting post. Technically, I am the breadwinner in my family- I make about 1/3 more than my husband. But since we are both reasonably high earners, I didn’t really think of myself that way until someone pointed it out (in a comment thread on a blog, of all places). As I wrote about on my blog recently, I’ve realized that I tend to undersell my own career. I think I do that because our culture is a bit funny about women who have power in the workplace, and who make more than their husbands.

    I don’t know what I’ll tell my daughters when they get old enough to ask for my advice about careers. On the one hand, I want them to negotiate hard and get a good starting salary. On the other hand, research shows that doing so often carries negative consequences for women. Maybe this will have changed by the time my girls have to worry about it, but, as you say, the princess culture isn’t really helping that happen.

    1. @Cloud – what I find fascinating about this topic is that it gets at the question of what is “enough.” I think many boys at this point in time grew up thinking that enough is enough to support a family at a good standard of living. That is what a “good father” does. Whereas few little girls grow up thinking that a “good mother” supports her whole family financially — indeed, many grow up thinking the opposite (that a “good mother” shouldn’t be out working). If she’s planning to work, the “enough” concept is predicated on there being someone else in the family earning at least a similar amount. And hence expectations are lower.

  2. I like the comments here… I try to call my daughter reina, which means queen and hence boss..and it would please me if she ran her ownlaw practice or her own drs office.. andwas entrepreneurial professional.. I’m less optimistic about her changes for climbing corporate ladder or beingpresident but would love that too… I think it is sad for a girl to take from her mother that her job is only to do the unpaid labor of running a household just as I would never want my daughter to learn from her father that his job is only to work outside the home.. yesterday she asked me where my father was and I had to be honest and cop to not having one so I’d like her to pick a good man, be grateful if he fathers well and ask of him more than my mother could have hoped for. We should earn as much a we can and be self actualized and support policy that supports this.

  3. also in middle america, blue collar, middle class america as opposed to upper middle class america women work b/c they have to regardless adn I think this is good for their daughters… and the idea that it makes them a bad mother; I never heard of that until I lived in a place where the median (male)household income was over $58,000 (NJ, philly main line, many places in this country but not the majority at all ! )

  4. I think another issue too though is that women tend to go into to careers that are fulfilling but not necessarily lucrative, such as social work and teaching. I’m a public librarian, and I actually cannot negotiate for a raise. Our budget is cut every year and I’m lucky that our salaries haven’t been cut, and that we receive a 2% cost of living increase. On the other hand, I tend to be more careful with my money because I know it’s limited, and I do make more than my husband at this point (although this changed recently when he switched from full-time to part-time with freelance work; before that he was making slightly more than me despite the fact that I have a master’s degree and he doesn’t). Even when he made more than me, I didn’t expect him to support me and our future children, but I do have many female friends and acquaintances who long for that.

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